Bronwyn van der Merwe
David Hindman
Peter Burnham
Mike Gadow

SXSW Grows Up

What was once an add-on to a film and music festival, SXSW Interactive is now a mainstream event that has major impact on our society and culture. Speakers included the president and first lady of the United States. Major brands, not just technology brands, had strong visible presences throughout the conference. We believe key subjects and themes of the conference will shape the course of our society and culture in dramatic ways in the coming years.

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Promise and Purpose

This year at SXSW we were encouraged by the major technology trends and topics of conversation going on. Often times at conferences such as this, we see technology for technology’s sake. While there was still much of this going on, there was a lot of focus around food and nutrition, diversity in tech, bio-med, social good, and privacy. This concerted effort to solve large problems coupled with exciting advances in autonomous vehicles, machine learning, VR, and connected devices are harbingers of huge advances in these and many fields that will impact our society and culture in dramatic ways in the very near term.

Here are some of the major themes we found interesting from this year’s SXSW:

For The people

As a headliner, you can’t get much bigger than President Obama. We heard echoes of our trend For The People throughout SXSW, with Obama using his keynote as a recruitment drive to call on the entrepreneurs, technologists and designers in the audience to help make government work better, tackling big problems such as poverty, terrorism, education and environment in new ways.

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Promoting his US Digital Service initiative where technologists can go and work in government for a period of 6-24 months, a ‘Peace Corps for geeks’, Obama’s call to action was to come together to develop new platforms, ideas and approaches, digitizing applications and processes across agencies, to solve some of the big challenges we’re facing as a society, all the while putting citizens at the heart of government.

Google.org’s Jacqueline Fuller proposed an alternative approach to service in our generation. Jacqueline discussed social business, for profits – helping solve a problem but with a business opportunity, for example, reaching the unreached and delivering access to the Internet in sub Saharan Africa.

Not all things are amenable to a market solution however. Examples include the Zika outbreak and the refugee crisis. Her role at Google.org is to ask how can Google help? Google.org donates $100M in grants, $18M in free ads for not-for-profits, 100,000 free employee hours, and tech for social impact. That said, the key leverage they have is their staff, their data and their reach – they reach 100m people through their products. Through this network they can raise the visibility of issues but also use their access to vast amounts of data to help pinpoint, track and support the resolution of issues as well as facilitate donations.

According to Fuller, Google gains a competitive advantage by giving their employees a chance to work for a company with a sense of purpose. Only 5% of philanthropy is made up of corporate giving versus private, but if all companies could give just 1% of their profits to philanthropic causes, they can improve their chances of attracting and retaining top talent, whilst contributing to a greater cause.

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Max Levchin, social entrepreneur, founder of Yelp and previously CTO of PayPal, called out the importance of ‘beneficence’, where active kindness and the doing of good is encouraged not only because it is good for the people, but also because it is a genuine source of competitive advantage and entrepreneurial opportunity. Specifically in financial products, where up to 40% of profits are made from late fees and there is a tendency to provide clarification of the product only in small print, Levchin has launched a fintech start-up called Affirm, their key differentiator being a commitment to honesty, transparency and simplicity in lending.

Privacy was also a big topic, especially amplified by the very public Apple vs. FBI battle over encryption. The ACLU’s Matt Cagle points out that privacy laws are outdated and we must rethink the very idea of personal information in the age of connected devices. The debate has broad implications beyond mobile devices for many technologies including the Internet of Things. As more of our devices track more details about us, we need to consider how we manage and maintain these devices and the data they collect. As designers and developers, we need to employ fair information practices. This means being transparent about what an object or device is doing and why it needs our data and connectivity. Kevin Kelly, Wired author, points out that anything that can be tracked, will be tracked. While tracking will not go away, we can make it more civilized.

 Diversity

The discussion with Megan Smith, the CTO of America, did a great job highlighting the poor job that STEM subjects do in attracting and encouraging women and minorities. Jacqueline Fuller from Google.org also provided her views, explaining how Google manages diversity and their aim to get more women interested in technology. She provided some alarming stats, including a study in the VC world, where men and women read the same pitch, word for word, and yet men received funding 18% more often. Jacqueline explained that these biases don’t just stop in the VC world, and are instead present in many of us in the form of unconscious biases. Google have taken the step to introduce unconscious bias testing across the organization, revealing for example implicit biases against a correlation between technology and women, versus women and families. They’ve also introduced blind coding interviews, following in the footsteps of symphonic orchestras who have used blind auditions, where musicians perform behind a screen, since the 1070s to get more women in their ranks, increasing the number of women in orchestras from 15% to 50%.

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For systemic change to happen the whole ecosystem needs to be disrupted. Parents need to get involved, as ‘practice makes permanent’. We need to provide more role models and mentors for young women in the media and in class rooms; TV has contributed to gender stereotypes with only 1 in 15 women represented in the computer science industry on TV. We should be telling our children stories about Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, the female code breakers and Katherine Johnson; the woman who calculated the trajectory of the Apollo missions. STEM subjects should be compulsory for all. And in order to attract females changing problem sets in exams from ones centered around poker and financial data, to questions such as how can you reduce infant mortality states in Kenya, can encourage more women to get involved.

Future of transport

The future of transport will look very different from today with the advances in driverless cars and new forms of high-speed travel such as the Hyperloop. Chris Urmsom explained to us why Google’s driverless cars will dramatically improve our lives by transforming mobility as we know it. 1.2M people are killed on the road each year worldwide. This is equivalent to a 747 airplane falling out of the sky five days a week. 162 lifetimes are wasted per day by sitting in traffic and there is a large part of the population that can’t drive, particularly due to disabilities or old age. When considering these statistics, the market for driverless cars quickly becomes apparent.

Chris explained the fascinating process behind bringing driverless cars to market, starting with highway driving before moving to more complex situations such as neighborhood driving. Google conducts 3 million miles of testing in simulation along with 10,000 miles of road testing everyday, amassing vast amounts of data. One of their challenges is quantifying human driving in order to prove that collision rates are higher for humans compared to driverless cars. It’s believed that up to 80% of human accidents don’t get reported.

Another form of transport on our horizon is the Hyperloop, which will travel at the speed of sound, cutting a 5 hour trip from LA to San Francisco down to 36 minutes. Using renewable energy such as solar, wind and geo thermal energy, the Hyperloop is a climate controlled capsule that travels inside of a reinforced ‘tube’ pathway. The tube is a low pressure environment and the capsule uses maglev technology, removing friction and air resistance and enabling the high speeds. The tubes rest on earthquake proof pylons that are extensible to add new tubes.

Although the idea is not new – the concept was initially generated in 1870, and first patented in 1904 – Elon Musk recently challenged the tech community to make it a reality. The interesting aspect of Hyperloop.global is that they have crowd sourced the entire initiative. Volunteers are offered stock options in exchange for a minimum of 10 hours per week. With 520 professionals from 21 nations working on the Hyperloop, it is not surprising that they get 5 new applications a day to work on the project. Through crowd storming, questions are being asked of the community to ensure the whole ecosystem is considered. Questions such as do we need tickets? Or, could we create vertical gardens or beehives out of the pylons?

With all the technology needed to build the Hyperloop already existing, and projects underway including a track being built in Quay Valley California and an agreement with the Slovakian government to hyperlink between Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, according to CEO Dirk Ahlborn ‘those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it.’

And the rest…

Robotics and AI were an ever-present theme with plenty of interesting discussion around the impact of both on our society.  For the first year, VR had it’s own track of presentations, demonstrating that it has hit the mainstream. IOT was also alive and well, as evidenced by both the amount of talks on the subject and the trade-show of fairly lackluster connected products. There’s a gold-rush attitude about the whole business. We saw connected chairs, guitar cases, t-shirts, cups, flashlights, and a bunch of other connected devices that didn’t provide any real added value.

There were, however, a few exceptions including UnderArmour. Reflecting our own trend, Healthy Is The New Wealthy, UnderArmour’s Kevin Plank described his journey to create a Living Service moving from sportswear undergarment manufacturing to a connected health business.

UnderArmour bought MapMyFitness in 2013. They realized that it wasn’t about the hardware, but instead understood that the value that was in the community, in this case the 32m people telling them about their runs. They now have 160m users, continually providing aggregated data through their connected devices and running shoes.

When this data is broken down, it can help anticipate what customers want and give them better information about their health.

For example, we can’t currently answer the question: how many days was I sick last year and why. But imagine if we could predict when we normally get sick and start to take preventative measures. The UnderArmour Record platform is agnostic and can be used with any wearable. As a result of this aggregated data it can now define trends in workouts, runs and meals, per age group and geography, allowing users to check their own stats against people like them and in turn make their life better.

These are just a few of the highlights from SXSW. Check out our video from SXSW 2016 below. We’d love to hear about what you found interesting.

Bronwyn van der Merwe
David Hindman
Peter Burnham
Mike Gadow

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