This post is about the missed opportunity of SXSW.
This is the ninth consecutive year that I have attended the South-by-Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. And the more it changes… the more it stays the same.
SXSW is a unique gathering of people who work in/around technology, design, media, film, music… and an increasing number of people associated with the worlds of philanthropy and social change/social good. I have attended all these years because SXSW, unlike almost any other big gathering (and by big I mean 25,000+ attendees), offers such a diverse and interesting mix interests and talents. There is a just a wonderful opportunity to cross-pollinate thinking and partner on efforts related to addressing the serious issues that exist in the world today in meaningful, measurable ways here in Austin than anywhere else I visit/attend. This is the ultimate playground for people trying to solve complex problems and have a meaningful, measurable impact on the world.
Unfortunately, it isn’t happening. Very little is changing about SXSW - at least in terms of how the people who attend understand, appreciate, and get involved in the discussion about philanthropy and social good/social change. The potential that exists to dramatically change/improve the way we address serious issues simply isn’t being realized.
What happened (or failed to happen)? I don’t really know. When I first started attending SXSW, I could count on one hand the number of people – like me – those who were working in/around the philanthropy and social good/social change space who attended. There weren’t very many people who focused on politics and government, media, or really anything beyond the world of tech startups or PR/creative/advertising agencies either. But as SXSW has grown, others have realized how compelling this gathering could be, and our numbers have swelled. People who care about and work on serious issues are still the minority, but our presence is recognized. And at one point, maybe two or three years ago, (and especially when the earthquake/tsunami struck Japan in the middle of SXSW), philanthropy and social good/social change were one of the hottest topics of discussion around the whole event.
And yet, somehow, despite having thousands of attendees from the philanthropy and social good/social change space, as well as substantial interest among people in all other sectors (business, media, etc)… the conversation about how to address serious issues in a connected society hasn’t really evolved. Interest isn’t enough. The focus remains largely the same. The promise of these amazing conversations and interactions has not materialized.
What is happening? There are some panel discussions about the work of nonprofits and related groups – but they are hosted by people from inside the social change/social good community, and they are being attended by people who are already inside the social change/social good community. In other words, we are still talking mostly to ourselves. There are some discussions and projects featuring the best digital, creative and other thinkers about how to apply their expertise to addressing serious issues - but the focus is disproportionately trained on raising awareness and money (two things that everyone loves to talk about, though I would argue are neither the solution to a complex problem, nor the most interesting thing to try and achieve). In other words, the focus of all that intellect and creativity is being misapplied. And, worst of all, philanthropy and social change/social good efforts are being co-opted by big brands, small startups, and everyone else as part of a social responsibility strategy. In many ways, the important work of philanthropy and social good/social change has become commoditized, and is being used as a marketing tactic, further undermining the potential for real, meaningful, measurable impact on the world.
Am I being unfair? I don’t think so. I acknowledge that there are many small, smart, innovative folks who are trying to change how we think about addressing serious issues… and using some new, and very cool ways of collecting and organizing data, deploying technology and more to solve problems. I do everything I can to support and celebrate them. Some of them are on display here at SXSW, and I am sure many others are walking around, trying to get noticed, or get help, and just haven’t made it on to the radar yet. But they are far from top of mind as they should be. Meanwhile, I look around and I see a lot of the same people, having the same conversations, celebrating the same (false indicators of) success in advancing the causes that we care so deeply about – and by doing so, failing to recognize just how limited their impact really is. I watch as opportunities to dramatically re-think and re-imagine our approach to serious issues literally walk past each other without making any sort of connection.
A lot of people have criticized SXSW for becoming big and impersonal – for losing its innovative spirit, for becoming so spread out and impersonal that it is hard to find quality panel discussions, make the right connections, or break through with a new idea or company. I don’t think that is the problem, at least not in this context. In fact, the bigger SXSW grows, and the more people who attend, with all their different interests, and abilities, the more SXSW becomes an even greater opportunity to change the way we address serious issues.
But change will only happen if we want it to. It won’t happen on its own. The organizers won’t figure out how to properly push a conversation about philanthropy and social good/social change without help. The technology, design, media, and other communities won’t magically show up and participate in a conversation about changing the world without being invited and challenged and pressed for better answers and ideas. People will continue to pass in the hallways, fail to connect – and leave events like SXSW without a different lens through which to view the challenges that exist in the world, and without projects and partnerships that have game-changing potential for the future of our society.
None of the things we know are possible, and desperately want, will happen unless/until the philanthropy and social good/social change community really pushes to see these important topics more thoughtfully integrated.
SXSW is one of the places where that push can and should be made. The opportunity is here. Gathered in one place. What the f–k are we waiting for?