Missed SXSW 2014? Our Executive member Gareth Jones (DigitasLBi) was there and he’s put together this re-run of key trends and insider advice for newbies and old-hands alike.
Gareth says: It’s become something of a cliché to talk about the disruptive power of technology, but this doesn’t make it any less of a truism. And if SXSW is about anything, it’s about disruption. This year more than ever the connective tissue linking all the product wizardry, technological innovations and emerging cultural memes is their ability to transform the very fabric of our society.
It takes a trip out to Austin to realise this. Before I went for the first time I rather naively assumed the festival would be full of lots of nerds and techie types talking about things that had little or no bearing on the wider world.
I was wrong. SXSW is much more a kind of mad, booze-fuelled ideas incubator – full of brands, start-ups, entrepreneurs and VCs.
The brands want to talk to the cool new start-ups. The start-ups want to talk to the VCs and the VCs want to talk to the hot new entrepreneurs.
No one really wants to talk to us agency types.
We’re just there to pick up the tab for the parties. If we stopped going to Cannes it wouldn’t happen. If we stopped going to SXSW no one would notice. Which is fine because it’s not for us.
That’s what makes SXSW interesting.
For me the image above is what SXSW is all about…
Fred Ersham, former Goldman Sachs trader who left to co-found Coinbase, an online payment system aimed at making bitcoin easy to use. The company now processes bitcoin payments for the likes of OkCupid and Reddit. This man will change the face of our global currency, forever.
He sums up the bravery, ambition and utterly disruptive power that characterises SXSW for me.
The themes that dominated SXSW this year were undeniably human, unlike previous years when the festival has focused more purely on technology and innovation.
The headline grabbing talks saw Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowdon warn of the dangers posed by mass surveillance in the digital age. They called on the industry to help protect the privacy of internet users.
Beneath the headlines, sessions also emphasised how technology is opening up new streams of personal data that allow marketers to track consumer behaviour on an unprecedented level.
The issue for us is finding the balance between improving customer experience and protecting personal data privacy online.
27% of Americans are already wearing some form of medical sensor on their bodies. These tell us how various organs are performing, when we need to take our medication, what dose to take etc.
However, we also heard about contact lenses that constantly track insulin levels in diabetes patients and galvonic skin sensors that can measure your actual mood as opposed to the mood you think you’re in.
But it gets really interesting when these sensors become embedded in your body. And the human body effectively becomes the next interface.
There are many example of this but the one that sticks in my mind for obvious reasons is the ‘heart attack ringtone’. It’s an implanted device that senses internal changes that are a precursor to a heart attack and rings ahead to warn you.
It doesn’t exist yet but in my mind it looks a little this this – set to the sound of crazy frog…
We all know the robot apocalypse is coming ever since Google acquired Boston Dynamics. It’s only a matter of when. SXSW confirmed this.
The world’s moved beyond robots that do your hoovering or clean your pool and into the realm of this.
Flying taser drone.
It get’s really interesting at the point where robotics and biology meet i.e. when technology becomes integrated into the human body.
The first stage of this is wearable technology, which was probably the dominant theme at SXSW this year.
The key takeaway is that wearables are finally going beyond fitness to transform the way we interact with brands.
It’s not just about wearable gadgets like smartwatches, fitness bands, or Google Glass but sensors embedded in your jacket, in your shoe or in your body.
Similarly it’s not about the internet of things anymore. It’s about harnessing the power of technology to create the connected self and enabling people to become part of the internet of everything – where machines, objects, people and animals are ALL interconnected.
This is the thing I want to talk most about. Design consultancy Ideo and MIT Media Lab have teamed up on a project called Made In the Future, which looks at how we will design, manufacture, and distribute things in the future.
What new tools or technologies will we create?
How will they change the way we behave and learn?
It’s well worth checking out. And it pulls together a number of themes that run throughout SXSW about how the way we make stuff – a key characteristic of what defines us as human beings – is fundamentally changing.
In our lifetime global manufacturing has been centralised into hubs.
Stuff is built at scale in one place and then shipped around the world where it is sold locally – think American cars, Chinese electronics, Brazilian coffee etc.
Recently, thanks to the ability to share ideas and inspiration freely across the web the ‘maker movement’ emerged.
Components were still produced centrally but were assembled locally by enthusiastic amateurs.
Etsy, the ecommerce site for handmade products, generated over a billion dollars worth of revenue last year emphasising the demand for this kind of manufacturing.
Companies like Quirky and Kickstarter continue to provide the funding necessary to fuel the growth of the so called maker movement.
Now, we are entering a third phase in the evolution of ‘making’.
3D printing has made it possible to create rudimentary objects like key rings and iPhone cases but so far this has failed to set the world on fire.
However, so-called factory-in-a-box innovations like the Thing-O-Matic and MicroFactory are allowing people to make and assemble complex products from scratch in the comfort of their own homes or garages.
Long manufacturing supply chains are being replaced by a process of shipping data over the internet to people so they can make products on demand where and when they are needed.
This has fundamental implications on the way things are made, sold and marketed around the world.
The knock on effect for brands could be game changing.
As Douglas Rushkoff explains in his book Life Inc. brands were only created to substitute for the direct relationship that used to exist between buyer and seller.
For example, people used to buy their oats from the miller, then industrialisation came along and made it possible for oats to be produced faster, more cheaply and on a much bigger scale.
Suddenly instead of buying your oats from a human being you knew, you were buying them from a factory thousands of miles away
They came in a brown box and there was no miller to be seen.
Then in 1901 the Quaker Oats brand was created. Suddenly instead of seeing the miller at the general store you’d see his face on a box
Quaker had changed the way America bought its oats by replacing the human being that people knew with a fictitious brand.
If manufacturing continues to evolve in this vein we could find ourselves in a scenario in which it is cheap, easy and reliable to buy a nearly-one-of-a-kind mobile phone, tablet or even a smart TV from a friend or neighbour.
Suddenly, making the same purchase from a faceless organisation with which you have no personal connection doesn’t seem so compelling.
Brands may find themselves in a situation where today’s corporate powerhouses are replaced with millions of much smaller ‘micro brands’ that more closely reflect the dynamics of an interpersonal relationship.
Whether this happens or not is largely irrelevant, there is a clear lesson that today’s brands can learn from their potential future: be more human.
It is already more important than ever for brands to define and communicate their purpose. According to Max Lenderman, CEO and principal of School, nine-out-of-10 consumers will choose a brand that has a purpose over a similar priced rival devoid of one.
Therefore we all need to focus on adding value and injecting meaning into what we do.
About the author: Gareth Jones is Chief Brand & Content Officer / International Chief Marketing Officer at DigitasLBi. He tweets @GJ.