This is why you’re not going to create the next SXSW

For years I’ve joined in the pushback against the empty and cliche pledge that some city wants to become the next Silicon Valley. Over the last few years, I’ve watched a similar boast begin to pop up into unnervingly unexpected places:

We’re going to launch the next SXSW.

No. No you are not. Let me tell you why.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is a 30-year-old collection of conferences and parties that take place in Austin, Texas every March. It’s big! It’s fun! It attracts musicians and entrepreneurs and other people that sound very cool to politicians and scensters and economic development people from other places.

Rather than just say, hey, that’s neat, that inspires me to do something better/bigger/different in my city, they want to copy the form. (Honestly, shoutout to SXSW organizers these days because there is no bigger compliment than giving so many insecure people so much FOMO).

By contrast, later this week, I am helping to kickoff the seventh year of Philly Tech Week, an open calendar of events that was started to a solve a very local need and continues to evolve. SXSW simply wasn’t part of our origin story.

That’s not the case for all. Now around the country — I have personally been a part of meetings, emails, social exchanges and discussions in no fewer than eight different cities — people spend a lot of time talking about: what is our SXSW?

Really, I find this infuriating. It’s this perplexing mistake people so often make, thinking that to create the next big thing, they should copy the last big thing.

Here are some bad ideas I have heard many, many, many times:

  • We’ll call ours NXSE/NXSW/NXE and other stupid duplicates.
  • We have great music/tech/ideas/people/venues/companies/places/airports and other basic amenities that lots of really great cities also have.
  • We’re going to spend a bajillion dollars and make people forget Austin.

In short, it’s a lot of people saying: SXSW isn’t so special, we can do this exact thing too, have a big tech-music festival that will promote our city and draw thousands of people into this new sexy type of conversation.

Of course that is all bogus. The Internet wasn’t TV, TV wasn’t the telephone. You can take lessons from big things but when you copy the previous big thing, you just invariably end up with a worse version of it.

So rather than say you’re going to create the next SXSW, you really ought to be saying you’re going to learn lessons from the success of SXSW. Here are some examples of actual helpful lessons from SXSW:

  • SXSW was, say, 20 years old before it broke into more mainstream national conversations.
  • True economic change can’t stay in one sector or type of people.
  • A major innovation annual event series can attract thousands of people from out of market, like any conference. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll benefit most people who live in a place.
  • Cities need a festival around new ideas that is open to all and brings in people from other places too.
  • A community can coalesce around a regular event series and brand a place in a new way.

It’s so critical for communities to build something slowly and in response to what that place and their people truly need. That does not mean replicating some other model that worked for some other place just to import something else in to your home.

I’ve been to SXSW. It genuinely is a great big fun conference that brings together a whole mess of people that lots of communities covet. It was the right event series at the right time in the right place. But it almost surely isn’t solving whatever challenges your community actually faces right now.