Having been lucky enough to attend the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin Texas in 2016, I was apprehensive about the potentially negative changes I might see at this year’s event, since Trump’s inauguration.
In 2016, Obama was still President but also a keynote speaker at SXSW. He inspired audiences with his talk on ‘Civic Engagement in the 21st Century.’ Likewise, Michelle Obama attended to discuss her Let Girls Learn initiative.
Conversely, this year no President (nor First Lady) would be in attendance.
No biggie, Melania’s speeches aren’t her strong suit and Trump’s technological passion seems to be sporadic tweeting. But I was worried the festival would be overshadowed, by the inevitable sense of dread emanating from the tech community. Surely this would be a vastly changed America, and not for the better.
In some ways my instincts were right about a sense of negativity, but I’m pleased to say on the whole I was wrong. It was a festival about change, action and putting the power back in the hands of the people.
Of course, it wasn’t all rays of sunshine. Progressive America is definitely hurting from the laws and repeals being brought in. As Dave McClure, Investor and Founder of 500 Startups pointed out, Silicon Valley is likely to feel the changes to immigration laws the most. With as many as 50% of their most successful startups having an immigrant founder, they will have to send their investments offshore to find the diversity of ideas they incubated pre-Trump.
Likewise, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards talked about the impacts of new laws on an organisation that provides healthcare to millions of mostly low-income Americans. Medical centres, which beyond their pro-choice services, provide STI and breast checks to millions of Americans who would otherwise go without.
But these concerns weren’t the key takeout of that talk, or the festival overall. Cecile was joined by Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp to announce a new partnership called #TechStandsWithPP to help demonstrate support. The one hour session was an inspirational discussion on the role of social media in helping story telling to try and normalise, to empathise, to educate and importantly to show support and help spread the word. Cecile asked us all, “If we don't stand up for our values now, when do we do it?”
This session was just one of many with technological activism at its core. The message was about technology as a force for good. A message we heard loud and clear. Countless talks highlighted technology as an enabler. How it gives us a voice. How it empowers us all to stand up and be heard. It connects us and brings us together to protest, unencumbered by borders.
Like a mass reaction to a government in climate change denial, this year’s festival also saw an even greater number of examples of technology being used to fix the planet and the communities that live on it. Whether it’s planet.org making near real time satellite data available to those trying to combat deforestation or early stage startup Farm From a Box, which has developed solar powered sheds to grow crops in communities that need it most. It was an inspiring example of change being driven not through governments, but through people and businesses with purpose driven action at their core.
This years SXSW Interactive was a festival about the power of technology to drive action. Best summed up in the words of Gary Vaynerchuk, outspoken entrepreneur and author, on his advice for people in the age of Trump. “Do, don’t dwell.” Great inspiration, at a time when we need it most.
By Leo Burnett head of connect strategy, Emily Taylor