I won’t bury the lead: yes, it is back. This year’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW), which takes place in Austin, Texas, marked a return to in-person panels, conversations, networking, activations, parties and more. Unlike in 2020, when it took center stage as one of the first global events to be canceled due to the pandemic, SXSW enjoyed seemingly great timing in 2022 — post-Omicron surge and during a time when case counts were lower in most parts of the world. (And, hats off to organizers for thorough safety protocols — despite an obvious…independent spirit among festival goers as it related to adherence.) Even with lower attendance than prior years for all the obvious reasons, SXSW felt alive. There were drones in the sky, there were wheels on the ground, and ideas and inspiration aplenty.
I caught up with Hugh Forrest, who runs the SXSW Interactive Festival, and he was feeling positive and determined, too.
“Being back to an in-real-life event for the first time since March 2019 felt good on so many different levels, even against the sobering backdrop of the brutal invasion of Ukraine,” Forrest said. “As always, we have a long laundry list of things that need to be significantly improved over the next few months as we begin planning for the path forward. But the positive buzz from this year's event gives us great momentum for implementing these improvements and we look forward to making SXSW 2023 an even more impactful experience for the global community of creative industry professionals."
As a local who has experienced SXSW first-hand for the better part of 20 years, this felt like a manageable, authentic, useful conference. And I know clients and colleagues share that sentiment. And, as always, for those with a bit more time and interest to explore beyond the official conference schedule (which was fairly packed with the likes of Beck, Alexis McGill Johnson, Michelle Zauner, and Lizzo), there’s always the private dinner, surprise concert, Rodeo or Luck Reunion to enjoy, as well.
But let’s get to it. What was discussed? Debated? Learned? Decided?
The Context. Nearly every session or conversation began with acknowledgment of the most recent intense global news item, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — ranging from shock, anger and fear to tangible, action-oriented discussions around how tech platforms can help monitor the latest developments, provide support, enable hope. And, of course, no interaction was complete without a quick assessment on all things Covid-19 — and how it has impacted every aspect of our lives since we gathered for SXSW last in 2019. My take? Excitement about being in person and in Austin seemed to outweigh anxieties around risk of infection.
A topic understood by everyone — and no one. Much of the mystique around all things metaverse was stripped away at SXSW — revealing that its concept is almost universally understood (a true and realized virtual world enabling massive social connection and collaboration). But the applications and implications are almost universally fragmented — and contradictory. Which parts are real? Which bias will infiltrate? If the metaverse is what we think it is, and people plan to “do there what they wouldn’t IRL” — to what end? With what aim? Is this good or bad?
Climate conversations were also ubiquitous. Tech’s potential to solve or delay environmental demise vs. tech’s innate and problematic contribution to the same threats. The implications of how Covid-19, the metaverse and future transportation methods will impact our environment or how we move around the planet remain to be seen. Secretary Pete Buttigieg even showed up to talk about the federal government’s electrification push.
Representation as a concept and a need was…represented. At least from this one conference attendee’s perspective, a solid amount of talks focused on the shortcomings of our legacy systems, organizations and ideas with regard to representation — and a desire to improve. At a dinner structured to discuss social innovation, I (a comms exec) found myself in passionate agreement with the head of a foundation, an investor, a former CMO and a startup founder around the notion of tech innovation actually exacerbating disparity. Is the pace of tech progress so much faster than change in legacy systems and infrastructure, causing an acceleration of the haves having more and the have-nots having even less? In a panel dedicated to the metaverse and its promise for society, experts (including several of Edelman’s clients) stressed how representation — in terms of platform innovation, access and usage — will all dictate if our future 3D world is a more equitable place than our current reality. A (client) keynote on the critical importance of representation in gaming — perhaps the most tangible link between fantasy and reality, between conceptual creativity and action, between now and the future — drew actual tears and much applause. And in a conversation moderated by our own U.S. CEO, Lisa Osborne Ross, the “rules” of responsible “tech” (and the need to redefine what each of those words really means) were discussed through the lens of how we ensure those in charge of writing them reflect our entire human reality.
So, yeah. SXSW is back. The content was the star. The people were here for it. As we lurch forward into whatever is next for our world — in terms of war-time realities, ongoing political battles, comfort levels around in-person meetings of scale, technology as a force for good, social interactions IRL vs. in 3D, climate progress and repair…all of it — it is this writer’s opinion that events like this help advance the narrative in good ways.
As the leader of tech-focused business and communication, I am committed to thinking about that particular industry through the lens of people (inclusive tech) and planet (climate tech). I’d suggest that SXSW has a similar mission and benefit for all creative thinkers and problem solvers. And that its return signals an opportunity for us all to drive progress for people and the planet.
Dan Susong is Chair of Edelman’s U.S. Technology Sector and General Manager of Edelman’s Austin office.