SXSW 2018 – the year that tech became responsible

Else creative director and partner Dave Dunlop traveled to Austin Texas to find out how designers are increasingly embracing socially responsible tech solutions, which have “inclusion and empowerment” at their heart.


SXSW, Austin, Texas. Image by Nicole Burton courtesy of SXSW

It felt like change was in the air this year at SXSW, the interactive design conference held in Austin, Texas, which has shown how a more mature use of emerging technology is taking hold.

There was a definite sense that designing for good, with responsibility around inclusion and empowerment, is far more important today than technical prowess and capability.

There was also a fair representation from the UK; London Mayor Sadiq Kahn was talking about how the role of the government is to support innovation while ensuring people don’t get left behind by digital disruption.

Will robots cause traffic jams?

Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, was interviewed about the company’s advances in creating the world’s most experienced driver. Waymo started as the Google self-driving car project some 10 years ago and is now up and running in the US, having clocked up 5 million miles. The aim is to significantly reduce the 1.25 million deaths on the road in the world each year by bringing ‘the driver’ to the world of cars and trucks.

It’s interesting to see how the company is now tackling some of the social challenges around adoption. An example of this is being picked up from the grocery store; being dropped off is easy, but people were so socially sensitive when being picked up that they didn’t want to block the way for other drivers. Krafcik has a strong belief that within 10 years we will use a Waymo car to take us to the airport.

Nasa is flying to the Sun. The space agency spoke about flying closer to the sun than ever before, within the Sun’s corona, at a temperature of 3 million degrees. But much like putting your hand in an oven, unless you touch the surface, the ambient heat can be controlled through a large reflector on the front of the craft. Launching next year, the data from this extraordinary probe is going to reveal secrets about our nearest star, as yet untold. You can send your name with it on a memory card.

Tech to help children with autism

Back on Earth, I went to a few healthcare talks this year and one particularly peaked my interest. It was a discussion about using technology to help children with autism, of which one in every 68 children in the US have to some degree. The premise was simple, children with autism, if not helped, become adults with autism and become reliant on government support. It’s a growing population with many different individual needs, yet design hasn’t really been deployed to tackle the challenges these children face, yet. In the audience were some parents, some of which have developed their own applications for their own individual needs.

The session was made up of a mixed panel of professors, academics and a designer who has developed Ooly  –  a sleep companion that helps kids understand when it’s time to get up, via a simple colour changing connected owl device. The conversation mainly focused on how we can develop products that enable children to deal with certain, high stress, situations. But it’s underserved and I came away wanting to do more.

Unlocking the real power of blockchain

Blockchain was a popular topic this year and I found clarity about its underlying power and potential. Described in one session as the third version of the web, it starts to unpick many of the power themes of corporations, such as big data, when the decentralised system means that we are no longer slaves to corporations. Joseph Lubin, Founder of Ethereum, presented many different live applications of where their blockchain system has been used to develop applications from music to a task finder for working on Bounties.

There was a lot of talk this year about data and leveraging that data to design services that create better personalised experiences, or to put it another way, experiences that influence us in more effective ways. But it was refreshing to hear Doc Searles and Nicky Hickman talk about what the decentralisation of services means for large corporations, in particular the big four – Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon – and how the GDPR legislation will further empower citizens to reclaim their identities and data. Some estimate that up to 75% of data could be unusable post GDPR.

So, all in all, a different kind of SXSW, but change is coming and it’s an exciting future.

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