Industry Thinking
March 22, 2022
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Future Nostalgia: SXSW 2022 Insights in 12 Quotes

After a two-year hiatus during which the world seemingly dwelled in a state of suspended animation, the SXSW Conference flickered back to life last week with a glimpse into the future. While the 2050 Track promised programming dedicated to “long-range, big-picture thinking that pushes the limits of what is humanly possible,” most speakers and panelists presented content that hovered closer to the five-year horizon line.

Fortunately, we also learned that we’ve already entered a golden age of commercial space exploration; we’re on the cusp of implementing what blockchain and the metaverse make possible; and—most importantly—good old in-person human interaction cannot be replaced by any of it.

In short, the future is now… and people really missed being with other people in beautiful Austin, Texas. For more texture, here are twelve quotes that sum up the insights we gathered between visits to the city’s many great taquerias.

“It’s science fiction. Until it’s not.”

—Dr. Tim Crain, Intuitive Machine’s Founder, Chief Technology Officer

In a panel discussion titled “The Commercial Space Age Is Here,” Dr. Tim Crain and his colleagues from NASA and the Houston-area space start-up community shared how the promise of a trillion-dollar space economy will drive wide-ranging breakthroughs on Earth, the moon and, yes, beyond.

Innovations cited during the conversation included biofabricating organs and tissue in microgravity to reduce cell stress during the bioprinting process; manufacturing rockets, telescopes and support systems on the moon to stage further exploration throughout the solar system; and creating processes that convert waste products back into water, air, food and fuel.

As Crain noted, the very subject of space exploration and the “overview effect” of seeing the Earth from space inherently “puts you in a conservation mind set” because you need to conserve, convert or create absolutely everything you need to survive in space, a frontier Door Dash has yet to conquer.

“Is your pitch more exciting than a squirrel dodging a Lamborghini? Because that’s what you’re up against.”

—Rohit Bhargava, Non-Obvious Trends Hunter

In his entertaining presentation of “10 Non-Obvious Trends Shaping 2022 and Beyond,” futurist Rohit Bhargava pointed out the obvious fact that we’re living in the age of data abundance in which viral video of a squirrel playing chicken with a high-performance racecar can drive the world to distraction (go ahead and watch below, we’ll wait).

His more non-obvious trends suggested ways to fight that trend, including leading with “empathy as a strategy” to appeal to those seeking more authentic human experiences; “taking a stand to show your values” to consumers demanding more sustainable and ethical practices; and offering more useful benefits in exchange for people’s “attention wealth,” reminding us to “beware of spectacle used for engagement.”

 

 

“We’re happy. And angry.”

While walking the exhibit hall playing Guess That Tech based on the “Silicon Valley”-worthy vendor names, we happened upon a large TV monitor broadcasting our live images with pop-up bubbles “reading” our emotions in real time. Except… they were wildly inaccurate, quickly cycling through a head-spinning range of labels, from Happy to Angry to Sad to Fearful. It left us feeling… Bemused.

Albeit creepy, invasive and subject to legal and ethical debate, emotion-recognition AI does have potential for customer-service applications and analyzing crowd moods, if somehow made consensual. Unfortunately, this particular vendor set the bar well below minimum viability before exposing their offering to SXSW exhibitors, ultimately leaving their stakeholders feeling Disappointed, a human might guess, by the response.

 

“Shop in ways that align with your values. Look for foods that are more sustainable. This is where we can tell the stories of the growers and producers.”

—Denise Osterhues, Kroger’s Sr. Director Sustainability and Social Impact

On a panel discussion about “Future Intersections of Food, Technology and Culture,” the power of story was showcased as a prime vehicle for creating the urgency needed to “unlock a more just, equitable, sustainable and scalable food system.”

While all the panelists admitted it was a highly complex but essential challenge to prioritize for the sake of human survival, Kroger’s Denise Osterhues reminded the audience that we can help affect change now by voting with our dollar and buying sustainable foods, which in turn ideally helps support the overall system.

For her part, Osterhues helps lead Kroger’s “Zero Waste, Zero Hunger” initiative, a “social and environmental impact plan to help create a more efficient and equitable food and charitable food system.”

 

“You’ll want to save your soundtrack because you’re composing music while you’re driving.”

—Boris Salchow, film composer and music technology director for Porsche Digital

The Porsche Digital team shared a glimpse into the future of automotive entertainment via their “Soundtrack My Life” passion project, an experiment in motion-adaptive sound.

To feed the car’s software, panelist Boris Salchow shared how he composed musical themes split into independent elements designed to react to the Porsche EV’s acceleration and steering. The result creates a unique driver-composed listening experience on every journey.

While the technology has yet to be, ahem, greenlighted for market, Norman Friedenberger, Porsche Digital’s Sr. Product Owner of Sound Experiences, noted the possibilities it could open for the future of EV and autonomous cars. He invited us to imagine, for instance, geo-fencing-enabled experiences that would create motion-adaptive and scenery-adaptive soundtracks that were only accessible in certain regions.

 

“The bad artists imitate. The great artists steal.”

Picasso Banksy

Streaming TV company Atmosphere curated a pop-up Banksy exhibit drawn from their founders’ collection. As with all of Banksy’s work, the piece above reminded us that a simple reframing of information can create a provocative new meaning. Sadly, the provocateur himself was not in attendance (that we could tell), nor was Massive Attack performing at this year’s SXSW music festival.

 

“Some NFT thing.”

As one would expect, there was no shortage of what trendhunter Bhargava dubbed “spectacle used for engagement” at this year’s SXSW. Pop-ups popped up to promote Prime Video’s “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” and “The Boys” properties, and a parking garage was converted into an interactive pastel funland promoting Doodles.

The simple aesthetic of Doodles’ artwork belies the complexity behind the “headless brand”’s concept, so buckle up for a layperson’s attempt to explain it. Doodles is an NFT (non-fungible token) collection and community of artists and collectors that operates as a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization).

In this case, the NFTs in question are digital artworks rendered “one of a kind” by provenance-tracking blockchain—the software that makes cryptocurrency possible—and the DAO is a self-governed club and independent ecosystem also made possible by blockchain and soon to be energized by Web 3.0, the imminent internet step change that will reportedly make all of us owners of our own data and therefore destinies.

The SXSW installation drew large crowds eager to experience the promise of interactive installations, Doodles-themed snacks and refreshments, a special gift shop and “exclusive surprises” for those who owned a stake in the collective.

At dusk, shortly after the crowds had dispersed to revel elsewhere, work crews moved in to uninstall the installations and make room for the next promotional spectacle—or just free up more parking space. Fascinated by the temporality of it all, we snapped a few photos as we wandered past, thinking the literal wrapping up of stars, castles and pastel scenery could serve as a fitting wrap-up of a report such as this one.

“What was it?” we asked a foreman as we peeked inside the space, eyeing the plastic-shrouded pastel bushels from the sidewalk. Before ushering us away from the site, he paused… shrugged… and said, “Some NFT thing.” Which, if you add “some metaverse thing,” could serve at the perfect summation of much of this year’s tech programming.

 

“Headless brands belong to no one.”

—Christian Ward, Head of Multimedia, Stylus Media Group

Headless brands refer to brands evolved by a community without a centralized managerial body. It’s a shift away from traditional, top-down branding. Essentially a playing field is created for a brand, rules are set, and then the community creates within the rules as they see fit.

The community owns a headless brand (e.g., Bitcoin or MetaFactory) and is empowered and enabled to monetize it. Beyond crowd-sourcing brand and product development efforts like those employed by Glossier, the communal ownership of a headless brand enables a provocative blend of like-minded colleagues and competitors to drive the brand.

 

“People now have a 2.5 second attention span in digital environment, which is an invigorating and horrifying challenge.”

—Maggie Lower, CMO of Hootsuite

An attention span study shows that ten years ago, the average attention span was eleven seconds. Inspired by the belief that people want to “see the humanity” in a brand, it’s an increasingly difficult challenge to engage audiences authentically as that attention span has shrunk to 2.5 seconds.

The rapid ascent of video content is a by-product of this. Layer on the “social Armageddon” over the last two years caused by the pandemic, businesses trying to sustain and grow have had to adapt their message and methods at an accelerated pace.

 

“The future is circular, not linear as it has been.”

—Anna Tillberg Pantzar, Head of Laboratory H&M, H&M Group

Innovation is part of everyone’s job—and it’s required more than ever in our changing world. A panel of Nordic futurists from Sweden, Finland and Denmark challenged us all to evolve what we have in front of us.

Anssi Komulainen, Project Director at The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra asserted that “Anything built by people can be changed by people.” We simply need one another to do collaboration.

Core to Nordic culture is the element of trust. A global study on trust found that 70% of Nordics trust each other in everyday life, compared to 30% in the UK and 40% in the US. Having a foundation of trust accelerates the speed of change. So, the rest of the world has their work cut out for them to increase levels of common trust and accountability.

 

If you think you’re too small to make a difference, spend a night with a mosquito.”

—African proverb

With a teasing title of “The $7 Billion F-Word,” the session hosted by the UN World Food Programme did not disappoint. With poignant personal stories and compelling statistics, it was made abundantly clear that the world’s hunger problem is completely solvable.

Enough food exists. Technology is rapidly enhancing the delivery and tracking of food and care to those who need it most. Global politics is a bigger barrier to solving hunger than governments choose to acknowledge.

By paying attention to the needs, leveraging individual talents and resources, turning our imagination into action, we have the power to end global hunger.

 

“Everything is a metaverse now, but guess what, it’s not. People have lost their minds.”

—Ian Beacraft, CEO & Chief Futurist, Signal and Cipher (a futures and foresight agency)

Everyone seems to be abusing the word metaverse. It is meant to be an escape from dystopian reality… to hang out in a virtual world… not a walled garden with a controlling entity at its helm. By its original definition, a metaverse operates from the bottom-up, not top-down.

Like the metaverse, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are widely misunderstood and misplayed. NFTs will continue their expansion as an integral part of the metaverse. NFT owners have IP (intellectual property) rights which allow them to not only connect to a community but generate income. The Bored Ape Yacht Club is an example of an economic engine powered by NFTs and the creativity and entrepreneurship of its owners.

It’s a brave new virtual world ahead!

 


Robert Cherry is EVP, Chief Creative Officer at Seed Strategy, where, as an irrepressible idea person, he creates an atmosphere of trust, inspiration and enthusiasm for his high-performing team and client partners.

Troy Geesaman is SVP, Strategy at Seed, where, as a natural connector, he brings together ideas and action; learning and context; humanity and leadership.

Hear an insightful quote at this year’s SXSW? Give us a shout to discuss.

Conferences are back—live and in-person! Check out our “8 Ah-Has from Expo West.”

 

 

 

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