There and Back Again: An innovator’s tale of SXSW

Will Harvey, Innovation Lead at VCCP, reflects on the key trends at last year’s SXSW festival and looks ahead to what we can expect this year.

In March each year, a collection of the world’s greatest minds from an array of disciplines descend upon Austin, Texas to learn, share opinions and shape a vision of the future — at a festival like no other: SXSW.

From rocket scientists to bio hackers, governments to start-ups, SXSW attracts a truly unique bunch. Indeed, it’s a truly unique festival.

Having gone from strength to strength over the last 30 years, SXSW is now a fixture in the calendar for brands and agencies alike, as they try to get a peek at “the next big thing” and the cultural changes it may bring.

SXSW 2016 was a big year. The festival celebrated its 30th birthday, had over 72,000 attendees and 1,250 talks covering music to film, health to diversity, tech to design… and beyond. Last year, I came away from the festival with two key takeouts that I believed would shape the industry in 2016.

A look back to last year

One of the big takeaways from last year’s festival was the impact of ‘social good’ on customer-brand relationships. Casey Gerald’s opening Keynote, which highlighted the importance of “doing good, over doing well”, warned us against the changing tide of brands being driven by commercial gain and highlighted the changing motivations of the next generations who are seeking more meaningful experiences from brands. This theme was later echoed by Jacqueline Fuller, who discussed Google’s commitment to diversity and equality; referencing the brand’s commitment to devote $100m and 100,000 hours to getting more women and ethnic diversities into the workplace.

Happiness and wellbeing was another key focus of last year’s festival; as we continue to surround ourselves with devices that monitor every aspect of our lives, what role does technology play in the future of human wellbeing?

This was referenced in a number of sessions but none more pertinent than Mickra Hamilton’s “Cracking the Code to Your Epic Potential” during which he discussed neuro-linguistic programming and how this has been implemented in sport, along with other industries, to unlock the next level of human potential.

What does the future hold?

Twelve months on and though the world is a very different place we continue to see these trends unfold. From the likes of Apple showcasing its commitment to running 100% on renewable energy, to Saltwater Brewery winning a Cannes Innovation Lion for its biodegradable six pack — the idea of brands incorporating social good into their comms is becoming increasingly ingrained into company manifestos.

When it comes to the happiness and wellbeing trend, though it can be hard to measure, it’s clear there has been a rise in initiatives and discussion around the subject; demonstrated not least by the UN’s move last year to partner with Angry Birds for International Happiness Day on 20th March. The partnership saw Sony Pictures Entertainment ask the general public to make the Angry Birds happy by taking actions against climate change, sharing their commitments on social using the hashtag #AngryBirdsHappyPlanet. And this was one of many.

And what of SXSW 2017?

Going into my sixth SXSW in March, I look again to what’s on the trend horizon for 2017:

1. AI — Beyond the Hype

With the rise of smart assistants such as Alexa and Google Home and social networks building their own Chatbot platforms, paired with hardware manufacturers baking them into products (as witnessed at this year’s CES), I think we’ll see greater discussion around the creation of purpose for these increasingly intelligent systems. And one that goes beyond just another hype-train and encourages a more meaningful service offering for the end user.

2. Journalism vs. Fake News

Fake News: the phrase du jour. Barely a day goes by without some utterance or reference to the falsity of today’s news; from Brexit to Trump, the authenticity of news has become a worrying phenomenon. With the likes of Twitter, Apple and Google trying to build tools to help contain the wildfire spread of fake news, I think we can expect to see this topic much discussed at SXSW.

3. AR for All

Thanks to the craze of Pokémon Go last summer, AR was brought firmly into mainstream consciousness. Paired with the advancements of mobile technology through the likes of Google’s Tango, AR could finally be ready to be taken seriously by marketers. It has real potential to disrupt the way we look at the physical world. And that’s really exciting.

4. A Track for Trump

It’s been a rocky first few weeks for Trump. His impact and vision of the future for the US is hotly discussed, so much so that at this year’s SXSW there will be a track of talks wholly dedicated to discussing the various sectors he is looking to disrupt, for better of for worse.

The IPA will once again be attending SXSW Interactive Festival (10th-16th March) and will be offering delegates support on the ground in Austin, along with curating their learnings and experiences via our online channels. Find out more here.