I spoke at SXSW Music again this year on my current favorite topic: Music 20/20 and how we can proactively affect the future. SXSW, however, is not just about speaking. It is about diving deeply into diverse ideas with diverse people. It is one of my annual addictions.
This is my 7th year going to SXSW — I think.  They blur together.  I started going to SXSW Interactive and enjoying the diverse voices, sharing areas I knew nothing about.  I would go to session on digital changes in Latin America and Eastern Europe, meeting people I would never have seen otherwise.  I learned about location-based mobile tools at SXSW first, learning what was being done on the ground from front-line users in arts, documentaries, and the like.   I also hear dynamic voices that really resonate for me.  I heard here first from Amber Case on tech anthropology.  I first heard at SXSW about shifts in search engine trends.  I first heard here about new heads-up displays for cars to keep the clutter down and compete with smartphone structures.  I first heard at SXSW ideas about non-interface interfaces.  
I also learned about breakfast tacos in the early years.  Tacos? For breakfast?
My experience now is different.  I don’t find many technologies I haven’t seen yet.  Perhaps this is because I’m hip-deep in leading-edge technologies at other events from my current role at UCLA Center for Music Innovation.  Maybe because the event is much heavier in startups competing for attention and big companies trying to get attention as well.  The era of the breakout new tech service or product getting lots of buzz at SXSW seems to have made way for the McDonald’s custom burger, Mazda free rides, and esurance tech giveaways.
I do continue to get my favorite things from it: real-life implementations and dynamic voices.  I enjoy learning from implementers on a local basis, running in-context, in-place real life examples of disruptive and collaborative tech — in use, with all its headaches and glory.  I find that often the people drawn to the conversation IN the room are more intriguing than those on the dias, and conversations that follow provide all sorts of connected bridges to new engagement.  In most rooms, the volunteer session wranglers needed to push everyone outside to finish conversations. . . not just about selling things and ideas to the speakers, but also to connect the folks who want to keep the conversation going in how these challenges apply in their own sector or local community.
It also continues to be a great mix of voices and use cases.  This year, northern European languages abounded as people flew great distances to be in these conversations, with their own stories and questions.  I met many executives and creative executives from Asia.  On the US front, I met several mayors, many non-profits, and lots of university students, sharing ideas and interests.
As a result of my going to SXSWedu, Interactive, AND Music (two weeks in total), my highlights this year are a mixed bag.
  • Jane McGonigal at SXSWedu talking about how we can understand and think about the future.  I do a lot of futurist work and hang out in that space.  Her talk brought it into focus for folks wanting to understand how to be a Futurist in their everyday lives.  That recording I have shared with a half-dozen people I’m working with and they are changing some of the questions they ask about the Signals they see.  
  • The British Museum, with Samsung, using VR to take young students into the Bronze Age and see artifacts in context.
  • Lots of conflicting information and predictions in sessions on location-based mobile tools and big data about consumers.
  • Beacons, beacons, and more beacons. . . especially in retail.
  • New ways to make assets liquid, including MoveLoot, which helps you resell the used furniture in your home.
  • Battling apps about food — including finding food trucks, bringing us food on the spot, and in-app learning from videos of making food.  
  • Cities wrestling with how to use big data and action research.
  • Local music venues dealing with the impact of streaming music and gentrification on local clubs.  
I really enjoy the amazing speakers. 
  • Brene Brown — live.  I’m a big fangirl and have been consuming her books and audiobooks, so listening to her live was a real treat.  I also brought along a friend from a big tech organization who needed to hear her messages. . . that week . . .
  • Ira Glass on the nature of hard work and creativity, and the difference between trying to edit documentary audio to elicit an emotional shift and writing it for feature film.  (And how to make a balloon animal.)
  • Anthony Bourdain on how to urge your TV show crew to incorporate ideas from art films. . . and live a very big life.  
Other take-aways were more contextual:
  • Joys of sitting in St. David’s waiting for a thunderstorm to clear while talking with 3 students and a record executive.
  • The crowded rooms that continue to see VR for the first time
  • Having people stop you in the hallway, bookstore, and bathroom to make comments and ask questions from your panel
  • The magic of good pulled pork and the challenge of keeping my breakfast taco intake low
  • The beauty of walking down a hallway in the Convention Center and despite there being more than 20,000 people in town for the event walking into people you know . . . from your own city . . .
Now back home for a short while, I think about the people I want to connect with further, to bring their local ideas into my local spheres, and ideas that I can play with and pitch for when when I come back again next year.
 
Gigi Johnson
President/Maremel Institute
Inaugural Director/UCLA Center for Music Innovation