Last week in Austin I attended the South by Southwest Conference and Festival, which is to say I got a drink from a firehose and came back wet with enthusiasm! The confab was started back in the 1980s when Austin was still a small Texas town. It now attracts over 100,000 innovators from all over the world.
I usually approach a conference to deliver a speech, but this one was for my own edification, and edify it did.
The mental stimulation was nonstop, a fire hydrant of fresh and innovative ideas, thoughts, observations, presentations, conversations, music, film, from morning into the late evening. This being my first SXSW, I made it a point to reach out to people attending the conference, and to be open to starting conversations wherever I went.
Here are my random recollections of SWSX:
The conference has grown so big that no single convention center can host it. Thus, sessions and social gatherings are spread throughout the 10-block downtown area. This affords badge-holders the inevitable opportunity to open up conversations with others as they move from the Westin, say, to the Hyatt, or over to the convention center, on streets that had been cordoned off by Austin police.
At SXSW, you glimpse the future in the new technology, the music, and most of all in the 30-something crowd that predominates. As we strolled down Congress Avenue’s crowded sidewalks, I struck up a conversation with a Hispanic millennial couple attending the conference, who told me they were residents of Austin. They were most excited for the music, but they were attending some of the tech sessions as well. They admitted that there’s so much to do at any one time that it’s hard to make choices.
The truth is there’s simply too much to take in, too many fun and fascinating people to learn from and interact with, if only for a little while each, like speed dating. A walk through the bustling lobby of the JW Marriott finds people pecking on screens, clumping together in groups, preparing to head over to listen to Elon Musk, or Melinda Gates, or Peter Diamandis, the futurist and author of Abundance, getting into the elevator after his talk. Peter was kind enough to invite me to a private party, sponsored by ANA, the Japanese airline, where later that evening, he gave a brief talk announcing a $10 million XPrize for avatar developers. “This prize can enable the creation of a technology that can efficiently distribute skills and hand-son expertise to distant locations around the world, wherever they are needed,” he told the crowd.
Many festival goers are there for the music, but there’s something for everyone.
At breakfast one morning, I spoke with a woman from Dallas who was attending SWSX for the music industry networking, and was headed to a session on “Artists and Their Fans.” What’s different about SWSX is the mix of industries: there’s the film crowd, the interactive folks, the music people, and the general educational folks. Everything from “How to Prevent Food Waste” to an intimate onstage conversation with Elon Musk to a special offsite venue created by the Dutch government that focused on Smart Cities.
The woman from Dallas and her two colleagues are with a company that organizes some 500 “popup music events” every year to provide a venue to up and coming artists. Started in 2009 by a Dallas entrepreneur and music lover, who looked at the struggles new acts must endure as people in bars talk over them, he not only said “there’s got to be a better way” in the age of music industry disruption, but went out and took action to create an alternative way. The events are held in houses, storefronts and other places and attract 70 people instead of 70,000. Artists such as Ed Sheeran, Leon Bridges, and the pop artist Bastille used the events to break out of the pack.
SXSW Parties and Late Night Conversations
At a dinner party at the home of an Austin developer, the topic of optimism versus pessimism came up as we watched the sunset and talked about the country America is becoming. The host’s 12-year-old son, who we learned will be bar mitzvahed soon, appeared from the living quarters to ask his father a question. We six adults had been busy ruminating over the world’s problems when one in the group drew the young fellow into the conversation with a question: are you optimistic or pessimistic that things will get better? The kid didn’t flinch but answered in a tone of wisdom that belied his age. “I’m optimistic over the longer term,” he replied, citing all the many philanthropic efforts he sees taking place. Then he added thoughtfully, “but it’s going to take some time.” We adults were quietly amazed by the wisdom of this old soul.
Impacts of Technology and Innovation
In line for coffee the next morning, I struck up a conversation with a woman named Ruth Ann, who designs training programs for the assisted living industry and was attending SXSW because she wanted to see what was out there “on the cutting-edge.” She shared about the looming shortage of qualified workers as Boomers age, and the number of caregivers dwindles because of immigration restrictions. Often poorly trained and poorly-paid, these workers are often given little instruction in caring for people with serious maladies, such as dementia. Many who are hired work only a day and never return. The average tenure is six months. Ruth Ann sees technology playing an ever more important role in the industry, and a tipping point ahead.
Some of my conversations with conference goers included a growing concern with how attached we have become to our favorite devices and smartphones. Silicon Valley spins endless tales of how a technology-infused tomorrow will be better than today, but in light of recent events, that message no longer resonates. Tomorrow may just as easily be dystopian, full of fake news, narcissists and hackers creeping past firewalls. Five years ago the mention of Facebook brought a smile to the face; now it often brings forth a frown.
As I was heading out of town, Austin was itself the victim of a domestic terrorist, who planted bombs around the city killing two people and wounding five before killing himself. I thought about what the kid had said, “It’s going to take some time.”