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SXSW2019 Wrap Up

Take a bite of the 3d printed sushi and try not to fall off your scooter

Published on
March 25, 2019

SXSW combines the greatest in digital and tech innovation for a whirlwind week that’s daunting, stimulating, inspiring, intense, and a heck of a lot of fun. In true Texan style, it’s an enormous star-studded event where live bands, celebrities, activations and tech visionaries come together to represent the latest in tech, creativity, innovation, film and culture. Now that the crowd has gone, the BBQ’s are off and the smoke has dispersed, we reflect on this years key themes.


Everyone in the digital industry needs to consider the implications, ethics and consequences of their innovation ahead of time. While a number of large tech companies are playing catch-up (and continuing to be challenged by society and Government alike), the ask of developers, designers and innovators was to think very clearly through the change your tech will deliver – whether intentionally or not – and ask “is this what we want?”

Facebook and the role of trust

Just before SXSW this year, Mark Zuckerberg released his “Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking”. An early mentor of Mark Zuckerberg, and legendary Silicon Valley VC investor, Roger McNamee sat down with WIRED Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Thompson to chat about how the role of trust in digital technology has changed. Prior to 2006, “anything that didn’t help humanity didn’t last long”, but everything changed once the the PayPal mafia” emerged with the beliefs that there was extreme value to be made out of “the internet of people” and that you could build things at a global scale.

However, as Roger said, “Facebook have made a great approach of apologising for doing something, and then going straight back to doing it...” but “…once people lose trust in you, you’re screwed”. Facebook and Instagram combined traffic and usage is down 15% in their latest reports.  

Preventing the Cambridge Analytica of Health Data

Featuring representatives from Verily Life Sciences (which was Google Health previously), academia and 2M Research the panel discussed the enormous potential in delivering better health care. Today we have access to better data on what helps people individually, at a scale that we’ve never seen before, but that comes with it’s own challenges. How do we safeguard and enable data in this space? How can we provide access to the various players in the ecosystem, including patients, doctors, researchers, industry and Government, while ensuring we don’t leave a member of society behind? In a world of big data, we need to be mindful of not only those represented in the data, but those who aren't; including those without access to technology or the internet. 80% of genomic data to date is Caucasian data which lead to the development of a type 2 diabetes test primarily for white people, while 650,000 African Americans went undiagnosed as a result.

So what do we trust? We trust human interactions over bots, we trust simplicity, transparency and authenticity, and we trust those companies and brands that go “all in” on one specific area of expertise and competence.

You are not your data


Electric, hireable scooters took over Austin this year – providing simple, convenient, cluttering and slightly risky access to the city. Representing in the space included Lyft and Uber, along with new entrants Jump, Bird, Culture Trip and Lime. For a couple of dollars a trip charged through your smartphone, you can hire one of these GPS-enabled, motorised scooters to take you where you want at up to 30 kms/hr. Overnight they’re collected, recharged and redistributed to locations across the city and suburbs ready for another day.

Are they the answer to mass transit in large cities? I’m not sure – while they look fun (and everyone I know who rode one says they’re amazing), the business model seems still largely labour intensive, and that’s before they end up in trees and in the harbour. Time will tell - the jury is out, but they’re certainly not the safest mode of transport. E-scooters caused over 1500+ accidents in 2018 in the US alone.

Scooters. Scooters everywhere.


This year saw a number of talks discuss the counter design trend of ‘frictionless’ experience – advocating for deliberately designing ‘friction’, or pause points into experiences.

There are a number of scenarios when this can be useful:

  1. In retail, where slow lanes in supermarkets can help older customers or those with impairments
  2. In e-commerce as a way to prevent “buyer’s remorse” (and greatly reduce costly returns that a lot of e-commerce retailers are suffering from), and
  3. ... as a way to introduce ‘pause’ points in an experience for reflection and consideration.
Tesco’s introduced checkout lanes forpeople with Dementia who just need a little more time

SELF-DRIVING VEHICLES – Lots of promise but challenges on the road ahead…

The promise of self-driving vehicles is not only highly economical, but also highly emotional. 40,000 lives are lost in the United States each due to car accidents. Of those, 94% of crashes involve human choice or error due to speeding, alcohol, drowsiness or distraction – numbers many proponents of self-driving vehicles say can be directly removed with full adoption. However, the panel discussion between Chris Urmson (Co-Founder and CEO of Aurora who are developing assistive driving tech for cars), Malcolm Gladwell (author and podcaster) and Jo Ling Kent (a journalist for NBC News) provided an amazing counterpoint to a lot of this promise. While 30% of traffic in San Francisco is due to people looking for a park (in Paris, that number skyrockets to 80%), the biggest issue the industry will face is one of security. If a hacker can get access and control to a moving vehicle (something that has been achieved a number of times now, most recently with Jeeps in the US) then the challenges and potential risks then only shift from human error to a matter of security, rather than dissolve completely.  


Artificial Intelligence (AI) is proving valuable today in a number of industries – technology, media, transportation, health and pharmaceuticals – and the examples are showing how well designed and applied capability can help support human activity. The Associated Press (AP), the Washington Post and the South China Morning Post all shared stories of how they have incorporated AI and Machine Learning (ML) capability into their newsrooms – whether it be content collection and news gathering, content creation including natural language generation, or content consumption and distribution. Importantly, this wasn’t about “replacing the humans in the newsroom” but rather “…how we make the people in the newsroom better”. In terms of scale, the AP are AI publishing “40,000 corporate earning and sports stories this year” which ”… sounds a lot but we’re doing 2,000 stories a day”.

And while AI is commonly used nowadays, there was a strong theme around questioning the long-term impact it will have on human emotions. In AI and the Future of Storytelling, Storyfile presented an example in the recording and curation of the stories of Holocaust survivors to keep their memory alive. While it has proven to be highly powerful and engaging, and Storyfile is now looking to offer the capability to anyone who wants to use it, the question has been asked about what this means for the role of grief and how this could change the grieving process. It certainly is an interesting way in preserving history.


The resurgence of Digital in Retail and the role that AR (augmented reality) can play in supporting and enhancing the retail experience. With the relaunch of a repackaged and refocused Foursquare at SXSW this year, they are hoping to provide a lot more location information to retailers and customers to personalise the experience even more.

The nature of storytelling was a big theme, including the launch of Quibi (an abbreviation for ‘quick bites’), a new start-up founded by ex-HP and eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Jeff Katzenberg (Steven Spielberg’s co-founder of Hamblin Entertainment). Their company is planning to write, shoot and deliver mobile-friendly content in 8-12 minute episodes – importantly not a movie broken into 20 chunks but episodic stories shot specifically this way. The hope is to fill the small spaces everyone has between 7am and 7pm everyday – on the bus, waiting for a coffee, over lunch etc.

Food that is made for you, no literally, made for you. A japanese company is fusing science with sushi to create a custom meal for you based on your specific nutritional requirements. You’ll be required to submit samples such as saliva (and we’re not sure what else) which will be used to extract biodata to understand what nutrients your body requires before these are printed using giant robotic arms. Tasty? We’re not sure. But it certainly ticks those nutritional boxes.

And that’s a wrap SXSW2019. If you would like a deep-dive into the themes and insights from SXSW 2019 and think your organisation would value hearing from our team first-hand, get in touch and we'll schedule a time.  

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