SXSW 2019: Highlights encountered and what I believe will certainly move us in future
Updated: Oct 3, 2019
I had the pleasure of representing the Sharks at this year’s SXSW in Austin (TX), a conference and festival celebrating the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries. SXSW is a reliable trend barometer with approximately 500.000 participants from countries all over the world.
Here is a summary of my personal - and very subjective - key observations and highlights. Clearly, my primary focus was on interactive and innovation topics and not so much on music and film!
Politics at SXSW
This year’s SXSW saw growing participation from the political field, topped by the sessions of Howard Schultz, ex-CEO and ex-COB of Starbucks Coffee Company; potential Independent presidential candidate for the U.S. elections in 2020, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, youngest U.S. Congresswoman ever.
This increased interest in U.S. politics underlines the evidence that the greater SXSW community is increasingly a group of serious future-oriented influencers, and a growing group with real decision-making power. And whether you you share her positions or not, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s session was a must-see presentation for a fresh & compelling perspective. Please take a moment to see it yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JU-SE5eNt04.
The Business Case for Technology
In 2018, isolated technology topics such as Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence (AI) were in the foreground of the SXSW Interactive sessions. In 2019 however, the business cases for these technologies have taken front row, meaning that concrete solutions, product offerings and services involving such technology were presented and discussed instead, i.e. “Blockchain in Healthcare: Beyond the Hype”, “Real World Applications of Blockchain”.
This is in line with my belief that the megatrend “Digital/Digitalization” will very quickly become part of our new normal. Deploying innovative products and business models, building upon digital technologies and concepts like cooperative ecosystems will be key again.
Sustainability at SXSW
Sustainability initiatives thankfully played a significant role at the conference. One could, for example, visit numerous sessions about measuring, analyzing and ultimately improving the state of the world’s oceans, or discussing alternative energy sources. The tenor of the session hosts, the participants, as well as the politicians was that we are technologically capable of making a difference in these topics, and that we should not get distracted by the fact that the details are not sorted out yet. Word!
A bit of a downer for me was what I heard about the state of the German nation. Even the big German corporates attending SXSW did not voice overarching visions, but rather, statements about the status quo. I sincerely hope they were just not disclosing their mind-blowing visions and strategies at this time and rather saving it for the coming year! Regarding digitalization in particular, some participants went so far to say that Germany “has lost the game of digital innovation” due to not having a single unicorn in the country (while there are two in the EU and 300 globally). They also mentioned the absence of a competitive Venture Capital scene and the rather insignificant R&D spend by the German state compared to the U.S. and China.
Having said that, I did come away with my Top Three personal highlights:
1. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)
Now that sounds like a complicated scientific topic, and it definitely is. But if you have not heard about its potential yet, you soon will. In my view it represents nothing less than a pivotal point for mankind. The biggest tech revolution of the 21st century is not digital after all, but biological.
In a nutshell, CRISPR is a tool for gene editing. It allows for the adaptation of the genomes of living individuals with the adaptation of the DNA of yet unborn individuals. It will enable us to save severely ill individuals by curing diseases, though it will also enable creating “designer babies” and ultimately “playing god”.
As with all revolutionary inventions - from industrialization to dynamite, to nuclear power - there are two sides of the CRISPR coin. Positive potential to increase quality of human life, versus the negative potential of causing unwanted side effects, or the invention being used for malicious aims. History tells us that only two things are for sure:
1. CRISPR is here, and here to stay
2. At this point, its potential and impact cannot be foreseen
So, I propose others begin to familiarize themselves with CRISPR’s potential. For an initial introduction, dive into the recommended movie on this topic Human Nature, the premiere of which I was able to attend in Austin (https://wondercollaborative.org/human-nature-documentary-film/)
2. Geothermal energy leverage
While I am familiar with the sources of energy we are currently using, including: fossil, nuclear, natural gas, wind, solar, Tesla’s idea of single family housing power stations based on solar energy, I was unaware that we are quite literally living on another “sun” which we can leverage. The earth’s core. The core of the earth is 6,000 degrees Celsius, and drilling even 5-10 miles down would give us access to temperatures that far exceed what we need to create unlimited, CO2 free, clean energy.
The concept is not entirely new. For example, in Germany we already have more than 300.000 power stations operating in single family houses. There are examples of failed drilling projects resulting in severe damage for the local cities where they drilled. It appears this is the pivotal point - for larger, safer, and more secure usages, drilling technology has to improve significantly.
According to what was presented, the problem is purely technical and appears to be solvable within the next decade – and thus might be a way to meet the ten years deadline to cure climate change. It is a question of technological advancement and transfer from, for example, the oil industry. Interestingly enough, no major US energy company is currently seriously looking into this solution, which has led to the formation of a consortium which is actively seeking investors.
3. Personal health
Among the well-developed population of the world, improvement of personal physical health and mental well-being has been a trend for years – vegan nutrition, physical fitness, mindfulness, you name it - and it seems this trend will continue to be fostered by future generations. One presenter spoke about the seemingly obvious decline of classic religions, as personal health is on the verge of becoming a religion of its own – with one’s body representing the temple.
Definitely a lot is going on in this area with interesting concepts and ideas. If you would like to dig deeper, there is an upcoming opportunity to do so in June 2019: https://www.fittechsummit.com.
In summary, I have seen a lot of promising trends & opportunities and a crowd of innovation seekers with the aim of improving our current social and sustainability status.
Even if you buy-in to the theory that Europe, and Germany in particular, have lost the game of digital innovation that does not necessarily mean it has lost the whole tournament. Opportunities to connect ideas and innovations are piling up, and with its knowledge and heritage of entrepreneurship, I am increasingly confident that Germany can become a leader in upcoming megatrends.
It’s just about making decisions and getting started. Now.
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