Strong cultural currents pervade SXSW 2018: From tech gimmickry to social purpose

SXSW carries a mythological power for agency consultants and marketers. It’s on the career bucket list for many, and rightly so. This is the playground where Twitter, Foursquare and Snapchat grew from cult sites to ubiquitous platforms in less than a decade. Every global brand in the world is represented and so it seems every politician.

Despite this being my first trip, it was hard not to see that in 2018 SXSW ‘grew up’. Against the backdrop of the Times Up and #Metoo movements and the ‘Fake News’ crisis, big cultural forces overshadowed the tech gimmickry. This year’s festival lacked any big tech story and although Westworld’s immersive exhibition drew the longest queue times this also reflected the cultural currents of the times.

If the last decade of SXSW has gone from celebrating the untold promise of category disrupting apps and social media, then the next few years will be about the consequences of an unregulated social media. Questions about the unintended negative impact of social networks pervaded this year’s event. Academics, business leaders, and politicians went into bat over how social platforms spread misinformation, encourage partisanship, and promote hate speech.

In so many ways this year’s SXSW carried the mantle of advancing big societal issues and the tensions between them. And at times it felt so heavy you could sense the “tech bros” wishing things could go back to the good ol’ days of the unicorn boom. But the enormous and genuine clamour around Elon Musk on the third morning of the festival revealed an optimist’s view of the world. Cynical ad types actually want to see a vision and it came not in the form of social media but social movements.

I identified four cultural currents from SXSW that will drive change in our market today:

  1. Equity in the workforce 
  2. The trust economy 
  3. Brand activism = better societies 
  4. Smart sustainability 

Equity in the workforce 

My personal highlight of the festival was the packed out Melinda Gates session on the future of work. Disarmingly personal Gates reminded the audience that when she was growing up the only female leader she was presented was villain Alexis Carrington from soap Dynasty. She highlighted the confirmation bias when hiring not only in the tech sector but across all industries. How can we build equitable workforces if we only hire what looks ‘like us’. The action for all in the room was to ‘go wider’ in recruitment to build the future workforce. Times Up founder Nina Shaw had an impassioned call to arms to say this is a moment of limitless potential—for inclusion, for creativity, and for building the first workplace in history that truly works for everyone:

“People ask me how do I join Times Up? And I say, You don’t have to join – you are Times Up”.

The Company We Keep Panel: Joanna Coles from Hearst Media, Stacy Brown-Philpot founder of Task Rabbit, Nina Shaw founder of Times Up and Melinda Gates from Gates Foundation.

The trust economy

Trust is declining in New Zealand as it is across the world. In a climate of fake news, AI bots and new currencies like bitcoin and blockchain, the responsibility/trust we place in big data was pervasive across the festival. The lack of regulation in AI produced this warning from Elon Musk: “I’m very close to the cutting edge in AI and it scares the hell out of me.” 

There’s no doubt that tension between privacy and security will increase. As a result, we are likely to see regulations, rules and legislation that are either too restrictive or don’t acknowledge that science and tech are in constant motion. This could mean big problems for tech giants and legacy businesses alike—not to mention everyday citizens all around the world. Apple’s Eddy Cue announced the renewal of Apple News, with a mandate to put some parameters on what is considered ‘news’:

“People draw lines, and you’ve got to decide where you draw the line. We do think free speech is important, but we don’t think white supremacist or hate speech is important speech that ought to be out there. Free speech is important, but that doesn’t mean it’s everything.”

Apple’s Eddy Cue and Dylan Byers from CNN

Brand activism = better societies

Within a backdrop of government inaction, SXSW revealed that marketers were the real policymakers. From Dick’s Sporting Goods’ decision to remove the sale of automatic rifles in all their sporting goods stores to Adidas’ mission to change the world through sport by removing all plastic from the world’s oceans, it was clear that the role of CMO has been elevated from ‘the brand people’ to transforming business for the benefit of community.

And in a strident, unapologetic session, Uber’s chief brand officer, Bozoma Saint John, an African-American and former Apple executive who was hired by Uber to reform that business from within by introducing new hiring policies promoting diversity.

Uber Chief Brand Officer Bozoma Saint John and Jo Ling Kent from NBC

Smart Sustainability 

Finally, the broader definition of sustainable communities and homes came to life at SXSW and connectivity and AI was at the heart of this. Daimler and Lego set about to prototype the school bus of the future. Rather than use technology for technology’s sake, the solution from fifth graders was to use technology to reform school bullies. And another sustainable solution was smart cars that become drop off points for couriers.

At Google’s House of Fun – you talk, the house listens. A house full of voice-activated responses shifts the landscape around you so you can reduce your impact on the environment. Affordable prefab houses that were connected to smart cars attracted a lot of discussions, as home affordability proved to be a global issue to solve.

Sustainability in action via Kasita’s Tiny House of Smart at Palm Park

While it was apparent that many yearned for the old days of SXSW “keeping Austin weird” it was heartening to see some long-term bets being played by politicians, techprenuers and brands. The impact of these cultural currents will be long-term, not lost in a tech boom. 

  • Janisa Parag is head of strategy and planning at True.

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