Heading into my third year of SXSW, I feel like I’ve got a good handle on how to maximise the experience. Pick featured sessions and solos over panels, consider presentation locations as much as presentation titles, and leave as soon as the questions start to maximise your chances of getting into whatever you’re trying to get into next. Oh, and never walk past a vacant bathroom or food stand - you never know when the next opportunity for either will show up.
So with confidence high and expectations higher, I dived into a big day that delivered some big ideas.
First up was Tim O’Reilly (book publisher, conference runner, investor, professional agitator) on ‘Do More. Do Things that were Previously Impossible’. Tim opened by suggesting that even if the robots did come and take all of our jobs, there’d still be plenty of important problems for us left to solve. You know, things like rebuilding our societal infrastructure, properly addressing the environment and climate change, working out how to handle refugee crises and learning how to better care for one another.
Which of course begs the question of why we’re not working harder to solve - and I mean really solve - these problems now. Tim suggests that many of our current ‘maps of the world’ are incorrect, and as a result, steering us in the wrong directions. This wouldn’t be the first time - In 1625, a widely published world map showed California as an island, leaving many an explorer lost and confused.
Of the ‘bad maps’ Tim discussed, the ones I found most interesting were:
Tech will put people out of jobs.
This was countered with data illustrating how the number of people Amazon employ continues to grow at a faster rate than the number of robots they implement. Research by economist Michael Mandel also found that the number of people working in eCommerce is now larger than the number of people working in traditional retail, and that the wages and salaries of these employees were growing significantly faster. Rather than asking how new technology can eliminate jobs, we should be asking how it can augment these jobs to make the people outstanding. Why seek to eliminate call centers when the right tools and data can make them an incredible source of customer value?
Adding new tech to old businesses will save them.
A business model is the way all parts of a business interact with one another to create customer value and advantage. Slapping a new app onto an old model (hey taxis!) shows a gross misunderstanding of how value is actually created. It’s the model, the ecosystem, the levers that create value behind the app, that we need to look at for meaningful change.
Human hostile AI is the biggest threat we’re facing.
Turns out, we’re already living with this, and fixing it as we go is all part of the process. Our technology optimises for what we ask it to, and sometimes, it does this too well. Facebook primarily optimises to show us more of what’s important to us, which has accelerated echo chambers, societal division and close mindedness. Uber primarily optimises for passenger wait times, which has created non sustainable income levels for many of its drivers. If it doesn’t work for everyone, eventually, it wont work for anyone. Many of our systems have been single mindedly optimised for metrics that seemed right, until we got supremenly good at delivering them.
From, here, I dashed over to hear design genius Bruce Mau talk about his 24 Principles for Massive Change (surely a big undertaking for a 50 minutes presentation?). The presentation was actually only about 5 principles and a bunch of the other random stuff, but the guy has had a hand in designing everything from books to stadiums to Guatemalan society to Mecca (yes, Mecca) - so he gets to talk about whatever he wants.
Bruce opened with the notion that design is life. The better the quality of design we experience, the better the quality of life we live. Woah.
His key principles included sketching everything - concepts, budgets, strategic plans - whatever you’ve got, get a cheap articulation of the idea out there pronto. Sketches help us fail quickly and fail often. Better designers sketch more and fail more than worse designers. The same is true in almost any field.
He also talked about competing with beauty. Beauty is a concept people will spend untold time, money and effort trying to attain, but we shun it in the business world. We need to understand, talk about and pursue beauty more often. If Tesla had launched with a minivan, nobody would have cared. Instead, they launched with the roadster, often cited as one of the sexiest vehicles to ever roll off a production line, and today, they’re the hottest car brand around. We won’t achieve real change by just ordering people not to do things or beating them into submission. Instead we need to use beauty to compete and win.
The third big session I went to on day one was a keynote from Esther Peret. For those that aren’t familiar with her work (as I wasn’t before today), Esther is a psychotherapist and widely recognised (including by thousands of adoring fans in attendance today) as the most original and insightful voice on modern relationships.
Esther’s celebrated TED talks have clocked almost 20 million views, and now I understand why. Her open, witty and immaculately delivered presentation cut right to the heart of modern relationships. She talked about the desire of Americans (Esther is Belgian) to see every problem as needing as solution, when in fact, many are just paradoxes that need to be managed.
She spoke about the conflicting, innate needs for both stability and change. About how so many relationships are characterised by one partner fearing abandonment, and the other fearing suffocation. About how today, in the absence of overbearing religious influence or societal hierarchies, we have unprecedented freedoms in terms of our relationships, but as a result, everything has become a negotiation - Who’s the primary breadwinner? Whose career is more important? Who’s getting up to feed the baby? Should we even have a baby? How many people should I date? How many at the same time? Who should initiate sex?
Because of this, conversations have become the heart of relationships, and we’re pretty poorly equipped to have most of them. Many of the things that need discussion or negotiation are things we’ve hardly spoken about to ourselves, let alone somebody else.
Peret went on to discuss how today, we expect from one person what we used to receive from an entire village: support, understanding, companionship, love, intimacy, excitement, change, stability. Beyond this, for much of our history, our ‘soul mate’ was considered to be God. In our secular lives, we look for perfection in a single person. Is it any wonder we’re so often disappointed?
Peret concluded with a thought on loneliness, which has become the single biggest health crisis in the US, surpassing obesity. “In the village” she said, “you could hear every fight and every fuck. Today, nobody really knows what’s going on in the lives of those around them”. Fake news isn’t just for politicians. It’s the curated lives we present of ourselves on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
Before a dinner of BBQ and beers I managed to squeeze in a session on evolving the game of basketball (featuring 10 time all star, Olympic gold medalist and NBA champion Clyde ‘The Glide’ Drexler) and a talk on designing with bias with panelists from Google, Amazon and Deutsch.
Bring on day 2 I say!