As a first-timer to SXSW, I really didn’t know what to expect, except that it could be overwhelming for first-timers. I was told to go with the flow because anything I tried to schedule would inevitably be thwarted by unexpected surprises.
Boy, were they right.
Once I got to Austin, all the haphazard pre-planning I had done was immediately thrown out the window. Although my background is in health care and I’m incredibly passionate about new technologies in health care, just by perusing the schedule and seeing who was on tap to speak at SXSW I quickly realized this was a rare opportunity for me to explore some of my other interests, such as media, politics and open government. As a result, I ended up wandering from panel to keynote to featured session ranging from Government as a Catalyst: Prizes 4 Tech Innovation (moderated by fellow TPP alumna Jenn Gustetic); Arrested Development actor Jeffrey Tambor’s acting workshop; and Code for America‘s panel on the amazing efforts that cities are doing to incorporate technology to better serve their citizenry. You can take a look at my notes from SXSW on my Twitter feed.
Upon reflection, I realized that the uniqueness of SXSW as a conference is that regardless of your professional background and interests, there is something in every single talk and encounter that is applicable to your line of work. If there are any themes that I took away from my first time to SXSW, it would have to be the following:
- Communication, engagement and accountability are key. Every single session I attended stressed the importance of these three elements. BravoTV’s Andy Cohen and New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson all noted the importance of ensuring their customers were engaged with their offerings, whether it was via fan interaction with a television show (Top Chef) or via the public editor column at the New York Times. Social media has definitely made it easier to communicate and facilitate interaction with your customer. Enabling your customer to engage with their favorite TV show or their health care provider or their local government starts a feedback loop whereby the citizen gets to participate and feels like someone is listening to their concerns. And by enabling interaction, the consumer ensures that the government, or the newspaper or their health care provider is held accountable for their services.
- How stakeholder groups define innovation influences how we approach implementation and dissemination. One of the questions I’ve been mulling over even post-SXSW is what the government’s role should be in cultivating and disseminating innovations. During SXSW, I realized that how one feels about that question is largely dependent on how you define innovation and the pipeline for which you think innovation should be implemented into society. For example, during Jenn’s panel on government prizes, it was noted that many of the government-sponsored prizes still had not resulted in sustainable businesses. Furthermore, many cities are adopting digital methods for engaging with their citizens in order to reduce inefficiency in government processes, particularly during times of crisis, and citizens have produced various apps to help them live better lives (i.e. transportation apps). However, many of these apps and services are free. Must innovation be spun off into sustained businesses? Some economists would argue that providing these apps and open sourced websites already results in the positive externality of bettering a citizen’s life by reducing inefficiency and enabling behavior change. I’m not sure any of us have the answer or solution to what the government’s role should be in assisting entrepreneurs and innovators, but I have a feeling this will become increasingly important in the 21st century and particularly in this upcoming election.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I left SXSW and Austin incredibly inspired by the conference attendees I met, the conversations we had, and the discussions elicited by conference sessions. I’ve always been a believer in bringing together people of all different disciplines to work on complex systems problems, as everyone brings a different perspective to the table and SXSW was exactly that in action. Where else would you be able to say that you ran into Dropbox’s Drew Houston, Zappos’s Tony Hsieh and actress Gabrielle Union within a few blocks of Sixth Street? (Yes, that actually did happen and I am still in a slight state of awe.) It was also so great to hang out and meet groups of people that ordinarily would be quite difficult to organize together (special thanks to Cal@SXSW and Jeff Yang).
Code for America co-founder Jennifer Pahlka said in the closing keynote that we as developers, designers and technologists are in a unique position to change the system. We have the skills and the know how to just make stuff happen.
So what are we waiting for?