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TOA2018: Two Takeaways for Better Tech

TOA’s main hall featuring exhibition booths, lectures, and networking

At Tech Open Air (TOA) 2018 in Berlin, two themes kept popping up across presentations as diverse as entrepreneurship to digital twins — and these two trends reveal the climate of Berlin’s startup tech scene – both where we stand and where we still can reach.

So what are they and why do they matter? Simply put they are:

  1. the importance of ecosystem
  2. the value of inclusion or diversity.

But to see how these are impacting tech, we have to dig deeper. And when we do, we are rewarded with some fascinating cross-industry insights.

A quick bit of background: TOA is one of Europe’s major interdisciplinary tech festivals. It’s a 4-day event, mostly situated along Berlin’s Spree River, but also featuring numerous satellite event locations across the city. TOA is known to feature an eclectic mix of people, styles, and approaches that takes a holisitic look at tech and how tech affects the world. In a way, TOA is itself is forming a diverse and inclusive ecosystem.

Getting Ready

Case in point: TOA offered women in tech a chance to apply for free entry, which I successfully did after hearing about that great opportunity from the #factorywomen Slack channel at work. After waiting to enter the Funkhaus grounds, I was moved by what I heard and saw at the event. To get a sense of the atmosphere that TOA creates annually, check out the video recap from 2017.

Screengrab from the super helpful TOA app

Thanks to a deep dive into the TOA app, I arrived at the venue ready to explore various sessions, including at the Google for Entrepreneurs Stage, who happen to be my Next Big Thing AG (NBT) neighbors from Factory Berlin.

Ecosystem Must Give Back

Rowan Barnett, Head of Google for Entrepreneurs in Germany, moderated engaging panels throughout the day.

These talks were consistently packed with people wearing headphones to drown out the ambient noise and focus on the speakers’ topics.

The first panel featured Dr. Florian Hoos, Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Technische Universität Berlin( TUB), along with Joana Breidenbach, co-Founder of Betterplace.org.

Together they examined how a startup ecosystem such as Berlin’s, can only be sustainable if it is inclusive and has social impact.

Rowan Barnett from Google for Entrepreneurs at the ‘Berlin for Good’ Panel Discussion

That means at least three things, which still challenge this city:

  1. Find a way to give back to Berlin.
  2. Don’t drive a further gap between people who have tech skills and those who don’t.
  3. Foster diversity: ensure opportunities for all genders and backgrounds.

Joana was forthcoming in saying that Betterplace still would benefit from more women, though now there are 2 as members of the board. Interestingly, she said early on when they needed capital, it was women who were still quite risk-averse.

Joana from Betterplace.org shares her experience with her panel

Florian says for-profit entities must create a space where everybody can participate, where people can meet in a place they otherwise would not. This means involving people in tech and doing something that increases the life quality of as many people as possible.

Rowan closed by saying that Google aims to create more role models by putting people of diverse backgrounds on stage for others to learn from, as well as exploring what is means to be human, and what connects us all.

About Being Human

On my way across the festival grounds to hear insights on the topic of decentralization, I was struck by the art installation called “The Red Tent.” It is part of a movement to destigmatize the menstrual period. The name itself has a traditional meaning wrapped up in history for women having a place to retreat to during their monthly cycle.

However this turned out to be the work of a Berlin creative agency called GoalGirls, offering a chance for women to communally tune into what happens during one’s cycle, discuss stigma, products, and rituals. It reminded me of the strong femtech startup scene rooted here in Berlin with companies such as Clue, Trackle and SuperIzzy. As women-led VC grows, it will be interesting to note how much focus will center on women’s health topics.

The Red Tent at TOA, an interactive installation to promote menstrual cycle awareness
TOA grounds encourage creativity, deep tech, and the chance to unwind with fellow attendees along the Spree.
The wework station offered festival goers a chance to recharge.

What makes TOA especially unique is that although a tech conference, it offers nonconventional approaches to ‘staying human’, like mindfulness sessions and breathing breaks. Although I didn’t attend those, I overheard some speculation as to what happens at a yogic mediation at TOA like, “Om, I am decentralized.” Which leads me to my next topic of exploration…

On my way to hear about decentralized governance, I heard Matthew Dryhurst, a self-declared ‘tech-positive’ person, discussing the importance of creating culture that encompasses blockchain as well as a physical space to connect IRL. Again the importance of creating community in tech, or building on an ecosystem, emerged. And that theme carried right into the next session on decentralized governance.

Don’t Burst My Bubble!

“Don’t burst my bubble: Will we succeed at decentralized governance?” A panel including speakers from Ocean Protocol, Mercury Protocol and Neufund.

In a session dedicated to exploring how to govern the blockchains that are leading the future from fintech to forestry, Dimitri De Jonghe from Ocean Protocol moderated a panel including voices from Mercury Protocol and Neufund. They grappled with what appears to be an apparent contradiction between technology that exists to uphold decentralization, yet must be somehow regulated or at least kept as a fair playing field. These experts looked at how to build community that is more long-lasting than a hype cycle.

Zoe Adamovicz, Founder and CEO of Neufund, and on the cover of July’s Berlin Valley had key insights to share. Through Neufund, tech companies can tokenize their equity, essentially opening up tech investment much more widely than ever before.(Full discloser: NBT is one of those first companies featured by Neufund; so I was especially tuned in to her thoughts.)

“Democracy can’t win at the expense of minorities,” Zoe Adamovicz explores the significance of tokenized equity.

Zoe says tokens and smart contracts bring in more decision makers, not just stakeholders. They also offer the possibility of incentivizing people to implement new ideas in society. The topic of tokens led to a fascinating discussion on so called ‘empty fragile networks’, and ‘self-owned resources.’ An example is a self-owned forest that manages its own resources, deciding when to cut trees. It’s a new world of financial agents. (Zoe says she wishes this forest all the best and that we should definitely be of good service to our planet.)

An interesting Q and A with this panel left me with more questions from the audience than there was time for answers.

  • How can qualities of decentralized governance be truly neutral, particularly when there are people who hold a lot of influence, like Vitalik Buterin, co-Founder of Ethereum?
  • How do Blockchain/Crypto communities compete with giants like Facebook and Google? (Hopefully computer-based models keep privacy in check and lead to better decision-making; see episodes like Cambridge Analytica.)
  • How should minorities be represented in decentralization without getting drowned out by the majority? (This may involve community governance with reliance on local rules and managed tasks.)

Here again, the theme of how to engage diverse voices in your crypto-blockchain-token community is of critical importance to a balanced tech ecosystem.

Healthcare Matters

Back at the Google For Entrepreneurs stage, I heard a talk on healthcare – a perfect sector to witness why inclusivity matters. Take what Rasmus Rother, Founder of Merantix expresses: In healthcare, the challenge is a diverse team working together to sell a medical product. This includes mixing Machine Learning, expert radiologists, and the stringencies of medical certification.

Google researcher Lily Peng discusses the need for diversity when developing tech.

Lily Peng, a Google researcher, values the work she does on so-called ‘passion projects’ at work, where she can devote a small percentage of her time to a cause she cares deeply about. In her work on helping patients sooner with transparent data usage in the background, she confirms that:

“If you have diversity, the technology you develop will be better.” – Lily Peng, Google Researcher

This reaffirms that the notion of diversity and inclusivity affects not only the crypto scene, but also big players in the health space.

Industrie 4.0’s Spheres

Carsten Stöcker from Spherity discussed the ‘fusion of tech’, where we have a huge variety of innovation — like drones & CRISPR. He sees ‘spheres’ overlapping in the physical, digital, and biological realm. Spherity is a “scalable decentral platform for the fourth industrial revolution providing secure identities, digital twins and a seamless peer-to-peer transaction layer bridging the physical, biological and digital spheres.”

He also discussed that aforementioned self-owned forest, Terra O, which combines machines with biology in “Nature 2.0”, where land and rivers can have legal rights. We again arrive back at the ecosystem concept, where people with diverse expertise as well as diverse technologies align to advance innovation, this time with decentralized identities and data in the context of Industrie 4.0.

Carsten Stöcker from Spherity presenting the fusion of tech and importance of ecosystem.

Carsten says the only way forward is an ecosystem approach, and mentioned one of NBT’s venture’s, Weeve, as part of the Spherity ecosystem, particularly because devices with Weeve can connect with digital twins.

Homo Sapiens 2.0

Jaime Metzl delivered a riveting talk that captured a giant audience on ethics in science and genetic tech of the future. He discussed diversity in the gene pool, and how that gets affected by selective breeding, gene editing, and reproductive treatments.

With CRISPR, we are in an age when gene editing is cheaper, faster, and easier than ever before. It’s huge progress that also raises some monumental ethical questions.

Jaime says that ‘diversity is the sole survival strategy of our species,’ and that ‘diversity is another name for mutation.”

Some interesting questions included: How to balance the need for diversity and genetic equality? How do we integrate tech into what takes years so evolve, and regulate that nationally and internationally? Jamie says we need a species-wide dialogue on the future of human genetic engineering.

Sounds like an intriguing blockchain project to me, if anyone is up for it!

Jamie Metzl says we need a species-wide dialogue on the future of human genetic engineering.

The TOA Tug

TOA has a way of pulling you in, to listen, play, experiment. It’s that magnetism that brings people back each year and enables serendipity.

That day, I met a data science student from Amsterdam, an entrepreneur from London who’d never been to Berlin, and friends from Factory Berlin. I left feeling more strongly connected to the Berlin community – a growing ecosystem of diverse voices that will affect where tech leads us.

Hope to see you at TOA in 2019.

The Daimler booth at TOA where attendees can experiment.

If you want to check out more about the IoT Ecosystem in Berlin, visit the NBT Thing Tank. For more on inclusive innovation, just follow me. Feel free to share or clap if this resonated with you.