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For all posts and pictures in the photo journal series visit austinduality.com.
Austin Duality: The Search for Innovation at SXSW Interactive
It’s my last day in Austin, and the last day of SXSW Interactive. Clouds loom overhead and there’s a hint of rain, it feels like the city is telling me that it’s time to go. I tap for an Uber to get into the city, my trip to Austin was booked last minute so I was one of the unfortunate tourists who had to paid an exorbitant amount of money for a seedy motel in a North East-side dilapidated neighborhood. It’s the opposite of the gleaming sheen of the JW Marriott and the downtown core where I had just been the night before. But this spot feels like the real Texas, and I’m grateful for an opportunity to experience more of Austin than just what SXSW wants to show me. My Uber driver picks me up and makes a comment about the hotel. She’s a middle-aged single mother in a white Subaru, she’s lived in Austin most of her life. I get in the back and I ask her about SXSW. She tells me how important South By is for the economy of Austin, but for her personally too. It’s been years since she received a SXSW badge as a gift and attended the events and shows, now she relies on the festival every year to help her make ends meet. She rents part of her place on Airbnb and has a German couple staying there now. She drives for Uber between her full time job and hopes for surge pricing to help her make some real money. It hasn’t been going as well this year, her place hasn’t rented out for the entire conference, the German couple head home tomorrow, and her Uber fares aren't meeting expectations. But SXSW Music is just starting. She’s optimistic that things will pick up.
I arrive at the conference center and decide on my last day to take in the start-ups and technology on show at SXSW. One part of SXSW Interactive is a tradeshow where tech companies, business organizations, and various groups in the digital space can show their wares. There's some amazing stuff in here. And I'm taken aback by just how many start-ups are vying for attention at SXSW. From Bitcoin Cryptoart to NASA and GMO corn, there's a width breadth of technology and entrepreneurs on display. It seems like every country around the world is here, promoting themselves as the best place on earth for a start-up. Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, South Korea...clamouring for your business. With some amazing technology on display like IBM's SoftLayer and Postano's social aggregation dashboard, it was actually a little music start-up called Share Tapes that stood out for me. These guys have brought the idea of the cassette mix tape to the digital age with credit card style NFC cards that work with most music streaming services such as Spotify. You can make a playlist, or mixtape, on these services, add them to your card, and then give a card to a friend. They don't need an app, and within their favorite music service, can just open up your mix. Brilliant.
I came to Austin with an idea that I wanted to explore. I wanted to see if new ideas could be formed here, if things could be invented, if real innovation could exist at SXSW Interactive. It has all of the ingredients needed to do so. Talented people from different disciplines coming together with the express interest to learn, share ideas, find partnerships, and collaborate. Did I find it? I have two, unspecific answers. I think so. And we’ll see. On one side I definitely saw creative people sparking creative conversations. There were kids at SX Create who were using new tools to make new things. Seeing firsthand how this next generation thinks, and the opportunities they're given to make, was a powerful moment. There's no doubt in my mind that SXSW offered a platform for technology and creativity to come together, and seeing it in the hearts and minds of youth it was clear that the ingredients were there for real innovation to take place in incredible ways. I witnessed smart, successful people talk about what lead to breakthrough creative moments for them – Brian Grazer on creativity conversations, Jessica Alba on persistence and threading a singular idea into every aspect of a brand, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus on audience participation as a critical part of the creative process as just a couple examples – these insights were very real for me, and they will impact my work in the future. Perhaps they'll even spark the next breakthrough idea.
See more photos and view all the posts in the series at austinduality.com.
And of course, there was the city of Austin, quite possibly the most important character in my search for innovation at SXSW. From a psychedelic band who decided to take on the music business with their own approach (free concerts on a tricked out school bus) to the people of Austin who truly believed that South By was both a significant cultural event for the world as well as fulfilling a personal need in their lives (like my Uber driver from this morning), Austin is weaved into the fabric of SXSW. It's the city of Austin that brings the creative and the curious together, the technology and the artist, the weird and the corporate. Austin most certainly drives creativity. And I got the sense that it can create real innovation, especially as new relationships, new ideas, and new learning leave the city of Austin and go into the everyday work of the over 300,000 artists, start-ups, engineers, journalists, maker kids, and executives who attended South By from all over the world. There's no doubt that innovation will happen somewhere, that in some way – maybe even a small way – be tracked back to a talk, panel session, performance, partnership or technology that was sparked at SXSW Interactive.
I came into SXSW hoping to find innovation, but not necessarily expecting to find it. And I came out re-thinking the idea of innovation completely. Does innovation have to be an invention, the same way Bell Labs created the right environment to invent the transistor? Or can innovation be a different way of thinking, inspired by a community of like-minded people from different walks-of-life that inspires new ideas? Despite experiencing parts of South By that seemed to rail against original creative thought (corporate brand activations, media parties), the humanity of Austin and the creative people I met at South By inspired me and energized my creative thinking. We may not have changed the world, but we all took away something that might lead us to.
I can't help but think that Bell Labs' Mervin Kelly would have liked SXSW, but more importantly, I think he would have done everything he could to Keep Austin Weird.