Austin, Texas, USA (Weltexpress). The sister to the classic SXSW Music and Film Festivals is fast gaining ground as a “must-attend” event for anyone interested in the industries that will define the future – or the future that will define our industries.
Just finished its 9th go-around, SXSW Interactive has once again provided a terrific playing field for a bunch of people who can not only imagine the future, but are already in some cases inventing and living it. Remember, it was here that Twitter was launched in 2007, and this year the air was thick with expectation that around every corner we would all encounter the Next Big Thing. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way, but SXSW Interactive still offers a powerful forum for the interactive industries and a showcase for their development.
Starting with just three and a half thousand registrants back in 2005, in the five years from 2007 to 2012, attendance jumped four-fold to a seam-popping 24 600 (see graph below), and the figures for 2013 are up by at least 5% on that. So what to do with all the future-hungry curious gathered in Austin, Texas – that seems to be the issue that has challenged the planners of what is undoubtedly one of the most exciting festivals of its kind today.
Let’s start on the downside. For the uninitiated, as I was, the confusion began with the subcontracted shuttle service operating between the hotels and the Austin Convention Center, the primary venue for SXSW Interactive. On Day One, a slightly bemused-looking driver arrived at our hotel, picking up several of us lanyard-wearing hopefuls and sped off north, heading in the opposite direction to town. Assuming that there were perhaps others to be collected, I ventured to ask after a few minutes whether the shuttle was headed for the Austin Convention Center, to which the driver nodded vigorous assent, and continued on his erroneous journey north. A few highway turnoffs later he was heard to mutter “Oops – wrong direction!” before turning round at the first opportunity and heading back into town. Needless to say, we all arrived too late for our first planned sessions.
And then there were the lines. These sometimes extended right around entire city blocks, with queuing for up to 1 ½ hours the norm for some events. The keynote speech by Elon Musk on Day 2 had eager participants lining up for the event before the keynote, just so they would be in situ for the keynote by surely one of the most extraordinarily modest, multi-talented entrepreneurs on the planet. Seating 1500 people, the hall was jam-packed, and remained that way for the next session – an interview with the controversial, plain-speaking Al Gore, talking primarily about his new book, “The Future – Six Drivers of Global Change”. But to partake in this feast of gathered talents I for one had to forego a fascinating presentation by Ping Fu “Digital Reality: Life in Two Worlds” on more future-worthy material including 3D printing, as it took place upstairs in the Austin Convention Center while I was standing in line.
But at least I got in. Early on Day Two I turned up well before the doors were due to open for a 9,30am session on Digital Health, only to find myself at the tail end of a queue of some 50 people. As this was being held in a hotel meeting room seating a mere 60 people, just across from the ACC, it was quickly made clear to us that there was little chance of us getting in. A SXSW volunteer went along the line, warning us that the room was already full and that though we were welcome to wait, only if someone actually left their seat would anyone from the line be able to take their place. We dispersed and some of us went around the corner to another suite in the hotel to see what else might be on offer in the same venue, as it was getting too late to travel to the Parmer Center where other gaming and interactive sessions were taking place. Alas, we were similarly disappointed: the other hotel rooms were full up too. For several, it was not the first session they had been unable to attend. One middle-aged representative of a local publishing company admitted to feeling “mildly frustrated” at being turned away from what was now the third session in two days, having paid for his badge in the expectation of being able to stick more or less to his schedule of interest. In view of the fact that health and related issues comprise 1/5th of the US economy, and the digitization of the industry is a hugely relevant and rapidly-changing aspect of the interactive and related industries, it seemed strange that the organizers would have misjudged the interest the session would generate and select such a dismissively cramped venue.
Another poor decision was choosing a venue seating a mere 120 for a presentation by a self-proclaimed Futurist from a large motor company. The line stretched around the city block, with several hundred hopefuls standing around in the rain for an hour and half before most of them were turned away, disappointed.
Organizers were quick to say that this inability to get into some sessions could actually enrich the SX experience for badgeholders, who were then often obliged to attend a session that they wouldn’t otherwise have bothered with, frequently discovering new and interesting things along the way. While this is no doubt a valid assumption in some cases, not all Interactive visitors who carefully plan their schedule online before they even leave home are quite so willing to sacrifice their interests and spend their time listening to people rattle on about issues that are quite unrelated to their own. However, as the organizers firmly claimed, this was precisely the serendipity and creativity that SXSW has always sought to provide its audiences. And during the course of SXSWi I was gradually brought around to the thinking that, certainly as far as happy coincidences, unexpected insights and the making of new friends were concerned, they were right.
What has happened to SXSWi is that it now attracts an audience with a wide range of interests: there are those who attend for professional development purposes, either discovering new aspects of their current field of activities or new activities altogether to which they can match their skills, those who are trend-spotting for their industry, or eager young geeks keen on learning how to manage a start-up, where to find funding – concerns that have largely been the domain of the larger gaming and interactive events such as the GDCs held variously in the US, Germany and China. But there are also those who are happy to fit in with SXSWi director Hugh Forrest’s calmly idealistic view that audiences should take advantage of the serendipity which is at the core of the SX concept and experience, and just browse – step out of their comfort zone and try out something new. However, for many, the cost of the ticket is related specifically to the benefit of the takeaways, and such happenstance is a luxury that they are not sure they can afford.
The sessions, events, panel discussions, keynotes and vast pool of resources gathered in Austin (where the standard T-shirt slogan is “Keep Austin Weird”) and made available by the organizers of SXSWi is truly an astonishing and sumptuous feast, but unless the logistics problems are addressed – perhaps by spinning it off from the other parts of the festival so that all the available venues can be dedicated to SXSWi – it runs the risk of becoming a victim of its own success.