The central theme of SXSW has always been change: transforming itself from its humble beginnings as a music festival in the capital of Texas into one of the world’s leading conferences on technology, marketing and innovation, to the growing city of Austin itself. And Austin is changing rapidly, which becomes more and more obvious the more often you return. The influx of investments, jobs and residents can be felt and seen everywhere, as new high-rise buildings are being constructed downtown and new, fancy homes and shops take over residential neighborhoods in the vicinity, year after year. Austin’s continuing popularity certainly isn’t being embraced by everyone, especially among long-time Austin residents, who grow increasingly wary of endless traffic and skyrocketing housing costs. Silicon Valley’s latest solution fixing traffic by dumping thousands of electric scooters and bikes on Austin’s streets might be a welcome convenience for SXSW attendees, but an additional nuisance for the city’s residents.

Shifting perceptions 

As the city changes, so does one of its major draws for visitors. SXSW might still be labeled as a tech and marketing focused conference, but the growing emphasis on topics around work culture, relationships and leadership shows that technology and innovation might just not be enough to succeed in business in the future.
Opening the conference with Brené Brown and Esther Perel – two outstanding speakers on topics of belonging, empathy, and relational intelligence – was a perfect framing device for the rest of the week. The importance of applying these concepts, often dismissed as “soft” to one’s actions not only at the workplace, but in life at large, cannot be overstated.
Or as Gwyneth Paltrow, who currently is transforming her own career from Hollywood actress to CEO of her lifestyle brand Goop, put it perfectly: “Culture is your business plan”.

Reframing the toolkit of digital transformation

Does this mean we are done with digital technology? No more new gadgets, no more new platforms, no more disruption? Far from it. But digital transformation itself is changing. The past decade has handed us a toolkit with almost unlimited possibilities and technology has reached a point of productive ubiquity.
So, does ye olde Arthur C. Clarke quote no longer ring true? Has technology sufficiently advanced to a point, where it no longer appears to be magical? Not necessarily, but the tools we spent the last 10 years derivatively refining are now ready to be used productively in business and marketing. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, mobile devices and wearables, blockchain, robotics, digital assistants: they work and they provide value. It’s time to embrace them.

Technology as the trigger for and answer to shifting consumer expectations 

Walmart CTO Jeremy King gave impressive insights into how the world’s largest retailer does just that. Pretty much every technology listed above plays a major role in Walmart’s business processes: from blockchain for produce tracking, virtual reality in staff training to robotics and predictive analytics in purchasing and logistics. While King did not grow tired of repeating how customer and shopping experience were at the center of all of Walmart’s technological ventures, it surely also has an impressive impact on the bottom line, due to large increases in efficiency.
In another session I attended, Heather Hildebrand from Accenture Interactive shared examples on how Accenture helped retailers to improve the shopping experience for customers through tech by offering better personalization, curation and expert advice. Utilizing technology to create true, meaningful improvements to the overall brand experience is the pivotal challenge in the foreseeable future, as the tools are ready and at our disposal. At the same time, technology is fundamentally shifting consumer behavior across all touchpoints – so for now, understanding and properly reacting to those needs is of equal importance. This, however, takes effort and the willingness to think about hard problems and find hard solutions – too often marketers will take the easy exit. Why adopt to changing consumer behavior introduced by digital assistants if you can just launch a gimmicky Alexa skill and be done with it?Achieving equilibrium between playful utilization of new tools and meaningful impact on process and execution requires a change in organizational structure and leadership, though. Balancing culture and technology will be the new frontier of innovation.

The kaleidoscope of change

So, that’s a wrap on SXSW 2019 and it’s important to point out, that this is just my personal take. The sheer amount of sessions, panels and workshops across 29 conference tracks makes it impossible to even attempt to get a comprehensive overview of everything that is going on.
Due to all these possibilities, one could ask 50 different attendees and would very likely receive 50 different answers on what SXSW was all about in a particular year. And what anyone deems noteworthy might be influenced just as much by their current professional and personal challenges as it is by the overarching trends in programming of the festival itself.
I’m looking forward to returning to Austin in a year, not only to see how the transformation of the city is shaping up, but also for the unique mashup between innovation, culture, art and visionary spirit, that can only exist in this city, at this event.

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