“Why is it that I am able to see every movie playing in every city in America, on my phone … but it is next to impossible for two hospitals to share critical healthcare data with each other?… Your generation can be the first to have a completely different understanding of cancer… and to eradicate it. I got asked why I was going to SXSW to give a talk about cancer. It was simple: because we need YOUR help.”
– Former Vice President Joe Biden, commenting on how doctors treating his late son had to relay CAT scan images to each other via smartphone pics b/c of incompatible record keeping systems
If there was a sentiment that underscored the mood of SXSW 2017, it was reflected in former Vice President Biden’s open plea for the community of Entrepreneurs, Digital Experts, and Artists assembled in Austin to make a concerted effort to work together in the spirit of open collaboration to tackle the big problems that face the world. This reality check was compounded by an unseasonable – at times freezing – amount of rain, to make this year’s conference feel much different than years past.
After the device-led sprint from CES to MWC, SXSW gave the industry its first real collective opportunity to slow down and debate the cultural and socioeconomic implications of recent advancements in technology. The conference is still a platform for brand activations, product launches, parties, and (way too much) BBQ, but there was a marked shift in attitude away from peeking around the corner for “what’s next,” and towards a focus on long term problem solving. This was my fifth consecutive SXSW Interactive, which allowed me view the festival from a veteran’s perspective.
Here are five major observations from SXSW:
1 – SXSW may no longer be the Super Bowl of brand activations: It was surprising to see so many “venue available” signs in the blocks surrounding the convention center this year. Everything was just a bit smaller and more tempered, including activations by SXSW regulars (CapitalOne, Mashable, Samsung, and IBM, to name a few). There were many more brand and publisher houses offering smaller, intimate gatherings with curation and counter programming on par with the official schedule (ex: Decoded Fashion, Twitter, Pinterest, and Snap all had their own Houses), but their private-access nature meant that they could not scream loudly about their presence. This is understandable given the focus on fiscal responsibility in an uncertain market, and the fact that there are now so many conferences that a brand, publisher, or agency can invest in throughout the year. One would assume that a lot of dollars have been reallocated to CES, Cannes, and private events.
2 – No “breakout app,” but no one really expected one: SXSW will always get credit for launching Twitter (2007), Foursquare (2009), GroupMe (2011), and Periscope/Meerkat (2015), all of which introduced entirely new behaviors to the digital landscape. There didn’t seem to be much speculation or enthusiasm for a breakout hit this year, which is understandable given that smartphone adoption in the US is >90%, so aligning with SXSW for a successful launch is no longer an asymmetric advantage. It was also evident that a lot of this year’s energy and enthusiasm would be focused on new screens and platforms vs. continued focus on Mobile growth.
3 – We’re still at Day Zero with the 4th Industrial Revolution: Our alphabet soup of future technologies, including but not limited to AR, VR, MR, IoT, and A.I. has been incredibly overhyped and has by most practical measures fallen short of any near term promises of scale. This should be expected as each of these technologies are as incredibly nascent as they are disparate, but too many of us point to soft demand for VR headsets this past Holiday season as proxy evidence of failure. Many panels and talks tackling these subjects acknowledged that we are victims of our own hype, but also did not shy away from showing off latest advancements and explaining the massive effects that each will eventually have on media, marketing, technology, and society. Will any or all of these acronyms have as much of a transformational impact as Mobile has had over the past decade? Yes. Of course. Absolutely. These industries are real. They are raising capital. They are doing a ton of R&D. They are employing talented people. The reality is – it might take one, five, or ten years for the 4th Industrial Revolution to be an overnight sensation.
4 – Mobility and Smart Cities: Technology does not slow down for government to catch up. That was the recurring theme of the very many sessions addressing Smart Cities, and the radical changes needed to address a future where nearly 70% of world’s population will live in urban areas by 2025. The need for new hard and soft infrastructure and the legal frameworks was most apparent in self-driving car conversations; the average year that most major auto manufacturers have publicly projected mass production of their first Level 5 autonomous vehicles is 2021. Will society be ready for it? In the US, cities with progressive mayors like Atlanta, San Diego, and Columbus, OH are taking matters into their own hands. Federal regulations will eventually be needed to standardize capabilities and operating procedures for health & safety reasons (much like w/ emissions in the 80s), but in the meantime the possibilities of a robust and practical approach to the promise of a Smart City are only as limited as the amount of enthusiasm that local government has to explore partnerships and collaborations with available resources (both private sector and educational, for starters). All of these challenges and opportunities were encapsulated and somewhat codified at SXSW as “Mobility,” a term that has been used for many things technology-related, but is now distinctly meant to refer to Smart City-related challenges of Transportation, Connectivity, and requisite Infrastructure. The task of transforming cities is admittedly difficult; similar conversations likely happened 100 years ago when we transitioned from horses to automobiles.
5 – Trump, and Displacement: Many if not a majority of sessions and talks had a “Trump” component baked in. The effect of the current administration was palpable, and not only because Austin is a liberal oasis. The results of the 2016 US election (along with Brexit and the ongoing rise of the right in Europe) has forced the Tech industry to look itself in the mirror and admit that the last decades of growth and globalization have left too many behind. At this point no one will deny that Automation is a runaway train that is poised to further displace many, and that there are few tangible solutions to fend against the onslaught that do not require a complete upheaval and reorganization of core tenants of modern society. (Universal Basic Income? Deconstructing higher education?). It’s heavy stuff, but necessary to address before it’s too late.
These observations are a bit heavy, but SXSW is still in my opinion the most enjoyable of conferences and a sort of annual class reunion for those of us who have been operating in the Digital space for the past 10+ years. It’s a microcosm of the “work hard play hard” ethos that a lot of us live by. I ate a lot of brisket, drank a lot of Lone Star Beer, and saw a lot of great bands. But there was no denying that something felt different this year, and it was refreshing to engage in so many conversations about open collaboration and tackling problems of consequence vs. the annual debate about which hot new app “won” the festival.
Blue 449 welcomes this paradigm shift of acknowledging and addressing big problems. Our Open Source approach forces us to look well beyond familiar industries and territories to continuously self-educate and contextualize client challenges, taking the larger world outside of marketing and advertising into constant consideration. SXSW 2017 made many realize that there are so many organizations and individuals doing great work in the spirit of collaboration. We’re happy to be participants in building a better future.