It’s what keeps you walking around corners, and through unopened doors. Up escalators, and joining backs of distant queues, and finds you sitting in rooms listening to topics you know little about. It’s what gives you the energy that propels you to talk to people that seem different or unknown to you, and the strength that says yes to extra Habaneros (bad choice it turns out). Curiosity.
Austin, that likes to refer to itself as “keeping things weird”, is a home of great diversity. It’s probably my favourite city in the US due to its melting pot of cultures. Austin is also home to one of the most interesting events I attend each year. SXSW.
By design this is an event for the curious. Carefully constructed panels and events merge technology, music and film to produce inspiration, connections and new thinking across disciplines.
This year, whilst perhaps not as A-list on the tech-side as previous years, didn’t fail to tick the curiosity card. If I was a cat, I’d be dead. With topics as wide ranging as the future of warfare to the impact of social on fashion, deciding what to attend and what to miss is constant. FOMO abounds.
Themes this year were quite clear. Politics was at every corner, with AI seemingly the ‘salted caramel’ of technology, and health the new target for disruption.
1. New Jersey Senator and former Newark Mayor, Cory Booker, gave the opening keynote for SXSW, which set the tone for the event with a strong political kick-off. Much uncertainty still surrounds the current Trump administration, whose populists rhetoric is polarising to those in the creative and technology fields. Cory’s take out on the narrows and echo-chamber was strong and he sees an obligation on us all to cross over the lines and consciously break through the borders we are creating. “If people want a society that is more loving, more compassionate, in which we don’t have bubbles, I try to say this to myself so I’m not just preaching,” he said. “Nothing is going to change unless I do something. No action is done in vain no matter how small; it ripples into the world.” A rallying call for individual activism.
2. Bestselling author and storytelling entrepreneur, Gary Vaynerchuk, didn’t hold back (does he ever) with his shoot from the hip straight talking attitude. A wide-ranging discussion (led by questions from the audience); attempted to bring some grounding to the Silicon Valley bubble. Start-ups these days, he argues, are nothing more than financial arbitrage machines unlike businesses 10 years ago. His words of advice: “you’re not a superstar entrepreneur when you are losing money each month.”
3. Steve Case, a pioneer in making the Internet part of everyday life, in one of the best sessions I saw at the event, talked us through his view on the Third Wave, the next phase of development we are seeing in the Internet age. If the First Wave was about getting people online, the Second Wave about providing software and service on top of the internet, then the Third Wave is going to be about pervasive and invisible connectivity of everything now known to many as the Internet of Everything. He pointed out that within the Second Wave we’ve created monopolies, with a startling figure that 78% of all VC investment in the US last year was made in just 3 states. Under the Third Wave he sees this talent and expertise becoming more distributed, outside of Silicon Valley, as the business that will succeed will have to know and understand the industries they are setting out to disrupt “you can’t disrupt the nursing profession unless you really know the nursing profession” he argued. So we can expect to see a regional democratization of technology talent and investment under the Third Wave.
4. In the same session, Vice Chair of General Electric, Beth Comstock, talked widely about the great work that General Electric has undertaken to change corporate culture to be more prescient and flexible to change; recognising that partnerships are going to be key in the Third Wave. Small business (agile/innovative) will need to partner with blue chips (of scale/industry know-how) to succeed. It can be argued we are entering a new Collab-Economy.
5. CEO of Nio, Padmasree Warrior, (also the women with the best name in technology) delivered a great talk looking at why she moved from the mobile business into the mobility business. She outlined that the opportunity within the autonomous car space is going to be bigger than mobile and eCommerce industries combined. Showcasing their latest car which had just completed the speed record for an autonomous car driving (completely autonomous) around the Circuit of the Americas. It’s exhilarating how far we’ve come in 12 years here.
6. In the second time I’ve seen Bill Ford speak, and I was again impressed with his approach, vision and leadership; a man who is working hard to ensure relevancy for his family’s firm in an industry his great-grandfather invented. I left the discussion believing Ford to be one of the most interesting companies operating today, tackling many challenges and exploring many avenues as they migrate from an automotive company to a mobility company. His view on Autonomous Driving is that the technology isn’t that far off being ready, but society isn’t yet ready, and that there needs to be much more discussion happening now about impact and ensuring society acceptance (many in mid-career professions will be dislocated).
7. Caisey Naisent reminded us just how fast things can change, and can happen in the world of digital. In the space of 4 years since he was last at SXSW he’s gone from being a just-getting-known director of YouTube videos, to being probably the best-known YouTube director and entrepreneur. His words of advice to the audience: “the only safe thing I know how to do is to take the biggest risk possible”.
8. Mark Cuban, the billion-dollar tech entrepreneur come investor, come TV celebrity (he’s one of the main Sharks on Shark-Tank in the US) didn’t hold back with his thoughts, wit and criticism of the Trump administrator. In a wide-ranging discussion he was bullish on Snapchat, on regulation being important (a beautiful constraint for disrupters) to the importance of AI. In his words: “the world’s first trillionaire will come be the person who wins first at AI.”
9. Futurist, Ray Kurzweil, who was on stage with his daughter Amy (a successful cartoonist), gave a slightly weird and wide-ranging conversation around life, story-telling, family and the future. Ray is the man who predicted the Singularity, that “human life will be irreversibly transformed” and that humans will transcend the “limitations of our biological bodies and brain. Further, he foresaw that “future machines will be human, even if they are not biological”. For this he was briefly the laughing stock of the Silicon Valley, since he has become the head of research at Google and reminded us that he has an 86% strike rate on the predictions he made in that seminal text; so we still remain well on-track to Singularity. Not so weird now.
10. The US singer, Kesha, was perhaps an unlikely name to be on the Interactive stage, but she shed light on a disturbing side to this digital age: “the internet is not a healthy place for me”. She talked about the importance of finding, connecting with, and then accepting “self”, referencing her battles with eating disorders, online trolling and bullying. “I was making trolls, I was making bullies, I was making people who I’d never met before, who were projecting their insecurities on to me on the internet; I was making them the truth.” Sobering stuff.