With so many interesting sessions and debates at SXSW Interactive, it’s always difficult to pick and choose between them. My advice? Pick a theme instead.
This year, the ones that struck a chord within me were focused on disruption, impact and social good – or put another way, the way social technology is defining business success in radical new ways that rank improving the quality of life of their customers as highly as turning a profit.
In his keynote, AOL co-founder Steve Case described where we are now as “the next stage” – the start of a wave of intense disruption across all industries, and a historical pivot-point. For entrepreneurs, it’s a time of increased access to capital and innovation hubs beyond Silicon Valley, (although the southern Bay Area will always have the lead). At the centre of this expansion of opportunities, the concept of social good – with social impact an important metric for success. A number of leading businesses have already adopted it as a metric for their public reports.
Twitter’s co-founder Biz Stone picked up this theme in his discussion on his new app, Super.me. “The mission of the Super app is to build technology which inspires empathy”. He outlined his vision of an effectively connected society as “people helping people” – in particular through the future of marketing, which he views as applied philanthropy. His view: if you have $5M budget, $4M should be spent on a cause aimed at motivating vast amounts of people, and $1M on telling them about it. When you’re on a mission to improve the world in some quantifiable way, you attract the best talent – and the largest audience, including the younger generations already fired up to make a difference.
He went on to define the new success metrics of capitalism as Financial Success, Doing Good and Creating Joy At Work. Traditionally, all the attention was on financial returns. Now it’s about balancing business needs against social impact – with mobile phones as the foot-soldiers of this benevolent revolution (“the hyperlinks of humanity”).
Take Lyft, a lift sharing service that is “fixing transportation”, as CEO Logan Green describes it. Lyft started in Los Angeles, a city designed to fit a booming automobile industry, and Logan’s home. After years of experiencing crippling gridlock caused by solo drivers along the 405, and noticing that cars with a single driver and four empty seats, he realised this could be the key to eliminating traffic.
The idea was further inspired by his travels in Southern Africa, where a near-total lack of public transportation in Zimbabwe created a solution, born out of necessity. A grass-roots transportation network where an entrepreneur would sit down with the community and sort out a route through ride-sharing. This enabled affordable, reliable and memorable transportation, with a subsequent boost to the local economy.
So, in turn, the vision for Lyft: to make car ownership unnecessary.
Lyft and Uber are great examples of how an entire sector of transport work is changing, and how the sharing economy is having a real impact that can be felt on the high street.
They also illustrate how flexible these new professions are. In Los Angeles, 60% of Lyft drivers work in the creative industry, mainly as actors and musicians. They use Lyft to plug the gaps in their income, whilst pursuing their passion with what time remains. “Flexibility is the new stability,” as Logan puts it. It represents the current generation isn’t chasing a career in the traditional sense, and seeks out work that allows them the right amount of vocational freedom – and it’s going to get even more pronounced in the next few years.
Take Google X, Google’s semi-secret innovation accelerator. Its very existence is a sign of change – because, why would one of the world’s biggest digital companies feel it necessary to push its technological advancement even harder and faster?
When defining the name, aim and purpose of Google’s “moonshot factory”, Astro Teller (“Captain Of Moonshots” – I’m not making this up), explained the importance of the facility and how its name reflects the wider ethos at work at Google X. It’s not a research centre. It’s not a traditional business unit. It’s something entirely new, aimed to “moonshoot” for things that are huge leaps beyond business-as-usual, brainstorming radically new ideas and aiming to improve the effectiveness of existing technologies by at least a factor of ten.
The word “factory” is designed to bring the work down to ground level, keeping it honest and humble while combining the risk level of research divisions with the hard-headed focus of a startup – with the ultimate aim being to have a real impact upon the everyday world as quickly as possible.
That is the brief for what Google X needs to produce in order to secure ongoing support from Google. The self-driving car as a perfect example of a successful Google X project. If a car can be produced that is demonstrably safer than a human being across all conceivable situations, it’s easy to imagine the millions of lives that could be saved as well as the trillions of dollars conserved in human time. Lasting impact upon the world? Check.
Idea-storming revolution or well-meaning hype? If nothing else, as the saying goes: when you shoot for the moon, expect to miss. But even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.
In the meantime, SXSW is a great place to get inspired and sip on an excited froth of new business ideas, and this year was no different. And who knows? Some of them might be changing the world.