What to expect at SXSW 2016: Obama, Generation Z and next-gen tech

The chief executive of Lost Boys shares his picks for the best events and trends to watch out for at SXSW this year.

President Obama is delivering a keynote at SXSW Interactive
President Obama is delivering a keynote at SXSW Interactive

Being in Austin a few days before SXSW 2016 begins is fascinating. The arrival of President Obama in Austin on Friday is the talk of the town. The city is bracing itself for what’s to come, with employers being urged to allow their staff to work from home to avoid the inevitable traffic gridlock. There’s also plenty of discussion in the local bars and restaurants about who may be running America after President Obama leaves office. The name on everyone’s lips is Donald Trump, and unsurprisingly he is sharply dividing opinions. 

As for SXSW itself, there is the usual smorgasbord of events to choose from, but some broad themes are clear. With emerging celebrities such as Willow and Jaden Smith, John Jolie-Pitt and Jay Kelly all challenging traditional gender stereotypes, there are a number of sessions focused on Generation Z and on their fluid identities that go beyond gender binaries.

One of the big-name speakers lined up this year is the actress Kerry Washington who will deliver a keynote on the new rules of social stardom. She’s not the only one talking about the rise of digital influencers. YouTube is taking over the Geek Stage at SXSW Gaming, with Jordan "CaptainSparklez" Maron and Meghan "Strawburry17" Camarena discussing their experiences as popular YouTube personalities and how they’ve gone on to become successful entrepreneurs operating across multiple channels.

With WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Kik overtaking social networks as the dominant social platforms in terms of active users, marketing in messaging apps is being touted as "the next multibillion opportunity".  A staggering 257 billion text messages are sent every day, so unsurprisingly marketers are keen to figure out how to engage audiences where they are spending most of their time.

The much admired futurologist and Wired co-founder, Kevin Kelly, will deliver a speech on the 12 inevitable tech forces that will shape our future. Mashable’s Pete Cashmore, another darling of the tech community, will share his views on the state of media and tech at SXSW 2016.  Expect a full house for Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank, who will talk about how his sports giant brand is now tackling our health. 

Given the ongoing issues related to a lack of diversity in the media, tech and marketing industries, I’m personally pleased to see that a number of sessions are focusing on how to overcome unconscious bias. I’m also delighted to be able to share the results of The Great British Diversity Experiment alongside my co-founders Nadya Powell, Laura Jordan-Bambach, Daniele Fiandaca, Alex Goat and the winning team at the MediaCom event "Beyond Advertising", which takes place during SXSW week.

One of the most exciting things about SXSW is the convergence of disciplines, with film, interactive and music all coming together. So I’ll be looking forward to hearing the rapper Talib Kweli speaking about what it means to start a label in the digital age, and hopefully getting to see the work-in-progress preview screening of comedians Key & Peele’s new film, Keanu.

The other major highlight will be on Wednesday, 16 March, when Michelle Obama comes to SXSW Music to discuss the Let Girls Learn initiative, which aims to break barriers for the 62 million girls around the world who are not in school today, more than half of whom are adolescent.

Securing both the US president, Barack Obama, and first lady, Michelle Obama, is a major achievement for SXSW in its 30th year, and practically guarantees that 2016 will be a road-block. Just as well I brought my trainers (or should that be sneakers?), as the traffic isn’t going to be pretty. 

Jonathan Akwue is the chief executive of Lost Boys. You can find him on @Jonakwue. If you’re at SXSW, come along and say hello.

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