It is not called a "world congress" for no reason. This part-industry trade show, part-SXSW-style digital festival, part-tech summit this year had its mega exhibition stands launching the very latest smartphones, from AR-driven Samsung Galaxy S9 to AI-driven LG V30S to 20th century-driven Nokia 8110, as well as showcasing the future of 5G and IOT enabled smart cities.
Hundreds of startups (courtesy of the ever growing 4YFN sibling event in its own warehouse-style site), app developers, tech businesses from micro-finance to wearables to telemedicine to talent development were pitching to tens of thousands of delegates from around the world. These were amplified with multiple seminars, ministerial programmes behind closed doors and rousing conference programmes delivered by the industry’s top C-suite from Telefonica to NTT to HTC and from Formula 1’s Fernando Alonso.
This is a truly world event: US and European giants in telco, tech and consultancy accompanied by a dominance of giants from China, Japan and Korea, as companies (ZTE, Huawei, Xiaomi ,Korea Telecom, Samsung), as presenters (China Mobile, NTT, Alibaba), and as delegates.
It is hard to fully do justice to #MWC2018 in a few days. That being said, and beyond the headline launches, some "over-the-top" (as they say in the mobile industry) themes particularly struck me:
1. The Future is Bright (although not necessarily orange)
This is an industry full of confidence; one that can see that the supercomputers in our pockets and the power of mobile connectivity is now the internet.
There is a sense of ownership of AI, Internet of Things and beyond the phone. There is a sense of responsibility around human job security (as IBM’s Bob Lord said "while all jobs will be affected by AI, more will be created") and digital inclusion, such as Fenix’s development of pay-as-you-go solar in Africa).
Many operators have developed their own messaging platforms - Veon in Eastern Europe, ecommerce platforms, Turkcell in Turkey, and AI assistants: Telefonica’s Aura just launched in Europe and Latam.
2. Digital is Physical
Hot on heels of its showcasing by Korea Telecom at the Winter Olympics, 5G was MWC’s big rallying cry. 5G can unleash the true power of AI, the "Internet of Everything", the "distributed cloud" and create the advances from intelligent cities to connected cars to blockchain tracked logistics to remote construction and medical diagnosis.
But this all requires the infrastructure to be developed equally fast and so the investment, which is recognised as a collaborative effort across governments and operators and the whole tech industry.
Indeed this overall theme of federation to deliver the "4th Industrial Revolution" was evident throughout the event, echoed by the likes of GE, Qualcomm and HTC, and the cases made for cashless economies and smart stores.
3. ‘Women4Tech’ is the next Digital Revolution
The indefatigable Aline Santos of Unilever rightly reminded us that "diversity is the mother of creativity". But Santos , supported by W20’s Elva Susana Balbo and the UN’s Kimberley King among others representing the MWC Women4Tech programme, also emphasised how only 17% of start-ups are female-led. As a result of the many barriers such as lack of role models and investor prejudice. Unilever Foundry has committed to having 50% of start-ups by women in five years.
So while there is exciting and exponential growth in the tech industry in so many areas, in this crucial one it needs all the speed of 5G it can get.
4. The Arts Class is Fighting Back
While Google’s Behshad Behzadi and Salesforce’s John Carney both rightly pointed out that we have all been living with AI for a while now with services such as Google Maps and Alexa, Dr Paula Boddington – Oxford University philosopher from its Computer Science Department – suggested that it was now the time to ask ourselves what humans should and should not take responsibility for.
How do we decide what to delegate to an AI and so avoid eroding human autonomy? The meaning and extent of digital identity was also debated in many conference sessions. Marie Ehrling, ex-Chair of Nordic telco Telia, suggested we all ask if "data is happening to me or with me?" ARM’s Paul Williamson talked about protecting against "The Insecurity of Things". The study of philosophy and ethics are just as important as they ever were.
I suspect MWC will just keep getting bigger and more vital every year as mobile truly comes to own digital and the internet. As Shang Bing, China Mobile Chair (with his over 1 billion subscribers) philosophised: "Go with the times. Not against them".
Stephen Maher is chief executive of MBA and Chair of the IPA Effectiveness Board