Urban Diplomacy, Tech-Policy Makers in Action, Innovation from China and New Tools for Story-Telling: A Recap of SXSW 2018

With over 5,000 speakers, 4,000 media, nearly 2,500 sessions and over 70,000 participants from 90 countries, South by South West (SXSW) represents the new Mecca not only for creative, marketing and advertising executives, but increasingly, communications and policy leaders from across all sectors, including cities and governments from all over the world. It was the perfect convergence of our work at APCO Worldwide on tech policy, advocacy and global partnerships and I was joined by my colleagues Kelsey Harclerode and Jerri Ann Henry to explore new trends and opportunities for our firm and clients.

Anyone who has been to SXSW knows that it is literally impossible to cover it all – do you go to Elon Musk’s or Melinda Gates’ session? Do you attend a lunch at Fast Company Grill, embark on an interactive tour of the Google House powered entirely by AI or try to score a ticket to HBO’s mind-blowing WestWorld experience? Despite endless dilemmas and FOMO, here are some key takeaways and highlights from the past few days:

Cities and urban diplomacy

Apart from a dedicated 2-day Cities track that brought together diverse stakeholders to discuss how we build more equitable, resilient, and livable cities, there were numerous city and national-focused panels and activations: Smart Dubai OfficeBerlin and Hamburg Houses, House of Scandinavia, House of Brazil, EU @SXSW and much more. Washington DC was rebranded as the “Capital of Inclusive Innovation” and included a heavy presence from DC city government, in-house tech policy pros and local business leaders. There was a robust program at WeDC, focused on future of mobility, diversity, start-ups and much more.

Policymakers in action

Several current members of Congress participated in SXSW panels—including Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-CA), Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL), Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA). From artificial intelligence to patent trolls, the legislators spoke on a wide variety of tech policy issues that Congress is currently tackling. But it was their comments on cybersecurity and election hacking that truly stole the show. Sen. Warner outlined a four-part cyber doctrine touching on cyber norms, software liability, IoT security, and cyber defense investments, while Rep. Sewell—who spoke on three panels and currently sits on the House Committee on Intelligence—criticized the partisan divide on Russia’s interference in the 2016 Presidential Election and applauded the efforts by Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms to cooperate with the Intelligence Committee. A few members of the Trump Administration also attended SXSW: Alvand Salehi, the Senior Technology Advisor at the White House, spoke about Code.gov—a project he co-founded while serving under the Obama Administration. Matt Lira, the Special Assistant to the President for Innovation Policy and Initiatives at the White House Office of American Innovation, defended President Trump during the “Tech Under Trump: A 2017/2018 Scorecard”. Lira and Aneesh Chopra, former Chief Technology Officer under President Obama clashed on the effects of President Trump’s immigration and tax policies on U.S. innovation, but found common ground on several issues including IT modernization.

New innovation narrative from China

Shanying Leung (head of design for Alibaba’s AntFinancial – formerly AliPay) led an oversubscribed session on cashless cities and e-commerce. Talking about human-centric design, empathy and demonstrating Alibaba’s commitment to solving some of China’s intractable problems including pollution and income inequality, Leung demonstrated how advanced Chinese companies are becoming in story-telling.

New media and story-telling

There was numerous sessions and discussions on future of content and audience engagement. Quartz and Axios journalists talked aboutbringing design thinking to news organizations and making sure that the media didn’t just “embrace the new hot technologies – from bots to AI”, but reflected if these innovations better served their audience. Ira Glass, dubbed the king of podcast, talked about achieving audio storytelling success, asserting that it was still a vastly unexplored territory for most of the brands.

Overall, SXSW provided lessons for today’s activism. With increasingly polarized societies, advocacy groups must find new methods and messages to carry their causes. Today’s voters or consumers are also much more informed and engaged and have access to copious amounts of information. Authenticity and empathy emerged as distinctive takeaways on what defines a successful advocacy campaign.

No one-size-fits-all approach will work, and as advocacy becomes more personalized it is critical to provide ways for individuals to relate to issues in their own way. They will need to hear from the ambassadors they trust who can share a common idea colored by their own experiences and perspectives. In some cases, there will be disagreement on the campaigns messages, but as one panelist said, “empathy can exist without endorsement.”

APCO’s Jerri Ann Henry and Kelsey Harclerode contributed to this piece.