05 SXSE – making sense of SXSW

By Martin Thomas, Writer


How do you begin to make sense of something as ambitious and multi-faceted as SXSW (South by Southwest), the ever-growing technology/music/comedy/film/marketing/business festival/conference/exhibition held in Austin, Texas every March?

Walking into the sixth annual SXSE event run by Iris, the London-based advertising agency, I didn’t envy them the task of pulling together the strands of this sprawling happening into a coherent narrative to present to their invited audience of contacts, clients and creatives – whose common denominator, according to our flattering hosts, was that we ‘bang the drum for progression’. But I have to say, they did a pretty good job.

A world on its head

At this year’s SXSW – that ‘cultural collision of passion points’ – there were speakers as diverse as London Mayor Sadiq Khan, philanthropist Melinda Gates, and quantum computing expert William Hurley (‘whurley’). There were discussions about the future of computing, the future of business, the future of humanity and much more.

SXSW is a world on its head, where you’re greeted by an automaton, but the vending machines have people inside them. It’s a place where the latest technology meets the most creative minds and crazy, brilliant ideas emerge – ideas such as biometric tattoos that change colour when your blood sugar drops too low. In the words of Iris’s executive planning director Ben Essen, it’s a place where you get to see beyond the future of technology and glimpse the future of all things.

The thrill of being immersed in such a wonderland of fresh thinking is obvious, but what do businesses do with all that excitement? How do they harness that rampant innovation for their own benefit and that of their customers? How do they build a company that’s not just fit to survive the fourth industrial revolution – the massive changes we’re currently living through, driven by breakthroughs in robotics, AI, nanotechnology, quantum computing and so on – but to thrive in it?

The stakes are high. Since 1937, the average life expectancy of companies has fallen from 77 years to just 15 (over the same period, the average life expectancy of humans has risen from 64 to 75).

Timeless principles

According to our Iris hosts, the answers to emerge from SXSW are to be found by looking beyond the technology and focusing on aligning companies around four important and timeless principles that have probably all been relevant since the first industrial revolution in the 18th Century – and which all begin with the letter P.

  1. Purpose – Just as for people, a clear sense of purpose gives companies longevity. Those whose ambition is loftier than merely selling lots of stuff to make lots of money almost always survive much longer. This relates directly to the importance of focusing on why your company exists (rather than what it does or how it does it) that came up in the recent YCN storytelling workshop.
  2. Process – How you do what you do and how you design things really matters. We’re passionate about design here at Red Setter so we know that bad process or bad design means bad quality of life. Good design starts with empathy – just think about Tesco’s introduction of slow-moving dementia-friendly checkouts for people who need a bit more time to pay.
  3. People – Us humans should be more bee. Collective intelligence is always greater than individual intelligence so let’s pool our resources more effectively and solve our problems together rather than going it alone. We already have the ultimate global network thanks to the proliferation of smartphones in recent years, so let’s figure out ways to harness that amazing potential – by doing something a bit more elevated than engaging in spats on Twitter.
  4. Promotion – How do companies cut through the chatter to get their message across to consumers? By going big (such as the creation of an entire, interactive Westworld town at SXSW by HBO), or small (such as PepsiCo’s fleeting gifs to promote Bubly, their new line of flavoured sparkling water), or ubiquitous (such as the record-breaking investigative journalism podcast Serial, which has been downloaded hundreds of millions of times).

When I left the event, just beginning to process the evening’s avalanche of information as Lee Fields & The Expressions belted out ‘We can make the world better if we come together’, I felt enthused, bamboozled, overwhelmed, and inspired in equal measure. As Iris’s chief innovations officer Dave Caygill said, ‘what a time this is to be alive!’

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