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Austin Duality: The Search for Innovation at SXSW Interactive
Bell Labs is held up as the de-facto American case study of creative invention and innovation. They were considered the most innovative scientific organization in the world for most of the 20th century, with the crescendo being the invention of the transistor in 1947, which in no uncertain terms has changed the world. There is no Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk without Bell Labs. From researcher to Chairman, Mervin Kelly was the guiding light of Bell Labs who believed that an “institute of creative technology” with a “critical mass” of talented people was required to foster the exchange of ideas. Only with the physical proximity of a mix of people from different disciplines could innovation be derived.
SXSW is the modern equivalent of Bell Labs. It brings talented people together from different disciplines to a physical place where the exchange of ideas and a synchronicity of chance is the perfect storm for creativity as Mervin Kelly imagined. And it’s set in arguably one of the most creative cities in the world. As the Keep Austin Weird slogan exudes, thinking differently is in its DNA.
But any creative professional will tell you that America’s ideas about creativity are often misunderstood, and even a place like Austin or the random connections of an event like SXSW doesn’t mean innovation will happen. Innovation is hard. Creativity takes guts, perseverance, time, discipline, drive, sweat, and tension. The intense debate between two sides, the contrast between points of view, collaboration that forces duality, is possibly the one thing that Mervin Kelly best understood.
The intense debate between two sides, the contrast between points of view, collaboration that forces duality, is possibly the one thing that Mervin Kelly best understood.
Does creativity happen at SXSW? Do Mervin Kelly’s theories apply; can a random connection of talented people from different disciplines spark innovation? Does Austin Duality exist and does it work? Or is South By just 10 days in Texas with a collection of weird, random people?
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I flew in to Austin and arrived on the first day of SXSW Interactive. It’s Friday, March 13th and that isn’t lost on me. As I pick up my luggage and head into Austin’s infamous Sixth Street, the circus that is SXSW becomes very real. People are everywhere, it’s a mass of hipsters, suits, artists, musicians, students, and corporate wankers. The mix is interesting, and you get that sense that there is no other place on earth, then at Austin and for SXSW, that you would get this kind of mix of people in one place at one time. SXSW needs Austin. It’s weird, eclectic venues and strange people make SXSW Interactive the best digital conference in the world. The conference attracts the right corporate people, but the city attracts the right creative people.
This is all confirmed for me as I meet up with Phil Glofcheskie, a creative director and head of game design at Fuel. No one fits this city better than Phil whose Jesus-like appearance and fast, vocabulary-rich speech echoes a creative mind that is always on the move. Phil was inspired by a SXSW presentation he saw earlier that asked why business pitches shouldn’t be more like science fiction storytelling. Why can’t a presentation be a journey? And can we present by physically unpacking a series of mysteries to walk through an idea from problem to solution? It’s a fascinating topic and we immediately start to talk about how we could bring it to life.
Which leads me to think that here, on the very first day of SXSW Interactive, that perhaps the idea of Austin Duality, that Innovation happens in a real way at SXSW is correct. As much as I’m sceptical whether SXSW Interactive can really bring real Innovation to life, there’s certainly an energy to Austin and the people at SXSW that leads you to creative and inspirational conversations. The kind of conversations that might actually get you somewhere. We’ll see.
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