SXSW 2021: Day One
By Jessie Hughes, 17 March 2021
What does a world look like when we unlock the full potential of what will soon be nine billion humans? — Karin Giefer, Amazon
At this time of year, I’m usually stumbling across the sardined, bustling streets of ever-alive Austin, Texas. Instead, 2021’s SXSW found me battling with my phone’s Airplay function, cozied up on the couch, bubbling with anticipation for this year’s dose of globally-sourced industry inspiration.
I’m a Creative Technologist for digital venture studio Josephmark, and South-by has for many years been our mecca for all things tech, innovation and design. With this week’s Grammys setting the bar extremely high for creative inspiration, (and Harry Styles to compete with) I’m happy to report that SXSW kicked off to a spectacular start.
Without further ado, let’s dive into Day One’s juiciest highlights: Amy Webb Launches 2021 Emerging Tech Trend Report | Responsible Innovation: Move Fast and Fix Things | Keynote: Stacey Abrams in Conversation with N.K. Jemisin
Amy Webb Launches 2021 Emerging Tech Trend Report
Thanks to our Southern Hemisphere timezones, Amy Webb was the first speaker to my SXSW schedule, and what better way to begin than to launch into her 2021 Emerging Tech Trend Report. I pride myself on keeping my finger on the pulse when it comes to emerging tech, but after Webb’s session, the list of new industry acronyms and follow-up homework still broadened my horizons. If you’re curious about the petrifying potential of what we’re collectively building, visualise a world-leading Quantitative Futurist asking: “Who should have the right to edit the source code of all of humanity?”.
Amy was ever so kind to bundle her technologically phenomenal trends into three major clusters, so let’s start with the beginner stuff: Smart glasses, Behavioral biometrics, machine learning EEG data. Easy, right? Okay, let’s level up: Ultrasonic body waves, brain mesh, neighbourhood mesh networks, and wireless body area networks (WBANs). Feeling Matrixed yet?
For trend cluster three, we cross over into a Black Mirror episode with hacktivism, splinternets, digital identification, synthetic biology, de-platforming, cloud neutrality, computer vision, messenger RNA (mRNA).
So, there’s your homework for the coming week. Webb concluded her session with a dystopian 2036 premonition, and let me tell you: it’s not cute. Her team’s research at the Future Today Institute is publicly available here and is a must-read for all futurists. It’s such an essential read that SXSW audiences crashed her website. Don’t worry — it’s back up now.
Responsible Innovation: Move Fast and Fix Things
If there’s nothing else we’ve learned in the last 12 months, is that things can change, and on huge scales. — Ed Doran, Microsoft
South-by wouldn’t be South-by without insights from our Herculean Gods of Big Tech: Amazon, Microsoft & Google; this year, talking responsible innovation. They even coined the hashtag #InnovateResponsibly. Hmm.
When you’re building for not millions, but billions of users, how do you do that responsibly? How do we evolve our fundamentals so that we build a more healthful, kind and responsible future?
“You move past technological feasibility and business viability, and into: Are we thinking about fairness, transparency, inclusiveness, sustainability, privacy? What’s interesting here is that it’s where you actually build the most durable value, because it’s deeply entwined with the communities you serve.” — Ed Doran, Microsoft.
Karin Giefer of Amazon proposed the responsible innovation framework of STEEP, similar to design methodologies we use here at JM. “When we look at our solution or a defined problem we ask, have we looked at it socially, technologically, environmentally, economically and politically? Every time we look at it through each filter, we make it better.” — Karin Giefer, Amazon
Karin also pushed the idea that value return models desperately require an update. “Value is long-term; the value return models companies are using right now aren’t equipped for this way of thinking. Value shouldn’t be based on quarterly reporting; instead, the models we use for monitoring value need to be extended over a longer-term time horizon.”
Value is defined by the people you’re serving. — Ed Doran, Microsoft
Diving into the greyer questions, the Big Tech Overlords were interrogated about how we create good outcomes and who actually governs what’s good. “How are we defining what good looks like? We know we’re going to get it wrong. How do we get it wrong the right way?” — Kiren Giefer, Amazon. “Is it governance, or is it guidance?” chimed in Wally Brill of Google.
Wally pushed the idea of democratising technology for responsible innovation. “Conversation is a great democratiser when we think about how we interface with technology. What we need to do is expand the world of design, so that lots and lots of people can design for these technologies, and open it up, so more people — millions, billions of people — can use them.”
When we say democratised, basically what we’re meaning is putting simple tools in the hands of everybody to get things done. — Wally Brill, Google
They closed with their version of a sports captain chant I remember yelling at school swimming carnivals:
“Participation is what changes the world.” — Giefer, Amazon
Keynote: Stacey Abrams in Conversation with N.K. Jemisin
Politics is another form of storytelling. — N.K.Jemisin
Welcomed by the vocals of Janelle Monáe’s Turntables (banger; listen above), keynote speaker Stacey Abrams deserved no less of an introduction. Nobel Peace Prize nominee, lawyer, CEO, master of the arts of literature and politics… Stacey was on top of everyone’s list in this post-election keynote. Not only has she combatted voter suppression, but she’s also written eight romantic suspense novels — could you get any cooler?
The conversation was moderated by science fiction writer N.K. Jemisin, who didn’t hold back with her candour in discussing race; “There appears to a deep discomfort in the collective unconscious of this country. [A discomfort] with blackness paired with genius.”
I was asked a question white men don’t get asked; are you qualified? I was asked a question very few people have to contend with; why should you get it?
And for me the inverse of that question is… those of us who have benefited from intelligence, access and delivery, we have an affirmative obligation to declare not only for ourselves, but for those who look like us and are situated like us, that yes; we are capable. Yes; it is possible. Yes; it should be conceivable. Because if we say no… if we declare that we are less than… we give more permission for that false narrative to continue. — Stacey Abrams
When further discussing her activism and the dynamics of politics, Stacey encouraged attention and agitation. “Constant attention and agitation is necessary. Agitation is how we make certain that our needs get included in this larger narrative. Agitation is an activist’s way of saying I’m not going away and I’m not going to let you forget me.”
Abrams proposed that society is about each of us getting something that we need by giving up something that we want.
What’s important is that we know what we can’t give up. Those are the things that we defend, but everything else has to be open to conversation if we want to get any progress. Part of our responsibility is to share what we know; to invite others in, and to recognise that compromise is not evil. — Stacey Abrams
Throwing all glass-half-full analogies out the window, Stacey closed with her relentless spirit: “I’m not optimistic or pessimistic: I’m determined.”
That’s day one, done and dusted. Back to my sofa for SXSW Opening Night celebrations. Praise and applause to the SXSW team for adapting and evolving to the challenges of online conferencing. Ya done good.