Every year after SXSW I like to write a blog post to help reflect and cement the information I’ve taken in. This was my 8th or 9th consecutive visit to SXSW interactive. I’ve witnessed the birth of blogging, of social media, of mobile, of data visualization, and now of something new.
My sense all throughout the conference was of disappointment. “There’s nothing new here” I moaned many times. “Maybe I’m too old or too jaded”, I told friends. But I think I was wrong. What I saw was not shiny or immediately exciting, so it didn’t jump out. But on reflection, I’m stoked. SXSW 2013 wasn’t about what’s available now, but about what is possible now.
Are you familiar with the concept of the “adjacent possible”? Author Stephen Johnson coined the phrase in his book Where Good Ideas Come From to describe the conditions required for a breakthrough idea. For example, before computers could be commercially viable, the microprocessor needed to be invented. The microprocessor required breakthroughs in silicon manufacturing. Silicon manufacturing required breakthroughs in materials preparation. Etc. etc. back through time. Each advance opened the door to the next. Each was the adjacent possible for the next breakthrough.
I saw two manifestations of the adjacent possible in Austin this year: hardware startups and institutional reform.
Hardware startups are becoming common. We’re very familiar with software startups, but hardware has required a different set of skills and resources. But because of hardware hacking labs, crowd sourced funding, and China’s adoption of web tech and english we have the conditions for a hardware revolution. The Leap Motion controller and Ouya open-source gaming system are two examples of disruptive technologies that have the potential to change industries.
Fixing healthcare, education, and government were the big ideas this year. Why? Because all the technology we’ve been talking about for the last few decades were the adjacent possible. Fixing these three massive institutions will take networks to connect the right people, data (and simple and powerful modes for querying and interpreting it), tools for positive behavior change (like ubiquitous sensors, effective behavioral economic models, and in-the-moment ambient persuaders like Nike Fuel and Google Glass), and low cost hardware (to facilitate widespread adoption). All of this stuff is in place. It’s the adjacent possible.
So my moaning and groaning about SX having jumped the shark was, I think, premature. SXSW 2013 was less about right now, and more about what’s next.