2023 Lisbon Web Summit: A playground for the next generation of AI apps

Web Summit 2023 sign at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal.
(Image credit: Future)
Lisbon Web Summit 2023

Where: Altice Arena, Lisbon, Poertugal

When: November 12-16, 2023

Next edition: November 11-14, 2024

The stunning City of Seven Hills played host to the 8th edition of perhaps the biggest tech conference in Europe: the Lisbon Web Summit.

The three-day-long event is a fixed appointment for the Portuguese capital which brings together the personalities and companies redefining the tech industry in November each year since 2016.

As expected, the big theme this year was generative AI and large language models (LLMs): from new software iterations and sustainable solutions, to discussions around ethical use cases, data privacy and regulations. 

I was there, grinding out kilometers through the massive venue—from stage to stage, stand to stand—to breathe in tech innovation and everything that came with the 2023 Lisbon Web Summit.

2023 Web Summit in numbers

Once again, the Altice Arena acted as home for this year's Web Summit speakers, media and attendees. Located just a stone's throw away from both the airport and city center, the multi-purpose indoor arena was built for the Expo '98 and still remains among the largest venues of its kind in Europe—certainly the biggest in Portugal. 

According to organizers' estimations, more than 70,000 people traveled to Lisbon from 153 countries to take part in the famous European tech conference. The number of startups exhibiting, with some of them changing every day, exceeded 2,600.

Groups of people with the distinctive lanyards hanging around their necks were all around the city, strolling across the streets and filling restaurants at the end of every intense conference day. However, talking with some locals back in the center, they expressed a fair amount of skepticism about the numbers of attendees who allegedly took part.

"No way there are 70,000 people who attend. Last year attendees were all around town. Now, it's quiet everywhere," the owner of a bar in the heart of the Alfama neighborhood told me, while pouring me a fresh glass of vinho verde and chatting away with the only regular customer of the evening. I certainly didn't share his opinion after making my way through thick crowds of tech enthusiasts all day long. 

15 stages and many more stands spread across five large pavilions and a huge concerthall-like main stage, all countered by food and refreshments stalls. Organizers were said to have expanded the floor space of the event this year by 5%, reaching a total of 215,000 square meters—the equivalent of about 1,099 tennis courts. I have to admit that my feet and legs are still recovering.

What organizers deemed as a "record breaking" 2,608 startups from 93 countries were chosen from thousands of applicants to represent more than 30 different industries. Great attention was given to promoting women in tech, too. About 43% of all attendees were women, together with more than 38% of speakers – "the highest percentage of women speakers ever," said organizers. Women founders also made up almost one third of all exhibiting startup founders.

Besides important networking, startup founders competed against each other, taking the stage for a pitch match throughout the conference days. This year's winner was Inspira, a Brazil-based legal software business.

Tech-provoking discussions 

If one side of the Web Summit is an opportunity for startups and other technologists to get together and meet their new potential investors or business partner, a wealth of speakers (806 in total) glued together the whole event. The panels included Q&A sessions, masterclasses, policymaker discussions, even a book summit, and much more.

This year's event started off with a bit of a rough patch, though, as many speakers and attendees decided to drop out from the conference at the last minute following a controversy involving the former CEO. The boycott wave grew after Paddy Cosgrave shared a tweet condemning the current events in Gaza as "war crimes." As the event co-founder, Cosgrave had to step down from his position and pass the baton to the former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

On the opening night on Tuesday, November 13, the new Web Summit Katherine Maher took to the main stage in front of a crowd of 11,000 people to pledge her commitment to keeping the event's mission alive. She said: "As the new leader of this organisation of incredibly committed staff, and as a long-time advocate for technology as a driving force for the good of humanity and society, Web Summit will continue to be the most important place to bring together and connect people, and advance critical conversations about technology, society and innovation."

Web Summit CEO on the main stage during the opening night on November 13, 2023.

Web Summit CEO Katherine Maher took the main stage at Lisbon Altice Arena during the opening night on November 13, 2023. (Image credit: Future)

Despite the shaky beginning, a diverse set of experts still managed to take the stage. Big names include the outspoken Meredith Whittaker (CEO at the Signal Foundation), the exiled Belarussian politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, famous whistleblower and Nym Technologies security consultant Chelsea Manning, BAFTA-winning author Jolyon Rubinstein, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and many more.

Nonetheless, the last-minute changes inevitably affected the final schedule. I found some panels had their starting time modified or were cancelled without much warning at times. Some complaints reverberated among seasonal attendees, too, who lamented the usual amount of high-quality talks. 

My personal highlights were hearing Brittany Kaiser, the main whistleblower of the Cambridge-Analytica scandal, talking about how data protection rules should be the priority when it comes to AI regulations

I also loved hearing how tech is helping Belarus' exiled elected President to fight back against disinformation inside her country from abroad, as well as being reminded of the importance of freedom of speech above all by Stella Assange. A human rights lawyer, she is the wife of Julian Assange, the Australian journalist who is currently in prison in the UK for disclosing classified documents on his media platform WikiLeaks.

Human rights lawyer Stella Assange during a Q&A session on November 16, 2023.

Human rights lawyer Stella Assange during a Q&A session on November 16, 2023. (Image credit: Future)

Another highlight was hearing the CEO of Signal's perspective on how big tech is killing trust among consumers, alongside other experts explaining how new regulations are putting the digital space as we know it at risk. The biggest takeaway here? We shouldn't take the internet for granted. 

I also had the opportunity to meet in-person with some of the people fighting for digital rights across the globe—including Andrew Sullivan from the Open Internet and Executive Director at Paradigm Initiative 'Gbenga Sesan—alongside some of the technologists behind the security software of tomorrow. The latter includes CEO of Nym Technologies, Harry Halpin, which announced the launch of its new trustless VPN on the last day of the conference.

All in all, the Web Summit confirms itself as the place to be for meeting the people behind the tech shaping tomorrow's industry.

If you missed this year's edition, you'll be happy to know that the Portuguese government signed a 10-year partnership with Web Summit back in 2018—Lisbon is expected to hold the event until at least 2028. 

In the meantime, you can also take part in other events organized by the same team across the globe. Web Summit Qatar lands in Doha on February 26-29 next year, Web Summit Rio arrives in Rio de Janeiro a couple of months later—April 15-18—and Collision is back in Toronto on June 26-29. The largest tech event in Asia, RISE is also expected to return to Hong Kong in 2025.

Chiara Castro
Senior Staff Writer

Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to chiara.castro@futurenet.com