For the first time, I made the decision to go to South by Southwest, better known as SXSW. Seasoned attendees and locals simply call it South By.
SXSW is an annual gathering of the most innovative minds from the worlds of film, technology, music, government and everywhere in between. To say the event is huge is a gross understatement—approximately a quarter of a million people attend. There are thousands of events, panels, films and concerts in hundreds of venues spread across Austin, Texas.
Each attendee's SXSW experience is distinct as you can follow different content tracks like music, interactive, film, music and educational. While it is impossible to summarize SXSW in its entirety, I would like to share snapshots from my first few days.
I. Being an amateur volunteer field reporter for SEGD is fun, but sometimes I get carried away. Like when I was at the red carpet premiere of "I’m Dying up Here," a film by James Franco and Seth Rogen. I was standing next to the Entertainment Tonight reporters with their $6,000 camera rigs—two feet away from the stars—snapping photos with my iPhone. When I messaged my 19-year-old daughter the photos, her reply read: "OMFG I HATE YOU SO MUCH, WTFF, I’m gonna die."
II. Two days in, I had dinner with amazing people from the Dansk Design Centre who hosted a panel entitled "Share or Die: Is Future Manufacturing Open Source?" The panel explored the future of production and designing open-source-based business models for manufacturing. They featured Opendesk.com who, in addition to selling its furniture, shares its plans with customers who can then use them to create modified versions they can sell on the Opendesk site. However, Opendesk is in a niche market.
To scale open source manufacturing so conglomerates could fully embrace it would mean adding infrastructure such a centralized portal like GitHub. GitHub is the dominant web-based repository and Internet hosting service for programmers. One doesn’t exist for open source manufacturing as it is much more complicated than programming.
III. Another interesting panel was "The New Architects' Toolkit: Sound, Film, & Projection," which explored how designers and media makers from innovation labs are working with traditional architects to make digital experiences an integrated part of public spaces and the built environment.
The panelists were Brian Harms of Samsung Electronics, who showed 3D printing robots using gels; Sam Stubblefield of NBBJ, who showcased sculptures and experiments in interactive sound; and Mark Bashore from the Plains of Yonder, who showed the making of video for "Little Winter" at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas. For me, the takeaway was that there are major electronics firms and architectural innovation labs experimenting in media architecture.
IV. Intel presented applications created with their artificial intelligence platform Nirvana. There were all sorts of apps, including a sports app that helps players analyze their swing and one called Pikaza that uses photo filters to recreate a famous artist’s style. They demonstrated an app that quickly analyzes photos of missing children to aid in their recovery and even farm management software. Farmlogs uses artificial intelligence to maximize profit, and machine vision to satellite track path signatures of farm equipment and recommend equipment maintenance.
V. Jennifer Lee from Emojicon did a wild and funny panel on the best ways to submit an emoji proposal to the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee for approval, an 18-month process. Apparently, there is a political firestorm around the proposed bagel and lobster emojis. Who knew?
VI. Then there was Joe Biden’s speech—it was moving, inspirational, tearful, funny, thoughtful and incredibly well informed. He came to SXSW to brief the audience on the state of cancer research and clinical care, to talk about his bill to accelerate cancer research and his commitment that stemmed from his tragic loss of his son Beau. His aim was to encourage “the most innovative minds on the planet” to help in the fight against cancer.
Biden said he was particularly moved by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s renaming of the bill after Beau Biden. Toward the end, he spoke about our country's artificial division and urged us to keep our faith in America. The audience leapt to their feet in a sea of applause. His profound effect was best summed up by a woman next to me who turned to her friend and said, “I really miss those guys." You had to be there.
VII. On the street in Austin, I saw a young man wearing a T-shirt that read “Keep Austin Weird”—a premonition of strange encounters to come. On Saturday morning in the Hilton lobby, an Orthodox Jewish man entreated me to join his minion for Saturday prayers. I found myself in a small conference room with nine men, two women and three children aged 7-10. After struggling with my long-lost Hebrew, I was bored, so I showed bored the kids how to make paper airplanes. Just imagine a line of men praying on one side of the table while, on the other side, I was admonishing an underage paper airplane assembly line to not to fly their growing pile of planes till services ended.
The second weird encounter was at an Indian restaurant where a well-dressed and intoxicated man sat down at my table uninvited and started to eat my appetizer. After the waiter had thrown him out, I thought “this is Austin weird."
As this was my first SXSW experience, I had no baseline experience to compare it to. My friend who has attended SXSW for many years said this year had an unusually high number of foreign guests. It makes sense as so many countries send dozens of representatives from their design and innovation centers, accelerators and media companies.
VIII. There are a lot SXSW guides, so I won’t replicate them here, but I will offer some advice:
- Book hotels and make reservations early as room prices jump to ridiculous levels and tables at good restaurants are hard to come by (with over 230,000 attendees, you can understand why).
- Like Disneyland, the lines for popular events are long, so get there 30–40 minutes early. For popular films, add another 15–20 minutes.
- If you can afford it, purchase a platinum pass.
- Sign up for Fasten, the local Uber service, but use it as a last resort to avoid expensive surge charges.
- Use the pedicabs for short runs; they are embarrassing but available.
- For accommodations, hotels like the Marriott Courtyard South are worth a look. It’s 10 minutes from downtown, less expensive and offers a $5 shuttle that drops you off at the Marriott Courtyard, which is one block from the conference center.
Even with good, the bad, the silly and divine, halfway into SXSW it has been an amazing experience and one I highly recommend. It is an exceptional way to get a view of the vast expanse of the creative fields, meet some truly amazing people from around the world and all the while become inspired by a great sense of hope in the power of humanity, the human spirit and the world’s most innovative minds.
In the next few weeks, I will file another report.
Creative Destruction Series: Introduction
Creative Destruction Series Part 01: Palpitations on the Slopes of Technology
Creative Destruction Series Part 02: Designing for Plurals, the Evolving Audience
Creative Destruction Series Part 03: Relocating Humanity
Creative Destruction Series Part 04: A Curious Stepchild of Inbound Marketing
Creative Destruction Series Part 05: Automated Design
Creative Destruction Series Part 06: Embracing Serendipity in the Digital Age
Creative Destruction Series Part 07: Three Versions of "US"
Creative Destruction Series Part 08: 12 Strategic Predictions for 2017
Creative Destruction Series Part 09: The Mythology of Online Searches
Creative Destruction Series Part 10: The Need for Data Literacy