Celebrating creativity @ SXSW

Bjorn Stolte


The past seven days I was at SXSW in Austin Texas. ‘South by’ for insiders. An amazing festival that celebrates the convergence of the interactive film, and music industries. Although the interactive track was my main reason to attend SXSW, the blended program is what made it into a magical experience. I will dive deep into my learnings about the astonishing developments later on; right now I would like to share my overarching takeaway of SXSW: We have every reason to look to the future in a positive way! Let me explain why.

Technology anxiety

Many people are anxious because of the current pace of technological progress. That is nothing to be ashamed of. We are beyond the point that an individual - no matter how clever - can contain this. Don’t trust anyone who says he does. However, there is one thing we know for sure: technology is evolving at an increasing pace and this is changing the way we work, produce, do business, travel, consume, grow older, stay young… live. If it isn’t in the western world, than most certainly in China, as we see happening right now. Embracing this instead of offering resistance is the only option and will ultimately bring us further as a society.

Imagination is not to be programmed

When it comes to technology, you could say that everything we can come up with is actually possible. If it isn’t today, then it will be tomorrow. A bigger challenge is to let go of our current view of the systems and to imagine complete new paradigms that we can create with the ever advancing possibilities. This applies to brands and companies, but also to governments and NGOs.

The creation of these new paradigms requires imagination and the ability to make illogical connections. Skills in which people even the next decade will outperform technology. Even though AI is on our heels... With its divergent audience, ranging from students to ceo’s and from musicians to deep learning engineers, all queueing together for the next inspirational session, SXSW proves that if a diverse community comes together, we can imagine solutions that take us further as society. More than ever these solutions can be amplified to the max by technology, what gives us the power to solve even our most complex challenges.

A good example of this was the panel session ‘The End of Global Hunger? AI Will Make it Work’ with Robert Opp, UN World Food Programme, Pranav Khaitan, Google AI, Uyi Stewart, Gates foundation and Zenia Tata, XPRIZE. The answer appeared to be no, for now. But AI increased the odds for us as society to solve even a humanitarian crisis of this scale. New kinds of cooperations, including the people affected, deep knowledge about the technology and a design driven approach to stimulate and streamline imagination are required to unlock this value.

A new perspective on sustainability

As in the session described above, the program contained a lot of attention for the big societal challenges we are facing. Sustainability, inequality. The time that this was the domain of activists lies behind us. There was a general consensus, that it is no longer normative that brands and organisaties place profit before the well being of our planet and society. In this context the reference to the sustainable development goals of The United Nations was made frequently.

That doesn’t mean profit has become a no-go. On the contrary, profit is still a powerful resource to invest, innovate and thus to keep moving forward. The holy grail is a business model in which sustainability and profit reinforce each other. This is achievable for any company, but it requires a new way of thinking, a lot of creativity and a sincere open attitude to change.

Mind the gap

The risk of many people to stay behind in this fourth technological revolution is evident. Knowledge gaps increase, jobs will be replaced. Not only governments, but the technological frontrunners should take their responsibility on this matter. This challenge goes beyond peoples own responsibility. A lot of people need active guidance, or are just not in the position to take care of their own connection to the raging developments. New education systems - both public and organized by companies - should be developed, to support lifelong learning and retraining people for the new sort of jobs that are popping up every day. In this context these ideas created by panels of creatives and industry experts at the World Economic Forum gives a nice glimpse of how these new jobs can be imagined. If we, as frontrunners do not take responsibility in this matter, societal problems of huge proportions will rise. In that case, we will collapse collectively. I was pleased to see that the SXSW visitors shared this sense of urgency.

Quest for big ambition

All the ingredients to move towards a balanced and sustainable world are there. And more importantly, a new generation of creatives and technologists share the purpose to achieve this. So let’s embrace the opportunities that are already here, and the ones yet to come. Imagine and find those (not so) illogical connections. An alternative though is to set your hopes on robot Gochan, according to his creators an alien panda that came to Earth to save his planet.

Now what?

The next step is to combine all concepts above into new ways of thinking, business models, new services, products or whatever you can imagine and make the near and not so near future as inspiring and bright as we saw in Texas this week. As Elon Musk showed us on his inimitable way, everything is possible.

To be continued...