5 Themes That Kept Popping Up at This Year’s SXSW

Many of them intersected seamlessly across panels, activations and side conversations

Elizabeth Warren talking on stage at a SXSW event
Sen. Elizabeth Warren was one of a few politicians who made appearances at SXSW this year. Getty Images
Headshot of David Armano

I just completed attending my 12th consecutive year at SXSW so I have the ability to assess the most recent SXSW in the context of its predecessors, a comprehensive way to evaluate the festival.

This year seemed busier and less sparse than last. In contrast, much like the previous years, there was no single standout digital platform that emerged. The last one to explode upon the scene was Meerkat, which, not unlike Foursquare before it, rapidly became commoditized or replicated by the larger platforms. In fact, the large platforms and tech companies themselves were one of the key themes of this year’s SXSW, both from a regulatory standpoint as well how they impact society.

This year’s SXSW could probably be summed up by five recurring themes that could be felt the panels, casual conversations, convention centers and even in an Uber, Lyft or on electric scooters.

The power of progressive populist politics

I had the opportunity to shake the hand of Howard Schultz at the Four Seasons in Austin and introduce myself. He even made it a point to look me in the eye and come over and shake my hand once more before leaving. As he walked away, I knew in my gut that he was going to have his work cut out for him with this crowd, and it turns out that his talk ended up receiving mixed reviews.

[SXSW is] quickly becoming a global festival where conversations around technology, society and culture collide by design and serendipity.

Of the political players that attended SXSW this year (and there were many), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had the most attended as well as the most talked about session. Days before her appearance, Senator Warren announced her position that big tech should be broken up. The upcoming 2020 election was definitely on the minds of attendees at SXSW, and for this crowd, the more progressive the policies, ideas and rhetoric, the better.

Wellness is the new black

For the second year, SXSW included a “Wellness Expo” in a 125-square-foot space, but the topics of wellness, mindfulness and all aspects of health ranging from nutrition to physical to emotional could be felt within and beyond the walls of the Palmer Events Center.

On the content side, Michael Acton Smith, CEO of mindfulness app Calm, could be found on an offsite panel with celebrity Matthew McConaughey, who narrates one of the app’s sleep stories. On the streets, you could run into people like Jeff Dachis, founder of the One Drop diabetes management platform, which combines an Apple-like user experience in both its software and hardware design.

This intersection between technology and all aspects of health could be found pervasively at SXSW and is only likely to grow. The need for better solutions to proactively manage health and the desire for all players in this space to have access to the valuable data that comes with your health management will spark that growth.

“Techlash” hits critical mass

At last year’s SXSW, you could sense that something was on the horizon in terms of the industry’s attitude toward itself in addition to its self-awareness. This year, the “techlash” could be felt in every direction.

Author and digital veteran Brian Solis leveraged his platform as a featured session speaker to share his personal journey of coming to terms with the distractions and downsides of social media. A panel titled “Generation Lonely: 10,000 Followers and No Friends” contemplated the epidemic of loneliness in society despite being more digitally connected than ever before. In addition to tech monopolies and the effect of technology on our emotional wellbeing, topics like AI, automation and algorithms were debated more vigorously compared to previous years.

The continuation of women in tech

Last year’s SXSW had no shortage of panels discussing the role of women in tech or advancing women’s work with STEM. A quick scan of the SXSW site using the word “women” returns at approximately official 50 sessions or events (there were more unofficial woman-centric sessions), and with the timing of International Women’s Day at the kickoff of the event, the festival has become a perfect conduit for continuing the tradition of discussing all things women empowerment. Panels like “How Women Are Re-building the Man-Made Internet,” featuring panelists such as Bumble’s chief brand officer Alex Williamson, have fast become a staple at SXSW and are likely to continue as such.

Brands probe their higher purpose

For marketers exploring the brand track at SXSW, even if there weren’t tracks dedicated to exploring the topic of a brand’s higher purpose specifically, it could be felt in many conversations both onstage and off given both the political and cultural environment. Senior executives from brands who know a thing or two about brand purpose—including Patagonia’s Corley Kenna, Lyft’s Joy Howard and Airbnb’s Nancy King—discussed the importance of a brand’s values.

Some of the above recurring themes overlapped effortlessly, such as brand purpose and politics or politics with techlash or wellness meeting techlash, but each of these themes were big and pervasive enough to also stand on their own. SXSW was once a place where aspiring digital platforms made their debut, but it’s quickly becoming a global festival where conversations around technology, society and culture collide by design and serendipity.


@armano David Armano is global strategy director for DJE Holdings.
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