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SXSW 2017

People, Not Politics, Will Change The World

At SXSW 2016, the talk of the town was Obama. With the then-sitting President visiting Austin to deliver an honest, frank and inspiring interview focusing on collaboration between government and startups, there was a sense of optimism around making change at the federal level with the help of the fast moving innovation community. Obama even launched his own version of SXSW, South by South Lawn, to mirror the Texan festival in his own Washington back yard.

This year was very different. A lot can change in 365 days, and Obama’s departure from the White House took with it the optimism of the SXSW community that they would be able to work closely with government at a federal level.

But sentiment wasn’t of the ‘all is lost’ nature. Instead, SXSW 2017 was a place where the idea that change comes from the bottom up rang truer than ever before. The festival agenda included 27 panels focusing on community activism in some respect, and throughout the conference centre, large signs denounced the Texan Republican’s ‘bathroom bill’, helping to foster the idea that civil engagement was not just to be celebrated, but encouraged.

Vivek Murthy, the United States’ Surgeon General, spoke with Fred Durst of IDEO during their panel ‘One Nation Under Stress’ about the importance of improving the health of the nation’s minds. With Murthy listing the ‘structural’ reasons for stress as poverty, violence, illness and discrimination, you’d be forgiven for believing the antidote to the mental health of the country lay in the hands of the US government. But Murthy focused on the community programs across the US which attempt to combat loneliness and promote personal efficacy and mutually beneficial relationships.

In conversation with Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League, ex-Neo Nazi Christian Picciolini discussed how we can dissuade young impressionable people from joining hate groups when they are at their most vulnerable. It was not government propaganda or altered search results on Google that he chose to highlight, but rather the importance of communities rallying around those showing signs of fragility, and of parents having difficult conversations with children they suspect of extremist behaviour.

Over and over, sessions touched on how communities are the agents driving changes in social attitudes. A panel of startups centring on women’s health, when asked about how the open conversation around such taboo subjects could continue to move forward, all agreed that it was not the media or the government who could push progress forward, but those in the audience who could ensure they spoke to their friends and family more about lesser discussed topics.

The idea that change comes from the bottom up echoed not only across the conference agenda, but in the city of Austin itself. With Uber and Lyft pulling out of the city over disagreements around driver identification, multiple new ride sharing apps specific to Austin have popped up to fill the gap. One such service, Ride Austin, actually acts as a not-for-profit, and encourages riders to round up their fares to donate to local charities via the platform. Conference attendees frantically tweeting about the lack of Uber were quick to change their tune, instead praising the social enterprise for placing the city at the heart of the business — even despite the server overload on Saturday night, resulting in hundreds stuck in the rain without a cab! It was a perfect counter example to the perception that large powerful organisations have full say on how society functions – governmental or not.

With trust in the new US government so low amongst liberals, the expectation that SXSW could have been a conference of complaining was not so absurd. But rather than spending five days bemoaning the impossibility of progress with Trump in power, the attendees in their thousands were repeatedly exposed to the power of the locals. There was a noticeable shift from last years’ ‘big’ ideas around government-startup collaboration, to hyper-local change agents and the power of community. If anything, the feeling of empowerment was only enhanced.

Perhaps we can still be optimistic about the future of society after all.

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