CES, the yearly bacchanal of tech and innovation, has outgrown its shell. Las Vegas has been home to the event since the late 1970s and, for better or worse, the city has survived and served the influx of technologists who flock to the event each year to see the latest and greatest. But two things are happening simultaneously that make Las Vegas the last place to find innovation.
First, Vegas infrastructure, while seemingly resilient to massive influxes of conference-goers, is having trouble keeping up with CES. Massive crowds in the many halls were greeted by multiple power outages — an ironic scene for a tech event. Million-dollar booths ended up in the dark and a Google booth flooded as rain came into event halls ill-prepared for actual weather. The shuttle system simply can’t keep up with the crush of people and the anemic monorail — an affront to public transit — is useless during the daytime rush. Add in multiple massive venues and a taxi system that can’t handle the crush of countless non-locals trying to get from point A to point Z and you’ve got a mess.
Second, the reason for big shows like CES is changing. Why does everyone need to be in one place when most business is done electronically, even algorithmically. While it’s nice to spend a week in a casino, perhaps it’s time for a smaller, more focused show or no show it all?
Perhaps, in the end, it’s time to move CES to a modern city?
While I have no specific answer as to where to send conference-goers — Denver? San Francisco? LA? Dubai? Berlin? — perhaps the real answer is for Las Vegas to fix its very real and very difficult transport, electrical and data problems so innovation can thrive in this strange desert oasis. As it stands, the city that wants to play host to thousands of technologists isn’t very technological, and its amenities — aimed more at bachelorette parties than LAN parties — are insufficient and even dangerously lacking.
Perhaps the next big event will not be physical. After all, the reason for having a yearly tech festival has changed. CES used to be forward-looking: products that launched there in January appeared on shelves months later. The current model is flipped: the coolest stuff launches online a year before and is shown in the flesh at CES. Crowdfunded projects that finished in April appear at CES in January as a sort of coming-out party. But do people really care anymore? Crowdfunders care about shipping product, not about spending thousands on a booth in a hostile city.
A lot has to change to make CES amazing again. Perhaps it’s too late. But Las Vegas does the world no favors and actively harms its image when it can’t keep up with the future.