SXSW 2010: My Thoughts

Have I missed the window to offer some feedback and analysis of what happened at SXSW Interactive this year?   Well, I am going to do it anyway…

For anyone in the interactive, creative, film, cause, technology, media, education, music, marketing, entertainment or startup space, the annual South-by-Southwest Interactive Festival is a must-attend event.  It is probably the most exciting gathering of smart, passionate people – amateur and professional alike – who are looking at ways media and technology are changing society (and how to build, grow, sustain, shape and re-shape whatever that society will look like in the future).

I participated in SXSW this year wearing three different hats:

1) I presented as a part of Future15 — a new feature at SXSW where a series of short, 15-minute presentations, were grouped together around a single theme and presented in a two-hour block of time.  My group focused on government and technology.

The basic premise of my talk, which I called ‘Blamestorm’ was that: “Technology and the internet can help drive change in the world. We can solve real problems. Address complex issues. But it is not happening. Not enough is getting done. Why not?  Because most people don’t understand… and they are holding us back.”  You can download my slides and read my presentation notes here.

My job was to set the tone for the rest of the group, which included Julie Germany (Yes, Mr. Lessig, we can change government), Will Hampton from Round Rock, TX (how nerds can foster democracy), Bev Godwin from GSA (about whether the government should tweet), among others, and to challenge people to think differently about how technology, information, media, the internet and such can be used to do incredible things. 

I think I succeeded, or at least hit a nerve.  Either way, it’s the beginning of what I think can be a very interesting – and important – conversation.  Stay tuned.

2) I was part of the team that created WeCanEndThis, a yearlong initiative to spark innovation and a broader engagement in the movement to end hunger in America, that officially launched at SXSW.   The project was designed to offer the entire SXSW Interactive community the opportunity to work collaboratively with our cause partners, Feeding America, Share Our Strength, and Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, to help solve a major social issue – and hunger was designated as the official cause of the festival, a first for the event.  And over the next year, as WeCanEndThis goes forward, the effort to find new and different approaches to ending hunger will continue.

The big event for WeCanEndThis at SXSW was the CauseLab, a day long, mutli-part, cross-discipline, brainstorming session.  We invited lots of smart, innovative, collaborative minded thought leaders to help dream up to develop innovative solutions that address three central challenges:

  • Building the Hunger Organization of the Future (and how that structure can create a hunger-free society)
  • Humanizing the data (and how we make hunger relevant, and top of mind, to people across the nation)
  • Advancing local activation (including how to make systemic changes in communities everywhere)


The CauseLab was a huge success – the room was packed, the ideas were flying, and some different ways of thinking about how to address hunger in America started to emerge. Three potentially game-changing ideas for how the hunger community – those who currently work there, and those who might be tapped in new/different ways – might re-consider the approach to this issue emerged from the discussion (along with dozens of others nuggets that will enhance existing efforts, and play a big role in defining everything that we do going forward).  Those big ideas included:

  • Hunger data consortium: Data has the potential to incentivize behavior, and thus will play a powerful role in any effort to end hunger in America.  However, the data that is available today, both to help organizations and individuals to understand the issue of hunger as well as explore potential solutions to the problem, is not sufficient.  More and better data needs to be collected, shared, and utilized in the creation of solutions.   A data consortium would focus on increasing public access to high value datasets generated by, and for the use of, those who are looking to find ways to end hunger in America.

 

  • Hunger Think Tank: Federal government agencies and nonprofit organizations, as well as individuals and communities nationwide are already leading innovative programs designed to end hunger in America – but the efforts are not sufficiently coordinated.  A hunger think tank would be responsible for centralizing and focusing efforts to address hunger in America, at all levels, to allow for the best and most effective approaches to be shared, and utilized by all organizations, and for new, innovative, and more effective solutions to be developed.  A hunger think tank would help to increase awareness, expand access and strengthen advocacy efforts, especially in ways that smaller community-based groups would benefit from, and would be able to marshal the collective energy and capacity of people from across the nation to develop new approaches to this issue that no single organization could do on its own.

 

  • Army of Davids: Ending hunger in America will require a comprehensive and coordinated effort in local communities nationwide – sustained over time.  It is unlikely that any organization would be able to able to recruit, train, and sustain the involvement of volunteers in that way.  Additional help – along with training, tools, and other support – will be needed.  The concept of an ‘Army of Davids’ is to find ways to independently train, deploy and support local advocacy and other activation on a massive scale.


These are just initial concepts, drawn from the discussions that were held during the CauseLab and collected online during the launch of WeCanEndThis.  In the coming weeks and months we will be working to define these ideas further and look at how to promote solutions that will end hunger in America.  Stay tuned.

3) I was credentialed as a member of the media – in my role as host of a new podcast in conjunction with Capitol News Connection. The show is a weekly discussion of big ideas and important issues, designed around really smart discussions about what’s happening in our lives, and our society – and what it means.  Each week we talk about the issues and events we think are relevant, or just interesting.  We talk about politics, business, education, culture, sports or anything else.  We consider the impact that media and technology are having on how we think about these issues, and the way we lead our lives — but mostly we just try to have fun, and maybe learn something along the way.

I was able to collect a few interviews that will be used in future episodes of the show, and spent a lot of time recruiting contributors and talking through new tools/channels/platforms/strategic opportunities/trends/big ideas that will be the subject of our discussions going forward.  I fully expect to be recording full (if not daily) episodes of the podcast at next year’s show.  Stay tuned.

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Now for some brief (yet thoughtful) analysis…

SXSW is a unique event, and its size, reputation and credibility, the diversity and intelligence of the participants, and its powerful integration of media, technology, communications, creativity, and – particularly this year – social cause, make it one of the premiere events in the country, if not the world.  But SXSW, the event, is still not realizing its full potential.  The communities that gather each year – and at least for a week become one giant melting pot of ideas and creativity – along with the thousands who follow along online, aren’t being fully engaged or focused. For all the wonderful things I can say about SXSW — and there are many — there is more I wish the event offered.

There are so many ways that SXSW could change the way we think, operate, and organize around big ideas, exciting new tools, important issues, and as a community of smart, passionate people.  There are so many ways that SXSW is already disrupting the ways that we think about how technology can be utilized, creativity should be applied, what communications can achieve – but that mostly/only happens on site, during the event, and the momentum behind so many potentially exciting things is lost when everyone flies back home to the rest of their lives.

I want to see SXSW get to that next level – and I have four quick ideas that I think can help.  I have posted them here (#1), here (#2), here (#3) and here (#4).  Let me know what you think.

And of course, see you next year in Austin.

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