Impressions from SXSW 2019

What’s up, SXSW?

impressions from SXSW 2019Pretending to be able to sum up a conference with 600+ sessions is hubris. But throughout the sessions that I attended (30 or so), I tried to identify patterns, motifs that repeat themselves. One of the reasons that makes SXSW so fascinating for me is to get a cross section view of what is happening in science, technology, and society at one given moment in time. Otherwise I could just watch 30 TED talks or other videos —  and yes, I do that anyway during the rest of the year. So here is my highly subjective take on SXSW 2019.

Last year at SXSW, the Trump shock was still huge and the changes that one year of Trump presidency had brought, creating a new norm, were on top of everyone’s mind. This year was more about navigating the consequences and already looking forward toward the 2020 elections.

Also the MeToo movements seems to have morphed from a collective “outcry” and demand for a change of the status quo towards a more systemic approach to fostering more diversity and inclusion. The high number of sessions addressing this topic shows that a lot is happening in this area. Here are some prevalent trends that stood out to me because they showed up across many tracks.

Pace of change

There is no doubt that we are in the midst —  or some say just at the beginning — of change at a gigantic scale. From work, to healthcare, to food, to climate, to governments, to economy, to drugs … there seems no area that affects our lives that is not in the process of radical transformation. Julie Hubert, CEO of Workland says in regards to HR, a traditionally stable domain that is tied to compliance regulations: “In the past twelve months everything has changed.”



In 2018, many sessions involved fake news and lies, referring to events like the influence of russian bots on the 2016 election, the social media echo chambers, etc. This year the erosion of trust seems to go even deeper. Neil Pasricha, author of the bestseller The Happiness Equation, states that we live in “the era with the lowest level of trust.” Trend researcher, Rohid Bhargawa, talks about a “believability crisis.”

The reasons for this phenomenon are diverse. False information on social media is increasing — 15% of Twitter posts might be fake. It is becoming harder and harder to verify what is true and and what is made up. There is a website that constantly fabricates photos of people who do not actually exist, yet they look as real as our neighbor. Scary.

By participating in a digital world we leave our footprints (data) everywhere without being able to control what happens with them. We are living in the data wild west, without a chance to protect information about ourselves. According to futurist Amy Webb, “privacy is dead.” At this point we don’t even own the rights to our own face anymore. There are no regulations that clarify who owns the scan of our face and how that data may be used.

Digital vulnerability, a lack of protection through government regulation, and a lack of strong ethical codes from the big tech companies give us a feeling of helplessness that derodes trust in institutions.


If there is one term that represents innovation and future more than any other, it is artificial intelligence (AI). Just take a look at the spectrum of topics from SXSW that reflect AI in the title alone. There is no way to cover everything that I heard about AI in one paragraph, so let me point out only one of the trends that is just around the corner. Tech companies are working on what is called “emotion recognition” —  machines learning to “understand” and identify human emotions and react accordingly. Imagine Alexa suggesting to play some cheer-me-up-music because she (???) detects in the tone and cadence of your voice that you are depressed. Movies and Sci-Fi have already explored that theme, but it is a whole different story once this actually starts to enter our lives. How about the oven that refuses to heat up your pizza because, according to your blood levels, you should be on a diet? Brave new world!

Humanizing Innovation

“In an era of bots we trust brains.”, says Neil Pasricha, who suggests that we put humans over algorhythms. And while our way of urban living does not make it easy to cultivate empathy, we can prime ourselves to be more compassionate, explains Stanford psychology professor, Jamil Zaki. Since AI is taking over many of the analytical, data-driven tasks, we are encouraged to play out our human qualities. Two examples from the healthcare sector can illustrate the impact this will have. David Feinberg, former CEO of Geisinger, talks about one initiative that an innovative health service organization successfully started. They required doctors who saw people 65 and older spent at least 45 minutes with them, which is more than twice the average. For obvious reasons this was a very pricey idea, but it turned out that it actually had a huge ROI. The extended human interaction lowered the need for medications and led to fewer hospital and ER visits. This idea actually saved money and patients and healthcare providers found it more satisfactory as well. In some medical domains, like imaging, AI is already far ahead of humans in predicting diseases and comparing and connecting with data sets of other screening results. AI does not eliminate the work of healthcare providers but shifts it towards a better interaction with the patient. Patients who trust their doctors show better results.


Creativity and Innovation

As a creativity expert myself I tried not to miss any sessions that explicitly discussed  creativity. Those presentations were all highly requested — long lines, full audiences. Creativity is not an outlier, but generally seen as the core of innovation and and has thus become (SXSW) mainstream. Since I do and read research about creativity all year long I personally did not encounter anything that was entirely new to me. But there was one panel discussion (J. Kaganskiy, D. Hernon, K. Mcdowell, S. Newman) that stood out for me, because of it’s very niche topic that in my opinion has huge potential. That session explored the benefits of collaborations between artists and engineers who work at tech and research enterprises. The development of AI raises many questions that will impact and shape our future. For example, how do we embed values into AI? And which values do we want to be the resource for decision making for AI? We do not want these questions, which deeply affect the lives of almost everyone on this globe, answered by a few software developers, or the big tech companies. Or maybe even worse, what if these questions are not addressed at all and they are left to chance?

When we discuss the consequences of new technologies we need to invite artists, thinkers, philosophers, and creatives to the table to form ideas about a future that we want. We have to find ways to inform and discuss these ideas in broader communities and thus democratize the access to information and getting many involved to form guidelines. Opening conversations between science, technology and the arts, the creatives, is in my opinion one of the most promising ways to intentionally shape the trajectory of innovation.

If there is one plea that I would like to get out to the world from SXSW it is Amy Webb’s mandate to stop being siloed in our own industries but to watch out for adjacent (technology) trends across as many industries as possible. Innovations these days are deeply intertwined and have broad consequences.

Only when we start to see and think big picture will we be able to intentionally create the future.



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