At the unhealthy early hour of 03:45 I’m going wheels-up to Austin, Texas. My fifteenth South by South West (SXSW): my yearly pilgrimage to the world’s largest interactive, creative, tech and innovation conference. A brainy rollercoaster with literally thousands of keynotes, panels, workshops and presentations. SXSW is like a bubble bath for the brain, an energizer for the soul. SXSW is taking in new insights, visions and wisdom with truckloads; it’s drinking innovation from the firehose. A multitude of technologies were born here (Twitter, Foursquare…), some died here (Gowalla), or were crucified (Meerkat). You cannot throw a steak out of the window without killing a couple of self-proclaimed Gurus, Ninjas, Experts, and Influencers. Luckily there are also a lot of people who know what they are talking about. You need good shoes, a level head and as much battery packs as you can carry to survive this yearly Texan brain upgrade.
Let me get out on a limb here, and try to forecast what this year’s edition will be about.
Planet, people, purpose
DDE: data-driven empathy is a powerful weapon. Thousands of kids protest all over the world against the irresponsible way our generation has threated the planet, and has consistently underestimated some persistent problems like global warming. The cry for responsibility is loud and justified. We see a global tendency to put three new P’s next to the good old Profit: Planet, People and Purpose. Three years ago, Barack Obama asked the combined industries, innovators and thinkers to help solve the big problems the world is (still) facing: global warming, clean and sustainable energy, pollution, disease, war, hunger and discrimination. The lighthouse role and responsibility of tech, data, industry tycoons, tech innovators and influencers will be one of the pillars of this years’ edition.
White House politics sketch a vision of Washington that is even more over the top than House of Cards, even more hilarious than the The Onion editors dare to write. All over the world extreme left and right political fractions use a deadly cocktail of data, bleeding edge automated media tech, and polarizing demagogic tactics. The role of technology, data and platforms, and their impact on elections, sentiment and crowd suggestion will be highlighted. I particularly look forward to the session with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC as she is called on social media: she won a Congressional seat in New York last year, and will be in a discussion with Briahna Gray, senior politics editor. AOC is one of the only politicians whose fresh and very ad rem social media use seems to scare off the Twitter-commander-in-chief in the Oval office.
Distrust and Fake News
Fake News, fake journalists, fake data. Fake is the new black. It’s all over the news, it will be all over SXSW. Already prevalent last year, the number of submissions on this topic is even more on the rise this year. Foreign powers toying with truth, and actively steering the sentiment during elections is very high on everyone’s radar. The role of the big platforms in this vaudeville will certainly be highlighted, and the shaky way in which the respective CEO’s of Twitter and Facebook are handling things will guarantee some hard to hard discussions. Consumers, journalists, and even countries (eg. Germany) are demanding that the generation of fake news gets under control soonest.
Privacy and copyright
The first findings of GDPR on business, the doom of copyright regulation in Europe, the safety and ethics of personal data and their use. What is fair game? What is not? The Cambridge Analytica debacle is still very much on everyone’s memory. Much as Mark Zuckerberg would want this problem to blow away, privacy and data safety will be central themes of this years’ edition. The tolerance around abuse of personal data by brands, politicians and State Departments is rapidly dwindling. Zuckerbergs open message today for a transition towards more privacy and control is very interesting timing wise, and will certainly fuel the debate. It might be too little too late in the credibility game.
Cannabis for healthcare purposes is on the agenda of the Belgian government, and global projections of medical cannabis skyrock in the billions per year. Add to that the impact of legalized recreational use, and you’re looking at a gargantuan industry with lots of (formal) tech investors. Willie Nelson put himself on the agenda in Austin for years now with his activism for the use of biofuels and the legalization of marijuana. Cannabis related SXSW sessions grew tenfold. Tech, music and marihuana… something has to keep Austin weird.
Food is always important in Austin, city of slow smoked barbeque, food trucks and some of the most delicious Tex-Mex food. Food is prominently on the agenda this year, with close examinations on food, its impact and its future. The clash between meat and vegan, dairy and plant-based, GMO modified or not gives plenty of room to some great sessions. The growing impact of farm-tech is astonishing and scales from sustainable development over short supply chain to Deliveroo and Uber Eats. Application driven nutritional habits. Yes sir. This is also going to be the year where food quality will be partly measured on its relative impact on health, socioeconomics and global warming. I am very much looking forward to the discussions on how blockchain technology will revolutionize traceability in the global food chain and change the future of food habits.
AI and Robots
There are hundreds of keynotes on AI, and robots. Deep learning, algorithms, heuristics, EQ programming, automation and parallel artificial brains. Immigrants, robots, universal income, sociodemographic and laws of accelerating return. I would be surprised if the good old singularity, and exponential acceleration were not mentioned a couple of times…
I’m interested to see how AI and advanced robotics are going to team up with us, mortal humans. Case studies in fin-tech, farm-tech and medi-tech show that the combination human/AI guarantees stunning results: AI augmented humans work faster, draw better conclusions, detect anomalies swifter and diagnose more accurate.
The future of learning, working and living
More and more robots, up to a third enhanced efficiency: this might counter nicely an ageing population, as the baby-boomers walk out of our businesses and into retirement. We’ll have to work less, longer, more focused and diverse. Life-long-learning, eternal adaption. How will we fill in the timetables between work, learning and leisure? How will we fund our freedom?
AR, VR, move over: XR!
The scale seems to tip towards mixed reality. More and more concrete cases for immersive marketing, on eye communication, virtual business, phygital crossovers, and in-front-of-eye holograms. We’re only a couple of years away from mass-consumer adoption: the first impactful showcases will be on display at this SXSW edition.
The future of:
Retail, transportation, delivery, and subscription services. Voice and gesture control. The migration of voice assistants into the internet of things. Flying cars, tunnels, drones, autonomous delivery. A new decentralized internet.
Bring it on, I can’t wait 🙂