My Takeaways From SXSW 2022
What I Did, Heard, Experienced + Missed (and what I learned from each)
Many years ago, a small team of client and agency innovators asked me to introduce them to the people and the ideas that were forming the future. Dubbed “The Wonder Project”, I enthusiastically suggested we kick it off by all meeting in Austin for SXSW! But instead of support for my impromptu idea, I received a long, stern email from the agency lead questioning my competency for this project overall given I would invite such senior people into such a chaotic experience; “what was I thinking!?? “ And that, as you may have guessed, was exactly the point.
Though I wasn’t able to convince that team to come, thankfully the project still turned out wildly successful with a lot more patience and trust built along the way. And very happily SXSW was back in its vibrant, hype-y glory as the annual convention for cultural creatives and performing artists around the world, offering the same opportunity to others.
Though the tech/business/film/music crowds in town this past week felt way more manageable than in recent past (attendance is estimated to be ~20% lower than at its height in 2019), as the festival took over downtown Austin TX, our desire to catch up on two years of learning gave rise to the overwhelming feeling of “DOMO”: the disappointment of missing out…. and to heartbreak as we considered how all this fits against a frightening war brewing in real time.
With hundreds (and hundreds) of panels, keynotes, films, live performances, installations, and parties to choose from over 10+ days, it is literally impossible to catch it all. Designed to be a self-guided playground of learning, discovery and connection means that each of the 200,000(ish) attendees has a unique constellation of experiences. That makes it hard to have a shared conversation about what you just heard/witnessed/were provoked by, so Iike piecing together an elephant, it also makes each recap I read even more useful. Adding to the mix, here is mine told in four buckets: What I Did, Heard, Experienced + Missed (and what I learned from each) …
What I did: (Be Open)
“Yes” is one of my favorite words and by saying it often, I was lucky enough to be both content creator and attendee, as this year I was invited to help my buddy Jonathan Brill launch his new book, Rogue Waves in a session he titled Future Proof Your Growth Strategies, join a panel at the Dell Experience with their Global CTO John Roese, former congressman Will Hurd and my visionary friend Amber Allen on Skilling for A Digital Future and jump into a fireside chat on Using An Innovation Mindset to Create Belonging with Ruth Yomtoubian. Not surprisingly, each of these sessions became a yin yang dance between analysis and empathy. Yes, big change is upon us and so we have to prepare differently by shifting the way we think… and this means also ensuring everyone is considered and can thrive in this transition.
What I heard: (Be Curious)
As we’re becoming more curious about curiosity, the big gift of SXSW is the broad range of content and people at your fingertips. As I wandered into this collection, my woven takeaways are:
• There is a lot of excitement about the President Biden’s recent Executive Order to study digital currencies, as we all consider what it means to live in a cashless society: Will all be included and have access? What should be traceable and safe? What should remain beyond State surveillance? These are challenging questions with many points of view to consider… and in a country with such divided values, where does America want to stand on the continuum between China and Europe?
• How encouraging it was to hear the Director of the National Science Foundation, “Dr Panch” (Dr. Serthuraman Panchanthan) call for as much diversity as possible in building AI solutions and declare that AI should stand for Access & Inclusion. Amen!
• Mark Zuckerberg tried to say the same during his session on the future of the metaverse, but honestly, for me it was much less convincing — and watching his virtual presence on a big screen in front of a packed house of thousands of listeners, I so wanted the woman hurling the sledgehammer to reassure me that 2024 would be nothing like 1984!
• Thankfully, our supremely compassionate surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy offered a reassuring counterpoint when he invited us to consider “what it would take to build a society based on love”? Clearly, this is the much bigger opportunity! And is what will help us as work our way through increasingly important issues and complex questions.
• A whole new set of which are coming into view as psychedelics continue to show progress in addressing a mental health crisis. Questions raised this week included: what happens when we take plant-based medicines out of indigenous, ceremonial settings and into a lab? Should these medicines be synthetically created … and patented? Is there a benefit in combining them with digital therapies? And are we open not only to their role in addressing pathologies — like severe depression and PTSD — but to augmenting our consciousness and opening new paths to awareness? As we look for ways to better navigate the expectations ahead, I hope we can remove the taboo of not only plant based medicines, but from other ways of extraordinary knowing as well.
What I Experienced : (Be audacious + give a damn!)
Beyond the talks, I am grateful for the provocative experiences so many create. These were each so moving to me:
1) The House of Creative Denmark invited us to see FLEE, an animiated true story of a gay Afghan man’s flight from war-torn Kabul to Copenhagen, Denmark. Currently nominated for three Academy Awards, listening to Amin’s harrowing experiences as a child refugee and the experiences he has of displacement, fear and neglect was so poignant as we imagine all those experiencing the same at this very moment.
2) And Atmosphere.tv assembled an extraordinary pop-up collection of Banksy art. While usually taken in as a guerilla placement in some provocative spot, seeing all this societal commentary on our addiction to violence and greed in one confined place, again especially at this moment, felt incredibly impactful.
3) Stepping into a solution felt particularly good and “House Zero”, a new 2045 sqft 3D printed house created by ICON Build in collaboration with one of the country’s leading architecture firms, Lake|Flato, bends the rules of construction (literally) and offers a path to more sustainable, affordable, and humane dwellings.
4) Making an effort to meet a whole new slew of friends doing brave things like fighting ocean plastic, building innovation centers in Brazil and wholistic healing retreats in Spain, revamping education, rethinking food and so. much. more also gave me a big lift. A deeply grateful shout out also to Jose Andrés, Nate Mook and all at World Central Kitchen who make sure no one in crisis is without food; a documentary about their work premiered this year SXSW. You can catch a minute of it here,and having already fed 1M meals in Ukraine, Poland, Romania Moldova and Hungary, please join me in donating here. 🧡
As we all push through new terrain, challenge outdated convention and build toward a better next, let’s keep seeking out the creators who stretch our imagination, our hearts and our courage.
What I missed! (Be Compassionate with yourself)
Dollyverse!! I really wished I tried harder to see her in person — not only perform (swoon!), but discuss her new projects with author James Patterson and the NFT of the album she has created to accompany their new book + now movie [note the potency of this “uncommon partnership”].
I wish I had seen the films “I Love My Dad” (winner for best narrative), the Nicholas Cage “hall of mirrors” flick “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (scoring perfect Rotten Tomato scores among first viewers) and the ensemble of so many of my favorite actresses in Chantilly Bridge. And I’m sad that I missed every single keynote talk — and seeing so many friends that came in town.
It is literally impossible to take it all in. As such, SXSW is a brilliant lab for the onslaught of learning clamoring for attention all around us right now, and as such reminds me each year to trust my instincts, push myself out of familiar boundaries and take in multiple points of view on the same subject and know there is no perfect way to do this.
Thank you again to Hugh Forrest and team who pushed through all the challenges these past 24 months to once again bring us a big, wide taste of the future. Thank you also for offering much more hybrid/online content, making the app way more responsive and most importantly, keeping us all safe.
If you were here, I’d love to know what you thought too! And I can’t wait to see you again in 354 days! We all have a very important year of bold, caring work ahead.