SXSW gets real

This year's Texas tech-fest was about inspiring and showcasing 'true' innovations that make a difference not on screen but in the real world.

SXSW: former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson (left) speaks to Elon Musk. Credit: Getty Images
SXSW: former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson (left) speaks to Elon Musk. Credit: Getty Images

Users of Twitter can’t fail to have noticed that last week was the annual SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. What they will probably not have realised, given that most of the Tweets at best lacked any depth or understanding, and at worst were insufferably self-indulgent, was the quality of the debate and the range of innovations on offer.

In order to provide a more rounded view on this vital conference, Campaign asked three agency leaders to give a summary of what they saw and learned that extends beyond seven-score characters and an Instagram picture of themselves with a beer and a robot.

The year of flying cars

Jonny Spindler, chief innovation officer, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
"We wanted flying cars and we got 140 characters," Seth Priebatsch, the founder of SCVNGR, said, quoting Peter Thiel, at the end of day one of SXSW.

What Seth was referring to is the view of many that innovation has stagnated among our generation and "true" innovation – road systems, curing polio, electricity, the invention of the internet – no longer happens; our generation’s "innovations" include catapulting birds, billions of pictures of sepia-filtered breakfasts and 140-character streams of our lives.

The good news is that, this year in Austin, instead of the latest app, social network or location-based service stealing the show, much like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare have previously, the buzz and sentiment was very much at the "flying cars" end of the spectrum. In fact, if you were in Austin this year, you’d be hard pushed to even remember an app.

Elon Musk, the chief executive of SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal, spoke about building the world’s first commercial space port, coincidentally also in Texas; while, across the road, Nasa showcased a full-scale model of its biggest-ever satellite at the James Webb Telescope Exhibit.

There were many debates about societal change and new energy resources and, essentially, lots of very smart people applying their brains to the greater global good rather than the next 69p app.

That said, SXSW wasn’t just about space travel and factories in everyone’s kitchen: there was a vast amount of cool technology to see for the first time in person. If there was one new piece of technology that grabbed everyone’s attention this year, it was hardware and not software: the Leap Motion – a small Kinect-like gesture control box that detects movement in the fingertips, not just your hands – which won the Interactive Award for Breakout Digital Trend.

2012 and early 2013 have seen the increasing rise of the accelerator programme or new tech incubator. It was therefore no surprise that start-up talks, villages, entrepreneurial panels and even SXSW’s own accelerator programme were to be found all over the city.

However, referring back to Thiel’s flying cars analogy, you can’t help but think that as fantastic as these accelerator programmes are for collaborating with young talent, the outcomes are still predominately at the 140-character end of the scale – slightly better ways of doing something that can already be done and everybody seems to be trying to do the same thing.

In February’s edition of Wired, Larry Page said: "Incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time." He was referring to how he always thinks in 10x improvement, not 10 per cent. Improving something by only 10 per cent doesn’t truly differentiate you as an individual or organisation, but improving something by 10x really can.

It’s that way of thinking that led him to create Google X, the team behind Google Glass and Google self-driving cars (pictured, right), headed by Astro Teller.

On the last day, Astro gave a somewhat motivational talk about how we all need to think bigger, more global and explore the impossible. Sticking to the SXSW 2013 space theme, he discussed the idea of "Moonshot" thinking, a term originally created for putting a man on the moon but, in the context of

Astro’s talk, ideas that will change the world, utilise science and technology and, most importantly, are possible – ideas that are 10x, not 10 per cent.

Astro left the audience with a homework question that he sets every new Google X employee, which I think sums up the feeling leaving SXSW this year. What would you work on right now if you had enough time and were guaranteed not to fail? Now ask yourself: why not start tomorrow?

I know my answer, and I’ll be sending Thiel the plans for my flying DeLorean straight after breakfast.

How the geeks got real

Ben Bilboul, group chief executive, Karmarama
If Cannes celebrates the year gone by, then SXSW celebrates – even fetishises – the future. First impressions were a little bleak. Queues went round the block, marketeers seemed to outnumber developers and Al Gore painted a dystopian vision populated with spider goats (genetically engineered goats that secrete spider silk from their udders) and yet more climate destruction.

But, serendipitously, SXSW 2013 didn’t lack for inspiration or innovation and, as the week progressed, some core themes emerged that seemed to coalesce around a desire to make the virtual real and authentic.

Virtual is not enough
2013 was the year the geeks put down their screens and applied their genius to the real world, in the form of new hardware and applications that linked the physical with the virtual – a huge theme for SXSW.

Whether it was the drones that flew over the parties, or the ubiquitous consumer-priced 3D printers, everywhere you looked you could see innovation going beyond the virtual and beyond the screen.

Bre Pettis, the inventor of the MakerBot 3D printer, opened SXSW with the launch of a home 3D scanner and the claim that we are entering a new industrial revolution, one that would see the means of production returned to the people.

The scanner, when paired with a MakerBot, can copy and reproduce any physical object up to the size of a shoebox. MakerBot applications include anything from the ability to design your own iPhone cover to the production of prosthetic hands for disabled children.

The physical-virtual theme also continued in the form of "invisible interfaces": user interfaces that do away with a mouse or a mobile and let you control technology or machinery directly.

Whether it was Google glasses, Google trainers, smart tattoos or wearable technology, speaker after speaker promised new innovations that would reconnect the internet with the real world, eventually removing the need for desktops and devices.

It’s still very new territory for brands, but Google attempted to show the way as it previewed its Smileage app for Volkswagen (pictured, below), which integrates your social network with your car, pro­viding a more social (and hopefully not distractingly lethal) way to drive.

Authenticity and emotion
At a Goodby, Silverstein & Partners panel, a leading Silicon Valley investor argued that a new generation of digital businesses and services – Web 3.0 – would offer the user a more emotional experience.

This idea was echoed throughout the week by companies such as Air­bnb and Etsy, which provide, via the web, unique, personalised ex­periences (rental homes and crafted goods respectively) to customers who are bored of cookie-cutter ex­periences: "In a time when people are less attracted to mass culture, people want experiences that are personal and authentic."

It was an unexpected insight from a digital festival, but an encouraging one for brands that are now being given a more powerful set of tools to tell stories and create deeper connections with their consumers.

Make it, don’t fake it
Another refrain – heard everywhere and encouraged by the availability of 3D printers – was the belief that to really understand an idea, you have to make it real.

The emphasis is less on strategy and more on the scientific method of "test and learn" or "rapid prototyping".

Agencies were encouraged to abandon the brainstorm and embrace the model of the hackathon – a democratic, super-fast approach to problem-solving that actually produces something at the end.

The approach requires a willingness to fail and, importantly, to collaborate. As Paul Bennett of Ideo said, the condition of entry is: "No dicks. No divas."

Dream big
But in an uncertain economy with no headline app, the biggest ticket in town was for a man who wants to create a human colony on Mars.

Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and now SpaceX, demoed the Falcon rocket – a piece of engineering so cutting-edge, Nasa wants to buy it. He believes it will enable manned flight beyond the moon and allow him "to die on Mars – just not on impact".

The talk brought out the child astronaut in me and my Karmarama colleagues, and reminded us of something we were inspired by time and time again at SXSW – that the best innovators are those who operate in the real world, but also bend it to their own vision.

So, all in all, quite a week, and a sense that, in its 20th year, SXSW is leaving its adolescent phase, embracing the real and giving us all a new toolkit to create better and more authentic experiences.

And if we can’t make that work, then at least Mars beckons…

How to achieve greatness

Alex Light, head of integration, Mcgarrybowen
SXSW is a big ol’ Lone Star Chili gumbo of people, experience, technology, innovation, insight and entrepreneurialism – often with a side of bullcrap and showboating. Half of the fun is getting straight in your head what is genuine innovation – and who just sells better than the next guy.

However, it is certainly possible to see positive habits and patterns of success emerge over the course of the week. Here are a few to ponder:

Optimisation doesn’t get you anywhere… it only makes where you are now slightly better.

Whether we’re talking about businesses, products or services, the clear advice was to quit noodling around making little optimisations and make a step-change.

It is what Larry Page calls the "Moonshot". In the case of Google and the Google X Lab, it has led to developments such as Google Glass and the Google self-driving car.

Brian Chesky, the Airbnb founder, referred to this principle as "the scary ideas". When ideating hundreds of features for Airbnb, he would only ever green-light the ones that scared the team.

It is pushing for these big jumps that motivates businesses, that stretches their talent. If I came away with one single overriding insight from the week, it was this: go all in, or don’t go at all.

Understand that "failure" is just a change of plans. I’ve worked with many big businesses over the years and, despite what anyone says to the contrary, failure is not an option.

But the businesses and people I’ve seen succeeding at SXSW are the ones that can progress faster than the curve. These are the businesses whose culture allows them to freely iterate and switch direction without perceiving things working out differently to how they planned as "failure".

Indeed, it is this ability to adapt to circumstance that lies at the core of both multinationals such as HTC ("Fail cheaply, fail often, be humble") and in smaller start-ups such as MakerBot. Bre Pettis of MakerBot was crystal-clear that his entire business is based on the principle of iteration, whether it’s baked into the philosophy of the rapid-prototyping 3D printers they sell, or representative of how they’ve grown and structured their Brooklyn-based business.

Many speakers talked about the importance of critical feedback as a motivator. The entrepreneur Ted Murphy said: "Remove yourself from the equation." Drop the ego and listen. This goes hand in hand with a sentiment shared by the Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley, about maintaining the ability to objectively assess your own work: "Know what you do well, know what you don’t." Many people talk about being their own worst critic, but do we really believe it and apply it in our day-to-day lives?

Another unlikely source of inspiration was frustration at the status quo. As Tina Roth Eisenberg pointed out when demonstrating her beautiful temporary tattoos: "Don’t complain, make things better."

When it comes to motivation, I’ll give the last word to Elon Musk: "Always throw yourself into the start-up. Don’t worry about whether it succeeds or fails, because it’s the momentum that is important – and you can take that to your next project."

Motivation, it seems, is an end unto itself.