Thursday 08 December 2016

European Reflections on SXSW 2013

Between Aniz’s excellent wrap-up, Mary’s summary of key themes, and insightful reflections from Matt and Alex, we have already spilled considerable ink recounting our impressions of this year’s SXSW Interactive. But on the basis that there’s never enough to read on the Internet, I thought I would add a few thoughts from a European perspective.

Why travel 6,000 miles to SXSW?

There are lots of web marketing and social media conferences in Europe. There are lots of developers’ garages, meet-ups, and creative sessions. And many are great.

But none that I’ve experienced is as complete or diverse as SXSW bringing developers, new start-ups, creative minds, investors, and industry leaders all in one place. Accessibility at SXSW is unique in that thought leaders are available socially, as well as during formal sessions.

But let’s not forget the most important thing: As an ex-pat American living in Europe, SXSW provides an opportunity to replenish stores of barbecue, Mexican food and sunshine diminished by the long, dark winter. All humans can benefit from such sustenance.

Fine. What did you learn?

1. European entrepreneurialism is alive and well. It’s no secret that some of the most interesting digital innovations have come from Europe in recent years. At SXSW, Europe’s latest crop from the UK, Germany, and Amsterdam were on full display, and holding their own with the best offerings from Silicon Valley, New York, and the rest of the USA. Here were some of my favorites:

  • We Are Pop Up, an innovative online / offline offering from London that does for vacant real estate what Airbnb* did for guest rooms. It facilitates short term rental of vacant commercial space for galleries, shops, or anything else.
  • Berlin-based Komoot describes itself as “your personal guide for outdoor activies.” The platform mines open sources data and learns from user behavior to deliver fully planned, detailed itineraries for people looking for new places to explore.
  • Fresh from Glasgow,Carhoots aims to be the TripAdvisor for car buyers, and uses an interesting integration of content from millions of Pinterest users to provide comments about almost any make and model.

2. The future of science is uncertain. NASA made a huge impression, doubling down on its engagement with a SXSW audience full of enthusiasts raised on Star Wars and Star Trek. NASA has long understood the “No bucks, no Buck Rogers” truism, and getting SXSW attendees connected with NASA’s activities provides a new (and increasingly global) constituency that it surely hopes will support the space agency’s funding needs in Congress.

But the threat to science was illuminated most starkly by Nobel Laureate Dr. Stephen Weinberg, a key contributor to the development of the Standard Model of Physics, who pointed out that “Funding for science is no longer a priority,” and added later that “tools for discovery may be too expensive to continue making rapid progress” in scientific discovery. This has the potential to threaten technological progress and slow innovation.

3. Our physical interactions with technology are about to transform, again. It wasn’t that long ago that our interface with technology was solely through a C: prompt via a keyboard. Then the mouse came along, and more recently, the touch screen. Now comes Leap Motion. Built on the same sort of technology that’s in the Kinect from XBOX*, Leap Motion provides user interface via nothing but gestures. The buzz around Leap Motion has been building for a while, but after playing with it at SXSW, I can report that the device delivers against the hype. I pre-ordered two, and was told that they will start shipping in the next two or three weeks.

4. DIY has come to tech, and it could change the world. As components continue to become more accessible and consumer technology becomes more powerful, individuals are building their own tech solutions to hard questions, and they are inventing and innovating much faster than large companies or governments ever could. For example, Don’t Flush Me relies on an invention by Leif Percifield to track sewer levels in New York city, so that when storm sewers overflow, they might carry less raw sewage into local waterways. This invention and countless others are now collecting data that could have tremendous impacts on consumer behavior and government policy on critical issues.

5. Cats and dogs rule. Grumpy Cat was by far the most popular visitor to SXSW, attracting a line far longer than former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Human love for animals was mentioned as a key element of successful content strategy by both Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal and Jonah Peretti, Founder and CEO of Buzzfeed.

It all provides further proof that Catvertising really is an important piece in our marketing, but perhaps more significantly, it reassures us that smiles are as vital to SXSW as anything else. Yet another reason to get back next year. 359 days and counting.

*Airbnb and Microsoft XBOX are both Edelman clients.

Image credit: NASA Webb Telescope

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