5 New Trends to Expect at SXSW This Year

Politics, blockchain and cannabis are getting a boost

At SXSW, 25 tracks will help attendees navigate discussions on everything from AI and VR to advertising and music.
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It can be tricky deciding how to spend a weekend or even a week at South By Southwest.

The annual event in Austin, Texas, which starts today, brings hundreds of speakers and tens of thousands of attendees to talk about the present and future of technology and culture. This year, 25 tracks will help attendees navigate discussions on the future of everything from artificial intelligence and virtual reality to more traditional topics like advertising and music.

SXSW 2019 also has some newcomers, namely two new tracks to come later next week: one for blockchain technology and another about the business of cannabis. Other focuses this year are more sobering, such as list of Democratic presidential candidates and plenty of talks about the dangers of social media and data privacy.

“The best-case scenario is that the sessions don’t just reflect [the current state of tech], but also offer some solutions going forward with systems that more people trust,” said SXSW chief programming officer Hugh Forrest.

Politics plays a bigger role

While past SXSW speakers have included big-name political leaders like then-President Barack Obama, this year’s field of Democratic speakers offers a lens into next year’s presidential race. However, it might also be a preview of how some politicians are planning to regulate big tech.

“I think it reflects where we are in 2019 that politics are much more front and center in people’s minds,” Forrest said. “We’re always trying to focus two or three years ahead and 2020 falls squarely into that bucket.”

The focus is largely on Democrats this year, but it’s not because SXSW doesn’t want Republicans to join in the conversation about the future of tech or the future of the nation. A few GOP leaders will be in town this week, including former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but it’s been historically hard to get Republicans to the conference. Forrest said he would like to see more bipartisan and nonpartisan participation next year.

“If you’re having conversions about future issues and future policies, they’re not as complete as they should be if it’s just one side of the table having these conversations,” he said.

Leigh Christie, director of Isobar’s NowLab, said the Democratic primaries will sway conversations about the future of innovation. Candidates are talking increasingly about data regulation, AI and other topics and how they affect every American. It also helps tech companies understand how the narratives are shifting.

“The radicalization of politics has led many many tech entrepreneurs start to think more about the relationships between tech and politics, or technopolitics,” he said.

Blockchain is more central

Spring is just around the corner, and some say it’s possible the blockchain industry might be soon seeing the end of the “crypto winter”—a season of cryptocurrency value declines and overall period of pessimism about decentralization.

This year, SXSW is hosting a three-day blockchain track from March 14-16 that will including discussions ranging from the regulation of cryptocurrencies to how it can improve everything from voting to food supplies.

“Blockchain is becoming more and more of a backbone of our connected society so it makes sense to have that at SXSW,” Forrest said.

Tonight, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, known for their early involvement with Facebooks, will deliver a keynote on behalf of their company Gemini on why cryptocurrencies should be regulated.

The cannabis hype grows

Another evolving nationwide trend is the business of cannabis, which is getting its own three-day track about how brands can think about the emerging industry, what it means for criminal justice reform and how it affects users’ health.

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