What started as a small music industry festival in Austin in 1987 has added so much programming (film, interactive, education, public policy, innovation, and conservation) that attendees now suffer the unofficial SXSW malady – FOMO, or fear of missing out. This year, SXSW is featuring nine national politicians coming to town in a live-action demonstration of how the unusually large number of presidential candidates could weaponize FOMO.
Big things comes out of SXSW almost every year. Hanson, the “MMMBop” band, got discovered in the lobby of the Four Seasons back in the ‘90s. SXSW is where Twitter first made its first big splash in 2007. And this year Jordon Peele’s follow up to Get Out is making its debut at SXSW, but what is more likely to make news is the parade of presidential aspirants scheduled to speak over the weekend in the same venue where they now tape Austin City Limits. And while a lineup including Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, Govs. John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee, former Govs. Bill Weld and John Kasich, ex-Sec. Julián Castro, and ex-Mayor Pete Buttigieg – not to mention Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy as well – might not prove harmonious, it should be more newsworthy than the typical SXSW keynote by a tech leader.
This isn’t the first time SXSW has dipped its toe into the presidential pool. In 2016, Pres. Barack Obama came to Austin to urge tech leaders to get involved in public policy, and, later that year, the Obama White House hosted a SXSW public policy offshoot called – wait for it – South by South Lawn. Now, with another presidential election around the corner, SXSW – together with the Texas Tribune – have rebooted that relationship.
It’s not just people running for president who are moving SXSW into the public policy space. More than two dozen mayors are holding a summit in partnership with SXSW. Over the course of four days, these mayors from cities as small as Normal, Illinois and Gresham, Oregon to as large as Dallas, Miami and Toronto will engage with social innovators, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders in discussions about new ways to tackle old problems such as transit and housing.
One highlight of the mayors’ track is a Shark Tank-style event in which emerging tech companies pitch innovative solutions to challenges for a chance to win $10,000. This year, mayors will hear from companies proposing smart garbage trucks that optimize waste management, a gadget that holds affordable housing landlords accountable for heating abuse, AI traffic sensors, AR/VR training for paramedics, a cloud-based mobile crisis intervention for mental healthcare, and an AI-powered workforce development assistance.
Tech solutions to civic problems abound elsewhere at SXSW. This weekend you’ll find executives from Ford Smart Mobility pitching micromobility as way to improve street design, discussing how well autonomous vehicles match up with cities, and asking how “The Next Internet” can help people get around more easily. Embraer is coming to Austin to cement its role as the industry leader in eVTOLs, i.e. electric flying taxis, even offering festival-goers a chance to take a virtual ride thanks to VR/AR.
People used to come to SXSW to discover what’s new. Now, people convene in Austin every March to find out what’s next, turning the music festival into the World’s Fair of the Future where we can imagine cities where taxis fly, garbage trucks analyze trash, and traffic is managed in real time while perhaps getting to know the next president, not to mention eating more breakfast tacos than is probably advisable.
Jason Stanford, Senior Vice President of Global Communications, lives in Austin.