A young, mixed race woman’s perspective into what makes an experience extraordinary.
South by Southwest (aka SXSW, aka South-by) is insane.
Perhaps not the most articulate way start to this piece, but I’m choosing truth over eloquence, because I genuinely can’t think of another way to describe my first South-by experience.
For 10 days, the city of Austin, Texas is completely taken over by tens of thousands of people looking to discover, learn, be inspired, network, and above all, just have a good time. In essence, the SXSW Conference & Festivals is a showcase of the latest in technology, film, art, music, brand experiences and more. In reality, it’s a melting pot of people and experiences that are full of contradictions, yet somehow altogether create something extraordinary.
One minute you’re watching movie stars like Lupita Nyong’o or Matthew McConaughey walk the red carpet. Next, you’re in a poorly organised and somewhat creepy venue, lured in by the promise of free BBQ and beer by a brand you’ve never heard of, trying to work out what they’re even promoting and if the free food is worth it. There are conference panels and brand activations that leave you feeling excited for the future, having caught a glimpse of tech innovations that will transform our lives. At the same time, there are daily frustrations with the SXSW official event app, which although useful, could be a more seamless experience.
Despite all of this, the contradictions are what make the festival profoundly, perhaps definitively, more human. Full of flaws and perfections, which whether conscious or unconscious, broaden our horizons and inspire creativity. This was perfectly summarised by one of the film attendees I spoke to:
“Even if I didn’t engage in other disciplines and tracks at the festival, it’s an important reminder that there are these other things out there that shape both the actual world, and our processing of it. Industries like film, music and tech are notoriously insular. Part of the SXSW experience is the reminder that other stuff is out there – and that’s beneficial to be reminded of that.”
With that, let’s take a look at the diverse and fascinating people I spoke to and things I saw along the way that made an impression on my quest for extraordinary:
1. Amazon Prime Video’s Good Omens
Out of all the brand activations, Amazon Prime’s ‘Good Omens’ felt the most immersive and authentic South-by experience. You couldn’t go ten minutes walking the streets of Austin without seeing a Good Omens bus wrap or interacting with angels, demons and even singing nuns. The “Garden of Earthly Delights” transported guests into the world of the show, with various activations including a “Hellhound Puppy Pen” with puppies from the Austin Animal Center, lounges for manicures, magicians, sword swallowers and more. It was a festival within a festival – an oasis from the rest of SXSW – where guests seemed comfortable, spending a lot of time connecting with the brand and above else, each other. I had the chance to speak to two visitors and learn more about what they found extraordinary about the Good Omens experience:“It’s a coherent story across all touchpoints. All their mini activations are based on where you are and they make sure to weave it into what you’re living at that moment.”
2. Hats off to great fashion and even greater personalitiesWhether it’s on the red carpet or the streets of Austin, when it comes to fashion, anything goes at SXSW. If I had a ‘Best Dressed’ award to hand out, it would go to these two. Not only were they serving major looks, but they exuded so much uniqueness and personality:
“With all festivals and concerts, it’s all about bringing people together. We love that it’s all about the people – about the human beings and the stories we can tell at SXSW.”
3. LG Inspiration GalleryI was looking for extraordinary tech gadgets at SXSW and I found them at LG’s Inspiration Gallery. LG’s pop-up was a sleekly designed, well-produced space showcasing a series of prototype products. They ranged from a rollable TV screen (the LG Signature OLED TV R), to a pod-based ice cream-making gadget and an AI-powered K-pop performing robot boy band. The entire showcase was engaging, relevant and tangible to improving everyday life. Overall, I thought this activation did a great job of improving brand perception, showcasing LG as a truly modern and innovative brand.
4. “I’d appreciate a beautiful warm chocolate chip cookie and a glass of wine.”Boston Consulting Group (BCG) hosted a series of events at the SXSW Interactive Festival, including an AI-curated photography gallery and rooftop conversations with TED around the human experience with technology (TED’s first time ever at SXSW). The photography was beautiful, the content strong, and the experience creatively designed. Speaking with a BCG representative on what has or hasn’t hit the mark during their SXSW experience, the following observations were entirely relatable and spot on:
“I’d appreciate a beautiful warm chocolate chip cookie and glass of wine. What’s the place to go to as an after-spot for people to relax and enjoy music after a day of talks and activations? What a wonderful place that would be. I would stay there for hours.”
5. 3D printed sushi at the SXSW Trade Show3D printed sushi is here and it’s happening!! Japanese company, Open Meals, had a booth at the SXSW Trade Show and I was completely wowed by the demonstration of its concept product “8-bit sushi.” Fusing science, technology and sushi, the idea is to collect bio-samples from diners to create foods tailored to individual requirements. And it’s more than just a crazy demo at a crazy festival. Sushi Singularity is a concept restaurant set to open in Tokyo in 2020 using a system of robotic arms and 3D printers to create individually tailored, pixelated sushi. Anyone who knows me knows that sushi is my favourite food group, so this was pretty much the coolest thing I saw during my ten days at SXSW!
6. Keep SXSW weirdAs I reflect upon my first ever SXSW, and as odd as it may sound, the highlight of my week and perfect summary of my experience was electric scooters. Brands like Uber, Bird and Lyft deployed thousands of e-scooters all over downtown Austin, which you could easily access via an app and use to travel (up to 15 miles per hour) between hotels, events, panels, and parties. They were weird, somewhat overwhelming, but so much fun. And that kind of summarises SXSW itself. It’s a festival full of unexpected moments, overwhelming decisions and unique quirks. But the more time you spend at South-by, the more you fall in love with it. By the end of the week, I wasn’t just a fan, but I was a true advocate of the festival, and I absolutely can’t wait to go back (much like my friend from Brazil).“I’ve been coming to SXSW for 10 years in a row and 10 years ago it was authentic. Now it’s all solutions and corporate BS. 80% of the talks are by corporations. People were more idealistic back then.”
But why keep coming back?
“I’m from Brazil, which is quite a conservative country. SXSW keeps me weird. It reminds me that I have to be weird.”