South By Southwest (SXSW) is one of the world’s biggest and most influential interactive festivals, where nerds are celebrities and everyone is trying to launch the next Twitter. Amongst the expected focus on wearables, startups and the-internet-of-everything, a distinctly global flavor is starting to creep in to the event this year.
Make no mistake, the U.S of A. is still largely where it’s at for SXSW (Chevrolet and Miller Lite are major sponsors, Chelsea Clinton was just announced as a keynote speaker), but the event is showing signs of opening up to a wider world. A quick run through the more than 800 talks, panels, discussions and workshops listed in the 5 day programme reveals several sessions dedicated specifically to exploring creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Lessons from Asia’s megacities
Singapore in particular has emerged as a source of some of the more promising content, with regional analyst and trendwatcher Tara Hirebet scheduled to deliver ‘How Overcrowded Asian Cities Inspire Innovation’. After spending several years in China studying consumerism and urbanisation, Hirebet is now based in the Singapore branch of The Hub, a global network of co-working spaces for entreprenuers, technologists and creatives.
“When you’re looking for a way to make sense of all the different emerging trends in culture, in technology, in government and in society, cities provide the most meaningful context,” explains Hirebet. “Cities are now built in an ad-hoc reactionary mode, and so people are living in them in an ad hoc reactionary mode – they are overstretched, overworked and struggling. This isn’t sustainable.”
More problems? Yes, but also more solutions.
Following the axiom that necessity is the mother of invention, Hirebet sees the pressures of overcrowding, pollution, food safety, employment and traffic as major drivers of grassroots urban innovation. “People in Asia no longer automatically look to governments to solve these problems. Citizens are starting to take the reins, but will still look to large organisations for infrastructure and resources. We have no roadmap here.”
She cites the rapid iteration of a Google docs-based ‘help list’ in the wake of devastating floods in India as an example of crowd-sourced innovation, backed by privately-provided infrastructure. The same approach was replicated soon after to cope with floods in Manila, and then again in India. Google itself quickly became more involved, offering up maps and other data to create more detailed and useful tools.
Global brands: making themselves at home in Asia
Hirebet agrees there are real opportunities for brands to become involved in this era of citizen-powered urban innovation, but cautions they must remain cognizant of the unique forces that are shaping Asian cities: extremely rapid development, changing government structures, cultures based on community living and a rising entrepreneurial class.
“I’m really looking forward to all of the sessions discussing the notion of ‘Cities 2.0’ that will be at SXSW this year,” said Hirebert. “Just being surrounded by that many people who are actively thinking and talking about the future of cities is going to be exciting. It certainly feels that there is a lot more ‘global’ content on offer this year.” Several of Hirebet’s co-HUBbers will also be speaking at the conference, including Singapore-based entrepreneurs Grace Clapham and Bernice Ang with their presentation ‘Co-Creation by Design: Asia, Women & Innovation’.
While the Asian representation at ‘Southby’ has certainly been growing in recent years, the content is not always pro the region: witness the ominously titled ‘The Intangible (& Uncalculated) Cost of Asia.’
SXSW 2014 runs from March 7 to 14.
ogilvydo will be covering the event, focusing on trends and insights for brands, marketers and innovators.