SXSW 2014 Themes: Day 1

Today I attended four sessions, although one was a dud. Of the other three, however, I started to see some themes emerge.

Wheres in years past I’ve felt like many sessions focused on the “ooooh shiny” factor of technology, I’m really starting to see a maturity and focus on process.

What Do We Build Next – a focus on innovation, prototyping, then getting feedback and being willing to accept that learning was a good enough outcome from an experiment, that the project itself didnt have to be released. The Product Manager (Devin) frequently talked about their one target customer and his one problem they were seeking to solve. His explanation of their process of BrainWriting was an example of divergent thinking: how to generate more ideas.

Then in “Always Be Innovating: Think Like a Startup”, a panel discussed the importance of establishing an innovation culture, not relying on the ideas of one specific individual. They mentioned Steve Jobs and Richard Branson as examples of individuals around whom organizations were founded, and declared that the companies were vulnerable because of this. They discussed the pros and cons of having a Labs program, recognizing that sometimes the constraints of being a startup factor into the success. It was during this session that I decided to engage in my own game of #sxbingo, tweeting when presenters mentioned “the Innovator’s dilemma” or “product-market fit”. Yum, this kool-aid is delicious!

The last session I attended was “The Future of Making” with Tim Brown from IDEO and Joi Ito from MIT Media Lab. The girl sitting behind me was talking about how excited she was to hear Joi, and I could see why once the conversation started. This session was really interesting and the two speakers balanced each other well. Tim and the facilitator (also from IDEO) would present some emerging trend and then Joi would talk about more conceptual or theoretical implications. For example: more sensors can give us more immediate feedback and help us learn more about ourselves, and then Joi questioned if this is really a good thing: our subconscious exists to protect us from certain information, and too many sensors and focus-on-self may have negative social/societal implications.
This aligned with my perception that SXSW is maturing, and recognizing the potential implications of this advancement. Just because technology allows us to do something, should we?
Joi’s enthusiasm was infectious (no pun intended) as he spoke about bio-engineering. He made a pretty strong claim that everyone needs to know someything about bio-engineering: that it’s similar to the stage decades ago where people dismissed that Internet thing. I dont know much about bio-engineering, but it certainly got it on my radar.
The last topic they discussed was how new manufacturing processes allow for rapid development, trial and iteration. Yes, again this theme of not expecting things to be designed all at once and released perfectly as-is.
Tim Brown threw out a phrase I found ridiculous because I couldn’t comprehend what it meant: “The shift from Newtonian to Darwinian approaches is a difficult transition for most designers”. A friend proposed that it meant going from “I want it to look like my concept” to “Im designing for the first iteration, tomorrow I will let it evolve”.

Certainly I love the concept of trying something, measuring and learning from it. However, there is still a bit of difficulty in integrating that into a larger company that has to present a roadmap and have plans for what it expects to accomplish in the course of a period of time. But perhaps it’s about reorienting to solving customer problems, OR achieving business goals regardless of the means.