What I Learned At #SXSL

Last week the DAQRI team were given the incredible opportunity to represent our company and showcase our products at the White House as part of South By South Lawn, a tech, music, and innovation festival hosted by none other than our President, Barack Obama. For me, it was a deeply meaningful milestone. The last time I was in Washington DC was nearly 8 years ago for Obama’s inauguration, where I also attended the Staff Ball. That night in January 2009 the newly inaugurated President urged us, the team who volunteered and worked hard to get him elected, to lead by example, to apply our hard work, discipline and creativity beyond the campaign to solve the problems facing the country. We had the power to imagine things that had never been done before, and he encouraged us to use that power to go out and change the world. I took him at his word and went on to co-found DAQRI. Being invited to the White House 8 years later to show how our company is changing the world with Augmented Reality… well, it has a beautiful symmetry to it.

The SXSL festival focused on action-oriented, innovative, and creative projects, highlighting inspirational leaders from around the country. The day’s first session featured one of my all-time favorite artists, James Turrell, as well as the architect behind the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NAAMHC), David Adjaye.

Their conversation was incredibly moving (you can watch the whole thing here). The moderator introduced Turrell’s monumental body of work over the last 50 years, and showed several examples. Turrell spoke about what it means to create art in the “medium of light,” the importance of understanding the psychology of perception, and the influence of Quaker philosophy on his work. Adjaye, who is earlier on in his career, studied Turrell as a young architect and was inspired by him. When he graciously acknowledged Turrell’s influence on his own work, Turrell didn’t miss a beat: without hyperbole but with simplicity and honesty, he praised the strength of Adjaye’s NMAAHC, complimenting the way light plays through the architecture and makes it feel as though the structure is dissolving around you. Adjaye replied with equal presence, “That means a lot… This is emotional.” It was a beautiful, wholly unscripted moment between mentor and mentee. These two men, both artists and lifelong creators, set an example for how to learn from each other with respect, collaborate, and support each other in doing their life’s work.

Toward the end of the session, Turrell turned to the changes in culture he has witnessed over the last four decades. He commented,

“Think about how we lived 40 years ago. Think about how we ate, the food we ate. Boy, have we raised the bar. Drive a car from 40 years ago, it drives like a truck. Cars today accelerate faster, brake faster, have more comfortable seats, and a better radio. Whether it’s art, architecture, or anything— everyone thinks that things are going downhill, but we have really raised the bar throughout the culture. And boy, tolerance has changed. I have to say that this is one of the biggest things that I have ever felt.”

Coming from James Turrell, that is a big statement. I think that for all of us, it’s important to pause and remember this positive trend and really take a moment to reflect on what it means for us. When we careen through the always-on, short-sighted, 24-hour news cycle at a million miles an hour, it’s easy to focus on the negative. But if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s easy to see we are headed in the right direction in so many ways. Yes, we still have work a lot of work to do — and taking a step back to acknowledge and feel the changes in society over time helps to both guide and motivate that work.

One of the great gifts of both Turrell’s and Adjaye’s work is that it invites you to slow down and be present on a different timescale. Their art installations and architectural creations offer a thought-provoking perspective on nature, social interactions, and ultimately, ourselves. I cannot recommend seeing them highly enough, in person if possible. They both have publicly-accessible work all over the world.

A room in Roden Crater, created by James Turrell
The new National Museum of African American Culture and History in Washington DC, designed by architect David Adjaye

After the morning kickoff, we spent an amazing and surreal day camped out on the White House lawn, with the Washington Monument peeking out behind us, giving demos of the DAQRI Smart Helmet, our automotive holographic head-up-display, and a pre-release version of our computer vision-based Augmented Reality hardware reference platform. Our CEO Brian Mullins spoke on a panel focused on innovation in Los Angeles. The Lumineers played for attendees in a mix of suits and T-shirts, sitting on picnic blankets on the lawn.

The DAQRI team in front of the White House!

It was a tremendous honor to be there alongside some truly incredible innovators in healthcare, food, technology, and art. You can get to know a few of them in this video:

The DAQRI Smart Helmet and other innovations featured at SXSL
That’s me, talking to visitors to the DAQRI booth at #SXSL

The day closed with a fairly intimate talk by President Obama, Academy-award winner Leonardo DiCaprio and climate change scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe and a screening of Leo’s new documentary Before the Flood. Dr. Hayhoe brought her considerable expertise to bear, and she impressed with both her knowledge and her ability to communicate ideas to a diversity of audiences. When President Obama pointed out that the negative effects of climate change are starting to hit much faster than was previously anticipated, Dr. Hayhoe was quick to bring the problem into sharp focus:

“We can no longer afford to deal with [climate change] later. Because if we want to fix poverty, if we want to fix hunger, if we want to fix inequality, if we want to fix disease and water scarcity, we are pouring all of our money, all of our effort, all of our hope and prayers into a bucket, and the bucket has a hole in the bottom. And that hole is climate change. And it is getting bigger and bigger.”

She talked about how people’s perception of climate change is evolving. What is really happening is that the natural ups and downs of weather patterns are getting stretched and weather is becoming more extreme. Today, we are already seeing the devastating effects of extreme weather — both floods and droughts — in Louisiana, Miami, Texas, and all over the world.

Yet despite the gridlock we too often see in politics, progress is being made to solve this huge problem. It was eye-opening to learn, for instance, that Texas and the military are heavily investing in renewables. Entire towns in Texas are going 100% renewable to, as the Guardian puts it, “save cash, not the planet.” Dr. Hayhoe described an encounter with a conservative Texan farmer who is impatiently awaiting the arrival of wind turbines on his land. She expected that he would scoff at wind power as tree-hugger nonsense, but he actually welcomed it because “the check arrives in the mail.” Similarly, the largest American military base, Fort Hood, has just signed the largest US military contract in history for renewable wind and solar energy, which will save $168M in taxpayer money and will help the military budget go further. The cost of producing wind and solar energy has dropped precipitously over the last several decades, and now renewable energy has started to become economically competitive.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Fisher Stevens’ new documentary on climate change, Before the Flood

DiCaprio took this opportunity to ask the President how we can continue to make progress going forward, given that we are now in a race against time and the old polluting infrastructures are still in place. Obama was pragmatic:

“Companies respond to incentives. And the question then becomes, can we harness the power and the creativity in the marketplace to come up with innovation and solutions? … The best way we can spur that kind of innovation is to either create regulations that say, figure it out, and if you don’t figure it out then you’re going to pay a penalty, or to create something like a carbon tax, which is an economic incentive for businesses to do this.”

Though a carbon tax may not be politically feasible yet, it’s certainly a lot closer than it was 40 years ago.

In The Tiger and the Snow Roberto Benigni — one of my heroes — plays a love-struck poet. In one of the best scenes in the movie (you can watch here — but it’s in Italian) his daughters ask him how he chose his profession. He tells them about a day when he is out walking in the forest with his mother and grandmother. A little bird flies down through the trees, singing and slowly descending until it’s right next to him, and then it actually lands right on his shoulder! He can’t believe he’s been chosen by this beautiful creature and he doesn’t want it to end, so he freezes, pretending to be a tree, and his heart is beating so fast. It’s an incredible moment, a moment of wonder. Afterward, he runs up to his mother to tell her what happened and in his excitement he kind of jumbles up the story and she goes, “Oh, that’s nice.” She just didn’t get it. She couldn’t connect with it. But he realized, with spectacular self-awareness, that this was actually his fault. He wasn’t conveying the story well enough. He did not communicate the strong emotion that he felt in a way that she could feel it too. From that day forth he decided to become a poet so that he could learn how to put words together in a way that stirs emotion in others.

This is essentially what Dr. Hayhoe was talking about that night on the lawn with the President. She reminded us that the facts about climate change are already there, and they are well-known. It is not useful to pile on more and more facts and drown people with them. Right now it is more important to meet people where they are and connect with them on a heart level. Dr. Hayhoe again:

“The single most important thing I feel like I’ve learned is that we already have all the values we need to care about climate change in our hearts, no matter who we are and what part of the spectrum we come from. We just have to figure out how to connect those values to the issue of climate.”

In her own way, I think she is urging us to become poets. She is asking us to learn to put words together in ways that can stir emotions in others, who may have different experiences and contexts than ourselves, but just as much to lose if we don’t take action. This is what we must do if we want to be successful in making real change.

All right Roberto, Dr. Hayhoe, and Mr. President. Challenge accepted.