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Looking Back on the Beginnings of Egypt's Tech Conscious Movement

Startup Vietnam's author Andrew Rowan, who took the stage at the Vested Summit held in Egypt last month, shares his insights on the conscious tech movement taking shape in the Middle East.

“No one is like the Egyptians,” my Egypt Air flight attendant told me upon arriving in Cairo, “no one.” Traffic in the Egyptian capital seemed to verify this statement as drivers aggressively competed for the faintest gaps in gridlocked traffic and deftly accelerated when an opening appeared, as if gunning for the first prize in the home stretch of a race. Amazingly, all the cars seemed to straddle the painted dash lines — that’s if there were even any road markings in that particular stretch of road.

Last month, I went to Egypt to attend the Vested Summit, the “world’s first conscious tech summit” in El Gouna organised by S[k]3aleUp Ventures. On the sidelines of the event, held at Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) Campus El Gouna, I met with Syrian students studying urban design at the university. They were conducting surveys to see if El Gouna, a city developed by Orascom Development (one of the sponsors of the Vested Summit), could be promoted as a startup hub at some point in the future. While I was being asked my opinions of the city’s location on the Red Sea, I saw a different side of Syrian individuals presented — outside of the conventional lenses of conflict in Damascus and Raqqa that dominate international Syrian news coverage.

With the exception of invited international speakers and guests, Egyptian participants — whether founders, developers, or investors — made up the vast majority of the 300 or so individuals who joined the inaugural Vested Summit. People shared their opinions with me freely as we got to know one another: “I want to teach, I want to learn, I want to add a lot to the science,” said one founder (working remotely at a Silicon Valley-based Augmented Reality startup) at the pre-summit dinner the night before.

 A common area at the G Space during the Vested Summit in El Gouna, Egypt.

Right before the hackathon winners were announced on the final day, one of the organisers rhetorically asked on stage, “Did you really think people would work for 48 hours in Egypt and deliver?” A developer in the audience behind me loudly noted, “Yes, we do it every three days,” as he laughed. (I also received plenty of musical recommendations, such as songs by Mohamed Mounir, Umm Kulthum, and Nancy Ajram.)

Being Vested in Vested Summit

First, what exactly is “conscious tech”? Well, it’s described by the team on the Vested Summit website as “any tech that is trying to solve a real-world problem. That is actually adding value to people’s lives. Because we believe designing for the people is not the same as designing with the people. Because we need to fix the Earth before we can reach Mars.”

The namesake of the summit, Vested, is also explained in the following way: “Being vested in something means you have a personal interest in its success. We have an unstoppable, unruly personal interest in the success of humanity as a whole. We’re vested in its people, in its capacity to steer the wheel of transformational technology and solve the world’s most impending problems; not the first-world problems but the real, tangible conundrums facing 84% of the world’s population. This is where the emerging markets are. That’s why we’re Vested in Emerging Markets and the success of its conscious tech entrepreneurs. That’s where the summit name was born.”

The summit was split into three tracks: the Global Exposure, a three-day hackathon (which included workshops) comprised of 100 participants, and the Shark Zone, which created space for the top 20 vetted founders and 10 global investors to mingle. Hala Gabr, vice president of the Vested Summit, explained their aim for the budding event series:

“When Vested Summit was just an idea, people commented, “yet another summit?!” but Vested Summit is not just another summit. It’s the world’s first technology summit focusing on meaningful solutions; we call it “conscious tech”. Vested Summit aims to find the next ‘Elon Musk’ from the emerging market. It’s vesting in the underdogs who are innovating the most and using the power of technology to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Vested Summit intends to help retain the talent of the emerging market and to build a collaborative and resourceful ecosystem for startups to create and expand. We see Vested Summit as the technology event of the year. A candy store for techies. A place of inspiration, thought and action. A meeting point of conscious tech savvy from all over the world working on enhancing the quality of life and making the world a better place. At Vested, we believe that the problem is not the lack of resources, but the distribution of it. So join the conscious tech movement to redistribute the future.”

On the main stage of the Vested Summit, Cameron Burgess, founder of Uncompromise, made an ardent case for collaboration as the only way to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which require an estimated $50-$100 trillion to solve by 2030. Burgess pointed out that solving one of the 17 SDG - Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation for all - it would require $1.7 trillion.

Burgess continued: “It’s a 1.7 trillion-dollar problem to solve. So we need another 1.7 trillion dollars in the next 12 years just to solve one of these 17 Wicked problems… if those goals are going to move from goals to actually being a reality. With that 1.7 trillion-dollar challenge there’s no one single entity that has that much capital — liquid capital. No single entity can put that money on the table right now today and say here is the money to go and solve this. And even if they could do that, even if there was any entity that could put it down on the table, there is no single organisation that has either the organisational capacity and operational capacity to absorb it nor the intellectual capacity to actually solve that problem by themselves. Which means we’re never going to get there doing the things the way that we do them. 

 Andrew Rowan at a panel on The Next Big Tech Hub with Elizabeth Mihedulaki, Rasha Tantawy, and Valentina Primo at the Vested Summit.

Collaboration is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s not a value to espouse or a culture to promote. Collaboration, in the language of technologists, is a functional requirement if we as a species are going to face down and defeat the greatest existential threats to our survival.” 

All good points, which drive home the need for public-private partnerships, effective communication, and the sharing of lessons beyond immediate geographic communities. To address threats to humanity’s survival, there are other tools, such as the power of creation, innovation, and entrepreneurship to harness. 

A fellow speaker, Mark Nelson, Founder and Co-Director of The Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford, highlighted an often overlooked aspect of entrepreneurship:“Most entrepreneurs don’t realise this, but the moment you choose to be an entrepreneur, you are in the peace business. You are strengthening the bond of society — because the customer by definition is someone who doesn’t have what you have.”

What wasn’t talked about so much was the inherent risk in each and every transaction, and if it would be worth exploring de-risking transactions whether through strengthening risk profiles, increasing transparency, or other ways to increase trust between parties. Nelson advocated against forming a non-profit organisation and instead focusing on entrepreneurship, a concept I fully agreed with in an effort to promote sustainable organisations and societal stability. Nelson continued, “Innovation is not a value, it’s a cost. All new value is created by exchange. And who is the customer? There are always two customers in every transactions. You are a customer as well — you are buying their money. It’s only when they take care of each other that you get fair trade.”

Mark Nelson’s take-away slide highlighting how to get “left of boom” (from a Western perspective) during his presentation at Vested Summit. 

As more humans workers are displaced due to automation, mechanisation, and outsourcing of jobs, entrepreneurship may become a brighter (or default) choice in an array of decreasing options. Artificial Intelligence, in particular, will have a profound impact on the workplace, the community, and the marketplace as humans increasingly augment their decision-making frameworks — sometimes without knowing it.

Dr. De Kai, professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and founding fellow of the Association for Computational Linguistics honed in on the state of AI today, and the importance of realising where we are in terms of reaching the AI Singularity at some point in this century: “Despite all the hype that we’re hearing about AI, it’s nowhere near even what a three-year-old can do. And yet, even today, even with our weak AI, [they] have already become integral practical influential learning imitative members of society. Right now — not 10 years from now, not next year, today — and there’s a critical fundamental difference from old fashioned machines because these are machines who learn and we need to raise AIs just like we raise young human members of society. All of you have a smartphone, tablet, computer… well, welcome to parenthood because those are AIs and you are raising them.

While you weren’t watching, your AI sneaked up and adopted you. Sure they might be weak but just like other kids our AIs are already learning culture from the environment we’re raising them in, the jobs we’re giving them, especially in an era of waiting longer to have children, our artificial children have already crept deeply into the fabric of our society. Here’s my question for you: are you raising your AIs like any good parent should raise their kids?”

Kai’s presentation was definitely some food for thought, especially as new AI paradigms are created in the realms of language, music, and creative — in other words, the keys to building strong AIs. Presently, our own culture is being contributed back into our society by AIs, even more than most humans do by deciding what ideas to promote, what attitudes to reward, and what memes to spread, according to Kai.

 Professor De Kai, of Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology, making the case for humans being a form of AI.

Kai posits that this transition poses an evolutionary risk as exponentially cheaper AIs, robots, and drones come online, i.e. human culture being armed with these tools without morals, ethics, and values being created and sustained for these new technology applications. So even if you don’t have children, you are still a parent… to the AI used via your smartphone!

First Among Firsts

Some other highlights in the run up to the event and during the summit was the launch of the first Egyptian Initial Coin Offering (ICO) by Red Cab, a ride-sharing service, the day before things kicked off on the main stage. Furthermore, a “blockchain collaboration” was announced between La Markaz, an Egyptian blockchain development firm, and Tykn, a Dutch organisation building “electronic identity, authentication and trust service (eIDAS) tools.” And to top it off, the Egyptian Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Center (TIEC) announced a USD $2.26 million fund of funds for local venture capital firms to tap into as a way to plug the early stage funding gap.

So where do we go from here? Conscious tech is not a concept unique only to Egypt. The implications of collaboration, AI, and entrepreneurship in a new era will unfold throughout this century around the world as we collectively experience the impacts resulting from these shifts. Events like the Vested Summit help to bring these topics to the forefront in a scene that is crowded with terms like unicorns, failing fast, and innovation. More importantly, bringing folks together to focus on what matters reintroduces the original human element to creation; that’s an experience that can be shared globally through different local communities.

Mohamed Abdelmottaleb, founder and CEO of XPAY.app, a fintech startup focusing on facilitating group payments, summed up the experience at Vested Summit: “The global exposure was amazing, workshops very engaging with thought provoking concepts; throw in the amazing atmosphere of El Gouna, I am certainly in for next year.” How about you? Will you be at the next Vested Summit?


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