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9 thoughts from SXSW 2019

14 Mar 2019 · 4 min read

Richard Neish, Chief of Staff at AmazeRealise, shares some of the key themes from SXSW 2019.

The arteries of Austin bleed creative culture. For every proud lanyard in this Texan city, there’s a talk or panel willing to distil the virtues of blockchain, nanotechnology, AI, machine learning and whichever direction you choose to swipe your reality (augmented, virtual or, for the daring, ‘mixed’).

But this is not CES. This isn’t about the shock of the new and whizzy. SXSW at its best holds a mirror up to social and cultural fear and wonderment, and provides the human context to validate the technology.

Everyone’s SXSW journey is different. Here are nine thoughts from mine.

Micro mobility

We’ve stopped paying for albums when we want tracks; we hire when we don’t want to own. Why would we pay for four seats when we need one? The automotive industry is mulling the notion of whether their future lies in cars or mobility. This week Volkswagen released an electric scooter and a next gen sedgeway. But if products are the icing, services and platforms will be the cake. Austin was teeming with over 8,000 electric scooters and bikes, picked-up and dropped anywhere. Walking across the city early Saturday morning was an ode to the drunken scooter, lying where they’d fallen, martyred to micro mobility.

Micro content

How do you craft exceptional short-form content? With purpose. Jeffrey Katzenberg (ex-Chairman of Walt Disney Studios) and Meg Whitman (ex-CEO of eBay and HP) shared plans for Quibi, a subscription service for premium film content, written, shot and produced for mobile. Films will be cut into 6-10 minute chapters to match behavioural consumption, and the entire production process focuses single-mindedly on the end mobile experience. All of the eight major studios have invested in order to ensure the depth of content required. Interestingly, the news content will be produced by the provider most trusted by the Millennial target audience … old Auntie, the BBC.

Designing for outcomes

Our healthcare systems are back to front, built institution-out and not patient or community-in. We push patients to doctors and hospitals where doctors are rewarded for the volume of throughput, rather than taking healthcare to communities and rewarding for outcomes: better health, higher life expectancy.


Listening to Dr David Feinberg, Google Head of Health, I was struck by the staggering influence and responsibility the tech platforms have in society's everyday healthcare. 7% of search requests are health related, which is unremarkable without unpacking the scale. That's 1 billion requests a day and 70,000 people per minute turning to Google as a primary source of health information.


I heard a narrative of ethical action. Priscilla Chan spoke of the work the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is undertaking to advance education, science, and the criminal justice system. Facebook is downgrading the prominence of ‘fake news’ regarding inaccurate vaccination information. YouTube pulled ads from videos that promoted these theories. Amazon has removed books promoting misinformation on autism cures. Google spoke of the teams of doctors and nurses reviewing search returns to improve quality. Time will tell whether this is policy, or CSR.

Social infrastructure

From adversity comes insight. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s studies of the 1995 heat wave that claimed 739 lives in just five Chicago days, showed that communities with investment in social infrastructure (playgrounds, libraries, etc) had lower mortality rates. These communities had engrained social behaviours and were better primed to interact, look out for each other, and notice if someone was missing. Think about your business. What’s the social infrastructure that bonds your employees and puts collaboration above solus behaviours?


I am brilliantly under-qualified to make astute political observations. However, it was impossible not to notice a sense of fragility in the America that played out in Austin: a crack in a usually confident and glossy façade. If SXSW is a reflection of the social moment, then it’s clear that political outlooks on both sides of the Atlantic are casting a shadow on social conscience. The 2020 democrats came to SXSW in their droves and delivered their thoughts and headlines. But I’ll leave that to Howard Schultz (Starbucks Chairman and 2020 Independent centralist). 

The US is $22 trillion in debt, which is bigger than GDP and rising by $1 trillion a year. The two-party system is broken. Healthcare and education are broken, and while the office of leadership is damaged by a lack of character, dignity and civility, the country is damaged by a lack of morality, compassion, and empathy.

Intelligent empathy

Perhaps the word or sentiment that infiltrated the collective consciousness of SXSW 2019 was empathy. It’s a very human and grounding word in a sea of technology and futurism. Empathy in accessibility, diversity, human-centred design. Empathy in politics, commerce and legislation. Empathy in product design, architecture and service design. Empathy in healthcare, education and criminal justice. Somewhere, and I haven’t cracked it yet, there’s a Venn diagram that will cross AI with empathy, and that central spot may well be our future.

Blood currency

In Austin’s standout branded experience, HBO’s Game of Thrones collaborated with The Red Cross to ‘Bleed for the throne’. Punters could access an incredible immersive Westeros experience, packed with actors in character, original costumes, props and a chance to win a trip to the show's season premiere. The cost? One pint of blood, collected by a Red Cross nurse prior to entry.

Now, where did I put my scooter?

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