What is South By, by the way?

A poster graphic image of South By Southwest (SXSW) 2019 conference and festival in Austin, Texas, U.S.

A lot has changed since I last attended SXSW.

In the space of two years, we have seen the unravelling of the tech-giants, à la Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. We have also seen the trust in our institutions shaken with the exposure of a toxic misogynistic culture, with the leader of the free world as its figurehead. Doubt has been cast on the integrity of our democracy, and the basic rights to privacy, security and mental well-being have been eroded through a ‘profit before people’ mentality.

It is fair to say that there was a very different air to the conference compared to 2017. Once again, the global festival of music, film and ideas returned to the liberal capital in the heart of Republican Texas. And just like every year, global thought-leaders and experts descend upon the city’s convention centre and surrounding hotels to share their ideas and expertise in every discipline you could name.

Looking back to 2017, the topics on trend saw social scientists trying to unpick the causation of populist politics and the rise of the gig economy; entrepreneurs were presenting machine learning as ‘AI’; and civil engineers were bracing themselves for the deluge of driverless cars on city streets. There was an undercurrent of optimism that the best and brightest minds still had all the answers to unlock a safer, freer and more prosperous future. This year, however, seemed to be more about surviving than thriving; about fixing what is broken rather than building new. But then again, a lot has changed.

In the coming weeks, I will be compiling my notes from the conference’s most significant talks and map out the changes that are continuing to evolve. But to give an introduction into what actually goes on at SXSW, let’s cover some of the basics.

1) What is SXSW?

It is a festival that comprises of three parts, ‘Interactive’ (conferences), ‘Film’ and ‘Music’.

2) When is it on?

It usually coincides with Spring Break in America, around the second week of March.

3) What do you get out of SXSW?

As an attendee to the conference, you get to hear and meet some of the best and brightest minds from 102 countries. If you’re looking for inspiration, contacts, or a solution to a problem, you’ll find it in Austin.

4) Give me the numbers

Number of attendees: 75,000
Number of speakers: 5,000
Number of sessions: over 2,000
Money: generating over $350 million to the Austin economy

5) Where are all the talks and sessions?

Most of the sessions take place either in the Austin Convention Centre or in the surrounding hotels, bars and venues.

6) Is it just all talks?

In addition to panel discussions and meetups, there are a whole host of exhibitions, experiences and pitching sessions that you can attend. On top of that, there are networking events constantly all over the city.

7) How do you plan out what you want to do?

SXSW has an official app and website that allows all attendees to plan out and schedule their conferences. Some talks run a couple of times if they are going to be popular, so you can juggle your time to suit.

8) How do you fit everything in?

In short, you don’t. You have to prioritise and also be flexible at the same time. Lyft, Uber and Fasten all offer an easy means of getting around the city by car. If you don’t feel like sitting in traffic, however, new to 2019 thousands of electric scooters-for-hire were dotted all around the city. Simply scan a code on your phone and away you go!

9) What’s the food like?

Tacos tacos tacos!

10) Would you go back again?

In a heartbeat — it is a cool, vibrant place. But you certainly need a break from it to save your brain from overloading.

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