SXSW Interactive 2014 wrap-up: Chelsea Clinton, Neil Young and Toms.com

by March 14th, 2014

Chelsea Clinton at SXSW Interactive 2014

Chelsea Clinton at SXSW Interactive 2014

The final day of SXSW Interactive has now taken on a different cast; in light of the tragic car crash that claimed two festival-goers’ lives and injured many more. Our deepest condolences go out to the families of those victims.

Even though the festival was technically winding down; passion, engagement and insight revved high throughout the day’s panels and presentations. The conference had successfully lived up to its interactive title. Many themes in the 2014 program were plucked from a virtual suggestion box, including this year’s focus on tech’s role in social change, culminating with Chelsea Clinton’s galvanizing closing keynote address (more on that later). In fact, all of the events we attended on that final day—from presentations by TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie—were informed, either directly or indirectly, by a socially conscious approach to technological innovation.

Factoring nature into human-centered design equation

Our first panel of the day was no exception. “From Human-Centered to Life-Centered Design” offered a cross-disciplinary perspective on ways designers have a practical, aesthetic and ethical obligation to take cues for good design from the natural world.

IDEO Partner and Chief Creative Officer, Jane Fulton Suri, a designer with a background in social science, traded insights about viewing nature as the ultimate end-user with fellow IDEO designer, Tim McGee, a biologist by training who brings an ecological perspective to a wide variety of design projects, including Biomimicry 3.8.

They set the tone and context for a lively discussion by opening the presentation with the following quote from Albert Einstein: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us the ‘Universe’—a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Translation: We humans need to be less self-centered, particularly in respect to how we approach design sustainability. “Human-centered design puts people in the center and looks at how design can support human behavior,” Suri said. “We’re now being called upon to participate in challenges that are way more complex. For instance, we can’t solve the problem of how to distribute safe drinking water in India by designing a new container. We need to look at systemic issues. We are moving to this idea of life-centered design.”

(It bears noting that Art Center’s Designmatters team applied a systemic approach to this very problem in its Safe Agua Peru, which yielded two design breakthroughs: a portable running water device, Balde a Balde, and a human-powered washing machine, GiraDora.)

The IDEO team pointed to a diverse array of examples of sustainable and effective designs that leverage the wisdom of nature, ranging from the traffic roundabout (influenced by the controlled chaos of a termite mound) to synchronized computers and smartphones (the sea slug).

“Moving from human-centered design, which is all about us, to a broader view on how we can have compassion to all living things,” concluded McGee, “creates a system-wide perspective on how we fit into the larger whole.”

 Twitter founder hatches a new social network that functions like a search engine

Then came a lively debate about the future of social media with Twitter co-founder, Biz Stone, who helped launch the social network at SXSW in 2007. After moving on from Twitter, Stone wrote a book—Things a Little Bird Told Me—and recently launched a new social network, Jelly (named after the fish, not the bean), which enables users to ask questions in real time using searchable images. Perfect use case: Putting together Ikea furniture.

From First Daughter to Data Evanglist: Meet Chelsea Clinton

As much as an hour before Chelsea Clinton was due to take the stage, as the conference’s final keynote speaker, crowds ranging from the curious to the socially conscious poured into the convention center’s biggest meeting hall. When she finally strode into view, Clinton stood as a polished and confident figure in her jeans, boots and black blazer.

She began by making a case for social media’s role in expanding the means of citizen engagement in social change. “What’s changed is that today we have more options and outlets to influence NGOs, governments and corporations than ever before,” Clinton said. “We can’t all stand outside the supreme court for marriage equality, but we can change our Facebook profile pictures to icons representing our support.”

Clinton celebrated tech’s democratizing impact on social change, citing the widespread proliferation of individual contributions to support earthquake relief in Haiti via Kiva, which enables individuals to make small loans to entrepreneurs around the world.

She encouraged those working in public service to embrace the kind of candor interactivity breeds. “There’s also not a lot of transparency in development,” Clinton said. “That’s where we in development could learn from the tech space. We need to talk more about failure.”

Clinton then began to preach the gospel of data. She is a true believer that the power in numbers can offer solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems. For instance, she recently teamed up with her mother to launch No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, dedicated to ensuring that, “every woman can fully participate in the political, technological and cultural life of every aspect of our country.”

The project has also joined forces with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to gather and analyze data around areas in which women are most and least enfranchised. “We really need standardized metrics and a solutions hub that’s agnostic,” she said. “Not from someone who has a vested interest to help us assess and triage what’s working best.”

Clinton concluded by encouraging the tech community to leverage its resources toward the social good. “Life is not about what happens to you but about what you do with what happens to you,” Clinton said, hitting an inspirational note, reminiscent of speeches by both her father and her mother. “I finish by asking you: what you will do with your power and platforms to make positive change in the world?”

The founder of TOMS shoes on the gifts that keep on giving

The next speaker to take the stage, Blake Mycoskie, offered living proof of the wisdom in Clinton’s closing directive. For the past seven years, he’s been funneling his tech savvy into the socially responsible empire that is TOMS which gives one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold.

Mycoskie was initially inspired to launch his “one-for-one” business after volunteering for an organization donating shoes to Argentinian children in-need. When Mycoskie proposed giving one pair of shoes for every pair sold into a sustainable for-profit business, he did not find much support for his plan from his friends and business advisors. But he charged ahead anyway. “I realized that I was doing this to give as many children shoes as possible,” recalled Mycoskie, a native Texan. “It would also allow us to give the customers the intimacy of knowing that we were giving one whole pair to someone who needed it. “

One of the most pivotal moments in Mycoskie’s path to success was his decision to launch the “TOMS Ticket to Give” campaign, which sent random customers to deliver shoes to children in the developing world. The winning participants shared their experiences with a steady stream of emotionally compelling feel-good content that went viral, generating the kind of brand awareness and loyalty that might otherwise require years of hard work and a small fortune to build.

Mycoskie ended his talk with his biggest news: The launch of TOMS Roasting Co. After a recent trip to Rwanda raised his awareness about the clean water crisis in many developing countries (which also happen to be some of the world’s biggest coffee producers), Mycoskie saw an opportunity to enter a lucrative market that would enable him to funnel profits back into an area in great need. So here’s the one-for-one equation: For every bag of coffee sold, Toms will give one week of clean water to a person in-need.

One week may not sound like much. But if the success of TOMS shoes is any indication, this new venture could unleash a steady flow of H20 to water-deprived communities around the world.

 Neil Young moves the needle to undo the damage done by digitized sound

Art Center’s SXSW Interactive experience concluded on the kind of high note only Neil Young could hit. The legendary singer-songwriter took the customary headliner’s slot, bridging SXSW’s and music conferences.

Young, dressed all in black, paced the stage, panther-like, as he described the deterioration of the music business. But this was not the typical rock star’s rant about profits lost to piracy. Instead, Young was mourning the loss of the authentic, raw sound that’s been scrubbed out of digital recordings. He’s also not a big fan of iTunes’ a la carte menu of songs. “I love making records,” said Young. “I love every note in every song on every record. They’re a family of songs telling a story about how I was feeling at the time and they belong together.”

But Young hasn’t been sitting around bemoaning the loss of the music industry’s golden years. Rather, he came to SXSW to propose a solution in the form of Pono, a revolutionary new device that delivers music the way musicians intended it to be heard: loud, clear and beautifully imperfect. “We decided to come out with a system that respected what the artist was trying to do,” Young said. “So you can feel not just what the artist intended but what the artist actually did. That’s what Pono is. The artist makes the decision.”

Pono is a device that functions similarly to an ipod in that it stores and plays music. But the device, which is shaped a bit like a Toblerone chocolate bar, offers crank-it-up-to-eleven sound integrity unavailable in other digital formats. For the skeptics out there, Young assembled a group of music legends—from Beck, to Jack White, to Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty—and shot video footage of them responding to Pono’s explosive sound as they exited his white Cadillac, which doubled as his listening booth. Each rockstar was more blown away than the last, praising Pono like a bunch of religious converts.

After seeing Young preach the gospel of Pono at SXSW, it’s not hard to understand their zeal. In fact, his talk inspired enough converts to raise over $3 million for Pono’s kickstarter campaign in the three days after his Austin presentation, placing it among the fastest projects to reach seven figures in the history of the DIY fundraising site.

Pono’s success story will no doubt become the stuff of SXSW legend (alongside 2007′s Twitter launch), making it a small, bright spot within a year that will be memorialized and mourned for some time to come.

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