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Tech, geeks, Lisbon and the Web Summit

The buzz for tech is turning into a deafening roar, but how much is it affecting the energy infrastructure and oil & gas industry?

My 0400 wake up call drifted into distant memory as I descended, in the happy company of a double espresso, into the beautiful city of Lisbon. I had been here before and been enchanted by the quaint but grandiose feel of the place, and was happy to be back again.

This time, however, it was different. I was one of (apparently) c. 60,000 tech enthusiasts taking a city of on c. 500,000 by storm for the annual WebSummit, a mammoth operation which dominates the city for the best part of a week.

My gut reaction to the whole thing was (and still is) torn. In one sense I was enthused by the hope and zeal to a sector which is clearly booming and seeping its way into all other industries and ways of working.

The place was buzzing with tech fiends. And it was amazing to see how industry agnostic tech had become, the sector was applying itself to nearly all fields imaginable. On the other hand, it compounded my macro view that we are in a tech bubble right now, with conventional wisdom pushing all the reasons why tech companies are actually undervalued despite their recent meteoric growth. I wondered what percentage of the people at the summit would be there through thick and thin vs. those just catching the latest wave promising (and recently delivering) fortunes to those who play the game. Seeing a herd of nerds in backpacks strutting their stuff thinking that they the rock stars of the new age, clinging to each word of the next block chain proponent, left me with as many macro questions as answers. But then again, I missed investing in Bitcoin at $3, and look where it is now, so perhaps I am just bitter.

Every hour was packed with talks from global tech gurus preaching their corner of the market.

Vladimir Klitschko even got in on the action, doing a Q&A sit down in a huge concert hall packed to the rafters. And Francois Hollande, the communist turned free market tech guru (really?) was trying to cajole a crowd of goldfish with no memory into believing his new story.

In comparison, the SPE conference in Aberdeen was a bleak bowl of watery porridge.

Yes, they had an expert panel which was put together around digital procurement and AI tech, but when you drilled down into the substance there was very little. The WebSummit guys had put together something with the snap crack and pop that you need from a conference on the front foot. The oil & gas community was also pretty under represented: Shell, EDP and GALP were the only oil players who I could find at the conference, and more worryingly this adversity to tech adoption by the industry was also apparent when you saw how few tech companies were attacking the oil & gas industry as customers.

Even if you look across industrial peer sectors (automotive, agriculture, renewable energy) you can see they are at a different level in terms of having an open mind-set taking on new ways of tech enabled working.

The paradigm of oil & gas needs to change. As much of a fan I am of Marc Rich, with his cigar smoking route 1 approach to getting business done at all costs, there is no reason why the industry can’t reimagine itself and open itself up to the inevitable earlier than later. I mean, how sexy are cars, electric or not, and look at what Musk has done for the perception of that industry. And the emissions credentials that people believe with Tesla are questionable (see recent Wired article).

These changes are not going to come from within the industry, but from outside.

That being said, how open the incumbents are to change is going to dictate the degree to how much ambulance chasing they need to do to save their companies from the future.

Written by Jack Macfarlane

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