The pace of SXSW is so intense it passes in a blur. Hundreds of talks, brand experiences, workshops and meet-ups range from the mainstream - such as a standard, if massive, trade show - to the niche - such as the NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism meet-up. You had to be exceptionally early for the popular sessions or just lucky with what was next door when you realised that queueing for four hours to see Joe Biden might not be an excellent use of time. With 80,000 attendees, queuing was a core part of the experience.
There is a permanent whiff of FOMO around Austin during SXSW, but I quickly realised that the value in attending SXSW is in the serendipity of chancing upon an incredible speaker or meeting someone in the queue who deserved an audience of their own.
I did have help getting around. The SXSW mobile app (featuring a chatbot named Abby as well as listing, locations and integration with Google Maps for directions) was really helpful as it enabled me to quickly pivot, see what was happening close to me, and find my way there. It also enabled me to connect with other attendees (search both by industry, region as well as using geo-location to tell me who was in the same session as me).
Queuing was fun. I met the head of UX at The Gap, a telecommunications exec from Zambia, an in-house oncologist at Johnson and Johnson, a staffer on the IBM robot design team and an entrepreneurial designer of AI-based services for the fintech sector. It was like a month’s OE in 90 minutes.
The atmosphere was one of wonderment and discovery, with intense and quick-fire learning that comes from getting so many diverse, passionate and experienced people together in one place to focus on innovation and sharing. Wonderment and discovery also described the food - fried chicken on waffles with maple syrup for breakfast? Breakfast tacos anyone? My body isn't thanking me for it.
Looking back on SXSW 2017, the convention that was great for my brain and not so great for my cholesterol levels, there were five clear learnings I took away with me:
1. Artificial Intelligence is here and already changing the game
AI is no longer the stuff of Terminator or The Jetsons; you're using it already (ever wondered how Google Maps decides on the quickest route for you to follow or how Uber allocates you a taxi?). As its uses increase, you need to work out how to keep your organisation at the forefront so that it grows, not shrinks, as a result.
2. Voice is the new frontier
With the growth of Amazon Echo and Google Home, voice-driven search and interaction with the Internet of Things is experiencing massive growth around the world. It won’t be long before it’s in New Zealand, bringing opportunities and threats.
3. Don't act like a giant if you don't need to
When you're a colossus like Walmart or the Department of Defense, moving quickly isn't an option. The red tape, process and risk aversion gets in the way of innovation because carrying on with the status quo is just easier. Ask yourself the question: is that the case for your organisation? Being based in New Zealand, chances are that most of the obstacles are in your mind. What could you do to challenge your culture, to unlock the ability to trial and innovate? I loved the approach of Gary Knell, National Geographic's CEO. He said, "we're a 129-year-old start-up".
4. Trial, iterate, enhance
Most of the examples I saw in Austin of doing things differently and getting a different result were the outcome of small trials. Getting something live that’s not perfect but good enough to test a concept is faster. Example: Facebook 360, its immersive VR experience which by its own admission at the stand "is a bit buggy but you get the idea". In the words of 1-800 Flowers' CEO, "we just trial, iterate and enhance".
5. Go to SXSW with others
I was lucky enough to be at SXSW with a number of other attendees from New Zealand. It really added to the trip and enabled us to share contacts, experiences and tips which really enhanced the experience.
If you ever have the opportunity to attend SXSW, I couldn't recommend it highly enough. Just make sure to book yourself into a gym on your return....
Ben Rose is the general manager of direct and partnerships at NIB, New Zealand’s second-largest health insurer.