Dear Tara,

It has been  a while since I wrote you. We were both very busy. You, rising your unicorns, being five, building Lego cities and making a space helmet from old newspapers, glue and tinfoil. Me, I spent ages watching you discover this planet, and protecting you from dragons and nightmares while keeping our economy going by keeping clients happy.

We certainly have not seen a lot of each other this week. You sleep, while I am happily hopping around at the biggest innovation show on the planet: SXSW. You asked me why SXSW makes me so happy. That struck me. Because it does, it really does. But how did you know?

It oxygenates my brain

Listening to enthusiast, energetic and passionate people talking about their art, their trade and their vision on things, activates every old neuron of my brain. Discovering what problem gets them excited; and how they proceeded to turn it around, examine it and plot ways to a solution is fascinating. I learned more from all these smart, but humble people’s failures and successes than I learned in all my school years combined.

Use it, or lose it” said Willie Nelson, Texan legend: if you do not let your brain touch other brains, your view spar with other views your brain will shrink until it’s a peanut Tara. I cannot let that happen.  My brain is feeding like a shark on all those thoughts.

It reassures me

There is a lot not right about the planet you start to discover Tara. Us, older humans, made rather a smelly mess. There are still kids with no education, no computer, no internet, no drinkable water, no food, and no access to a doctor. Kids your age still die because us adults are still spending more on shiny weapons and golden Rolexes than on feeding everyone.

Tara, kids your age, but with a skin as soft and fragile as yours, but just in another pantone color are at this very moment discriminated or in danger. Because they are labelled as different, “not like us”. They get bullied and beaten. Mocked.

We pollute. The air. The rivers. The seas. Our cities. Our bodies. We’re burning forests, killing trees. Annihilating complete species of plants and animals at a staggering pace. We’re slowly cooking this planet to death. Biting the very Mother Earth that harbors us.

But these last years Tara, in the different SXSW tracks, I found that some people have not given up. That there are ways to fight back. To get better. To address what is wrong. To find solutions, see opportunities, amplify strengths. I saw people stand up for good. With an intention to better the heaps of misery that is life for some.

It starts with astronauts

Yes, girls can become astronauts Tara. SXSW shows that too: the power of diversity: everyone regardless of age, race, hair color, sexual orientation or religion can make a difference. When I met Jessica Meir at SXSW a couple of years ago, she whacked me of my feet.  Jessica Ulrika Meir was born in 1977. She is a professor at Harvard Medical School, and finished a postdoctoral research in comparative physiology at the University of British Columbia. As an intermezzo, she studied the diving physiology and behavior of emperor penguins in Antarctica and the physiology of bar-headed geese, whom are able to migrate over the Himalayas.

She flies T38 fighters, and graduated with a Master of Space Studies from the International Space University. She survived a NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation. Something I can barely even spell. She outsmarted, outran, outbeat and outlearned an army of boys to become an astronaut. Because she knew she was the best, and she proved it. Having her tell that story to dads like me, is important for girls like you Tara.

But astronauts are real magicians Tara: when Jessica Meir points at the earth from the ISS where she was for 7 months, she shows us gently how small, fragile and breathtakingly beautiful our planet is. “In this window, on that marvelous blue ball lives every living creature we know” . And that hits home. She is so right. By showing us our planet from space, astronauts deliver a message of peace, and an urgent call to unite, and save what we still can.

Unite, mix and match

SXSW shows me also that one cannot do all Tara. We are so used to do things our way. To apply the things we know. To go the path we travelled earlier. To use yesterday’s thinking for tomorrow’s challenges. To rely on our skills. But the magic happens when we unite. When we think outside the box. When we discover thoughts from other people, from other trades, with other specialties and apply it to our own. SXSW shows that the future is in working together, rather than in endless specializing. Seeing the big picture, and learning from it to apply it in our work is an art we were losing.

Range

David Epstein showed in his book “Range” how we were let to believe that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead in their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up a whopping 10.000 hours of deliberate practice. Research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, showed him that early specialization is the exception, not the rule. The most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists in the world are… generalists, -especially in fields that are complex and unpredictable- They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.

It should be mandatory

It should be mandatory Tara. To make sure you’ll still have a decent world to live in in a couple of years, we should take managers, CEO’s, teachers, dads, moms and journalists to gatherings like SXSW. To force them, even if it is only for a week, to observe where the puck is going. To invite them to ponder about all that new thinking for a while. To give them strength to challenge the status-quo. To dare them to put purpose over profit.  The key to your future is somewhere in there Tara. And I hope that you, as the first princess-astronaut will find it.

Because,  as Bertrand Piccard pointed out: your generation will have to do something big: save the planet.

Inclusion. Diversity. Culture. Experience

There is tumbleweed rolling through the streets of Austin. Bars, music patio’s are running on near empty. BBQ joints wrap-in their smoked 7 meats platters for home-delivery. The receptionists in the impressive skyline-hotels play online poker. SXSW is very here, but very absent. It went virtual. Spooky, as the old cowboy would say.

On the metaverse and the interwebs, #SXSW2021 is thriving. Hundreds of keynotes. Star strategists and future-oriented thinkers, rock-legends, film wizards, neuroscientists, influencing gurus, spin-doctors, dreamers, astronauts, data-magicians, master marketeers and turbo-forecasters are painting their view of what the next years will bring us.

No more tech

Where a big chunk of the congress used to deal with new technologies, the launch of an application, the next world-conquering social network, the amazing 3D printing possibilities of a (n)early intelligent bot… there is none of that this year.

If you book a hotel, you never ask any more if there are clean sheets, hot water, electricity, and Wi-Fi. You unconsciously labelled that as “a given”, “normal”, “of course”. The minimum set of standards.

For SXSW, tech became exactly that: the minimum set of standards. Yes there will be tech in your future: ad-tech, bio-tech, farm-tech, fin-tech, nano-tech, space-tech, neuro-tech, data-tec, med-tech… you name it. Our future will be full of tech. Everywhere: around us, on us, in us. And none of that comes as a surprise anymore. Like fire and electricity, tech stopped to be magic. It just is. It will get better. It will get more annoying. More intruding. It will help us. It will open possibilities. It stopped to amaze us.

Experience

The focus shifted to “Experience ”. What will tech enable us to do better, quicker, smoother? How will it help building a better society? Will it finally turn poverty around? Will it impact climate change in a good way, and on time? Will it bring people together? Will it build more loyal employees, more faithful customers?  Can we use tech to get less media messages, with greater relevance, to better targeted audiences, without hijacking their data?

Can we use it so that people have a better, more fluid and hybrid work-experience? Will we be able to re-build our companies around a new hybrid model where work is work, regardless of where that work is done?

Captains of industry and innovators unleashed a tidal wave of constructive thinking at #SXSW2021, urging political, societal and business leaders to rethink their very own future around “Experience”: Digital Employee eXperience, Physical consumer eXperience, Citizen and Community eXperience. Will these people succeed in turning the focus from votes, and short term shareholder value to long term engagement? Will they be able to shift from transactional thinking to establishing life time value?

Diversity. Inclusion

Seeing Melinda Gates, George Bush, Willy Nelson, Baratunde Thurston, P&G’s Marc Pritchard, and countless others hammering in the necessity to fix the fragile social web that holds us together. To move forward, we will need to make sure we go forward together: regardless of race, religion, sexual preference or geography.  The tissue of our social web is breaking. Cohesion and understanding is under tremendous pressure. Here the question is: will technology help us to unite? To give everybody the same chances, in life, at work, on a healthy future? Or will technology divide us even further, and will the gap between the haves and have-nots become bigger and bigger?

We are becoming hybrid societies by necessity: we will need all to get through: humans ànd tech, leaders and employees, brands and consumers, planet and humanity.

Culture

This will require rethinking, reshaping, rebuilding our culture. More tech-supported, data-backed, diverse, understanding, caring, healing, educating. Building around values and purpose rather than around short term shareholder value.

How do you forge culture in enterprises that are next to empty? In countries where the very fabric around food, mobility and care is being rewritten as we speak?

Leadership

SXSW 2021 is very clear: we are in dare need of leadership. Not politicians, not managers: leaders. Leaders that are capable of telling the next story. Forging a culture that unites and conquers the future. Leaders that care and include. That have vision and values. That embrace human values and high-end technology.

SXSW is not about tech anymore…. It is about our future.

I wish you the best of leadership.

Aids did not kill sex. Covid19 will not kill hugging.

Can we talk about dr. Mayim Chaya Bialik for a second? You might know her as the neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler, Sheldon’s love interest in “The Big Bang Theory”.  She was so stunning beautiful that the production had to dress her down, to make her an acceptable academic. Because, well beautiful women cannot have brains. *sigh*. Bialik actually has a doctorate in neuroscience, with a dissertation on hypothalamic activity.

Watching her debate today with Prof. Yuval Noah Harari, historian,  bestselling author, and considered one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals, made my brain happy.  In a world where half of the internet finds arguments for a flat earth on YouTube, and another third believes Bill Gates is interested in injecting 5G controlled nano-bots in our bloodstreams, finding two consenting adults in a sapiosexual parler-vrai is re-assuring.

Killing witches

Harari, in his bone-dry way, manipulates words like The Witcher wields his sword: precise, relentless, efficient. Information kills. The first mass medium, printing press, through solid catholic books, labelled smart women as “witches”. Sleeping with the devil, turning decent people into frogs, the works.  Men, already feeling threatened by women with brains, found in these books the permission to kill: thousands of innocent women and girls were tortured, burned or drowned. Because the book said so.  The parallel to today’s witch-hunt with virologists, epidemiologists and immunologists is frightening: a second mass-medium (the internet) is slowly stigmatizing them as “the enemy”, the “deep state”, “paid for by the 1 percenters”, “wanting to de-populate the world”.  Information with the potential to kill. Because the web said so.

Weeks ago, thousands of people invaded The Capitol,  because The Man said so… and the ones who said otherwise, the media, were ‘enemies of the state’: fake news. A story well-crafted, well told for years, grooms the masses.

It does not have to be true   

Bialik chimed in on how we are programmed, neuro-scientifically, to react to stories. Stories wire us to believe, to do, to feel, to act. Stories make us understand, make us feel safe. Stories have a beginning, an ending. Innovation makes that if you change the story-line, you change the ending. You hurt our hard-wired programming. You will be met with resistance.  If God created us, in the middle of the universe, a story placing the sun in the middle of the solar system, will be met with disbelieve, with anger, with violence.

Harari points out a bone chilling truth: the story does not need to be true. The truth does not matter, the story-line does. Find the story that is easier to believe, and it will become truth.  The better told story wins over scientific evidence. Time after time.  Look at religions, complot theories, sects; look how wars were started…  Trying to point to the truth with facts and science is laudable, but very inefficient. Few people that have the right background to point out the truth, have the storytelling skills to make that truth compelling.

We are afraid of change

The debate showed how the introduction of almost any transformative technology has been met with wonder as well as fear, aggression and rejection. Our  greatest inventors were considered heretics. The mad scientist is burned in our brain-wiring from our very youth. The new still scares us.  We are afraid of change.

Media are stuck

Where journalists in bona-fida media for long showed the way through the muddy waters between disinformation and truth, they seem to have lost their magic. The fourth power has lost its steam. Logic investigative journalism is not great at storytelling.  Some kids with a collective low double digit IQ, weaponed with a 4k camcorder  and a YouTube channel  tell way better and more compelling stories.  A scary amount of people is not even able -or willing- to understand the very arguments that set out a theory in the first place.  “Journalists are now stuck in arguments about basic established facts instead of moving the ball forward. This prevents true conversations… instead we’re wasting breath on whether or not the Earth is round” says news anchor Ben Collins.

Ethics should rule

Harari and Bialik point out that every single doctor needs to pass tests on his ethical skills before he can claim his degree. He swears an oath to Hippocrates. So do judges. And the rest of us?

What is the staggering power teachers have? The tremendous power -and responsibility- the coders have that build the very platforms that are designed to feed us with news? The people bringing the news? The corporations and brands that pay for the news? The spin-doctors creating the political and brand stories? The  communication and media wizards and their data-loaded, AI driven programmatic machinery?

Is it not time that they take ethic courses? Pass an ethical exam? Swear an oath that matters? Should we not start working on a society that embeds ethics-by-design?

United, we conquer

How can we ensure that innovators, legislators, coders, data-architects, communicators and educators should consider these ethical issues and understand their staggering responsibility in ensuring outcomes that lead to the betterment of people and the planet?

In the end, the truth always prevails, like oil on water. Aids did not kill sex. Covid19 will not kill hugging. We will all be fine. Science will save us, once again.

But the better story, in the wrong skilled hands, with the wrong intentions, might cost humanity a lot more than a pandemic.

And you, you are the very first line of defense.  I will do my part. I will tell my five year old daughter about dr. Mayim Chaya Bialik.

If you are against human trafficking, you should be against the trafficking of human data

There. That got your attention? Well, that is Baratunde Thurston for you. A fast thinking, funny, multi-versed black activist that is easy on the eye, but deadly in the wielding of his favorite weapons: facts, wrapped in irony and vitriol.  He is a tough believer in the inclusive power of citizens, the collective force of people standing up peacefully, but firmly, for what is good and right.  His message to the media, marketing and communication professionals and to owners of businesses small and tall, is delivered with style, a twinkle in the eye, an ounce of pathos, and… squarely in the teeth.

How to be black

Baratunde Thurston was one of the star-writers for the satiric magazine “The Onion”. He quickly stood out of the pack with his ability to  get his points through in hard and complex conversations. His vast knowledge on a multitude of social, historic, societal, economic and technical matters mixed well with his positive vibe, his blend of humor, intriguing depth and solid compassion. He was an adviser for Obama, produced the Daily Show, wrote a stellar book on “How to be black”, deconstructing in a very comprehensive way the racial politics in America. Reading that book, as a middle aged white European man, whacked me off my socks.  Baratunde is Emmy-nominated, and hosts now his podcast “How To Citizen with Baratunde”.  He received the Social Impact Award earlier this year.

Don’t focus on the negative

Thurston is tired of the avalanche of mostly and overwhelmingly negative messages that he was receiving every time something happened: from his friends, his white friends, the media. Way too much concentration on passive negativity.  Way too much attention focused on problems in the world. He thinks just looking at problems, turning them around, nurturing them, only makes them bigger and uglier. He observes a blatant lack of focus on people working to alleviate or fix , or deal with this problems. Just pointing out a problem, and sit and wait until something gets done, is depressing, demeaning, dis-empowering. He finds it tiring, futile, exhausting and -frankly- sad.

How to citizen, in 4 steps.

Baratunde Thurston thinks citizenship is action. It starts from within, and it spreads around. That reminds me of a conversation I had with Nicolas Faret, Chief Digital Officer Group Randstad France: “There is no better place to change the world for good than starting with yourself. With being the best leader you possibly can. Offer choices and chances. Let people blossom. Show them their actions matter, for the team, the company, and -why not- the world. Change starts from within. It’s our responsibility”.

Thurston identifies 4 clear steps:  First, get out of your bed, out of your comfort zone, show up and participate. Take it into your hands. Matter. Make a difference. Change. It’s active, it’s do-stuff. Secondly: invest in the people around you. Forge and build relationships of trust. You, and the others: you can’t do this alone, you need a family, a team, a tribe. You need to lead by example. You need this fragile  relational exercise: it’s what living, working, activating  together is about. It is about trust. About changing things together. Side by side, shoulder by shoulder.  .

Thirdly: earn, claim, discover your power. As an individual, as a group. Understand your power, and what it can do and change if you use it. For good, and bad.  Don’t be ashamed of it, just use it well, to perfection, smart and with a heart.  Fourthly: focus on things that matter for the many, not the few.  Shift, make, bend for the benefit of the many and not just the few. Thurston wants to clean the word “power”, educate people in its meaning and in its use.  A philosophy of Power literacy. No less. Thurston wants to recognize collective power through individual action, reinterpreting the word “citizen” as a verb,  a call for civic action everybody can/should do.

And you? What will you do?

Baratunde Thurston talked about racism, insurrection, and digital exploitation. He called on brands and businesses to claim and exercise their collective power as societal players. Businesses and brands need to invest in a wide range of people, from different backgrounds, and on all levels: up, down and through the organization. They need to look beyond the products they offer. What do they stand for? Why do they matter? How will they make a difference? For what cause?  They need  to invest in places that have been divested from. Creating new ways of doing business, smarter hiring, better retaining employees,  telling stories that matter. Using the power, for good.

You are what you can dream

Baratunde highlighted the importance of using our dreams, our creativity and our imaginations to create a better society. We live in a world of illusion, let’s create something better:  “SXSW isn’t real, it’s an illusion. Money, the Federal Reserve. It’s only real, because we believe in it. That’s what makes it happen. Our believes. Without that, there is nothing. … As marketers, makers and community builders, we conjure up realities all the time, so let’s conjure up a new one that benefits all of us, not just a minority.

And that calls for standing your ground, and be faithful to your very values: “If you are against human trafficking, you should be against the trafficking of human data, in any way. We did not create the internet for it to be controlled by a handful of companies. Companies, that are nothing without our data, mind you. “

Thurston wants the “holders of power” to use that power for good. “Individual choices, team choices, tribe choices… choice by choice, is how we, as a society, will make wider, wilder change. A greater ‘me’ equals a greater ‘we’’.  That is where it starts.”

And you?

The future belongs to the dare-dreamers

What a year it has been for Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive festival.  Literally hours before the grand opening of SXSW 2020, the Austin authorities cancelled the show. Venues, speaker arrangements, swag… all had been paid for.  Instead of basking in the light of yet another great festival, Forrest and his team had to think fast on their feet to roll with the wave.  Tens of millions of dollars evaporated overnight, shading a serious doubt over the survival chances of the Texan festival of innovation and music. SXSW laid off at least 50 employees within days, a third of its staff. CEO Roland Swenson and Hugh Forrest ensured various media that the company was planning to put on a festival in 2021, “how we’re going to do that we’re not entirely sure.”

Everybody has a plan

Mike Tyson paraphrased Joe Louis  when he said that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. The pillars of society, companies, countries and organizations are wedged deep in the securing rock of habits, tradition, structures. The art of viewing trends, is to accelerate the past. To be able to recognize the patterns that matter.  And then the punch comes. With a sledgehammer. In the groin. SARS-COV-2, a little virus barely 50 nm to 140 nm in diameter stopped life-as-we-knew-it dead in its tracks.

Spiral to death, or see the light

Restaurants, bars and hotels closed. Towns in lock-down. Hospitals full. Sick people dying in corridors and in underground parking-buildings. Crematoria with back-logs. Politicians stunningly inadequate. Thousands of airplanes grounded. Schools closed. Hugging made more casualties than school shootings. Companies saw their corporate floors and buildings empty. Employees packed, and went home. A lot of them have not returned to their office yet. A lot of them never will. Brick and mortar shops saw themselves empty, week after week… Culture and entertainment went from multi thousand stadium extravaganza to underground or virtual overnight. Educational campuses saw tumbleweed rolling through the empty corridors and aulas. Town centers lost up to 30 % of their vital economic and social tissue: small and local businesses.

Some waited the return of the old normal, refusing to change. Refusing to adapt. Counting on the patterns that mattered. Counting on the new return of the old glory. But that old glory, like the man who left his family to buy his cigarettes at the night shop, will never return.

Others are waiting for the new normal, that almost holy moment when things will stabilize enough to assess, make a headcount, a reality check, get a bearing, and move onto a new sea. But that new normal will never come either, will it?

Survival lays in taking the sting, dancing like a butterfly, rolling with the wave. The leaders that concentrate on where the puck is going, rather than on where it is, are the ones that steer their vessel to the faint glow of the lighthouse called “future”.

Change will be constant

By lack of “new normal”, change will be constant.  All indicators show there will be no return to the old ways.  Employees and consumers shift their behavior after 28 constant days.  We went through 12 of those cycles in a year. The human behavior shifts we’re seeing today from business leaders, consumers, and employees are here to stay. Accenture research shows that 77% of CEOs say their company will fundamentally change the way it  does business, in a most dramatic way: re-imagining business through the impact of experiences on customers, employees and the world. Seeing the likes of Accenture Interactive’s Chief Strategy Officer, Baiju Shah, and Best Buy’s Chief Customer Officer, Allison Peterson on stage here at SXSW discussing how and why organizations need to be employee and customer centered and obsessed to adapt and survive will be most interesting.

Business Leaders Must Be The New Futurists

Change is accelerating at every level and the #BusinessOfExperience is moving to the top of the CEO survival agenda.  Forbes described it well: Business Leaders Must Be The New Futurists. Every leader will need to be a technology leader instinctively aware that business and innovation strategies are now indistinguishable and able to fuse the two momentous transformations driving change : technical progress and sustainability

Austin: stirred and shaken

SXSW is a close to 360 million dollar affair for Austin. For the second year in a row, the city sees a colossal amount of cash burning, adding a bitter taste to the city’s notorious BBQ smoke. But, the city thrives. The innovation aura that SXSW beamed over the weirdest city of Texas is still doing its work. Start-ups flourish.  154 companies announced their plans to relocate to the hometown of SXSW.    Names as Samsung, Domain/Simon Properties,  Fotowatio Renewable Ventures Solar Farm,    East Blackland Solar Project,  Apple,  HID Global,  Charles Schwab and -yes- Tesla show a growing appreciation for the elasticity and brain-innovative power of the city.

No New Normal

I’m glad that Bruce Sterling, science fiction writer futurist and SXSW icon left me this wonderful quote to ponder about:

Forget trying to pass for normal. Follow your geekdom. Embrace nerditude. In the immortal words of Lafcadio Hearn, a geek of incredible obscurity whose work is still in print after a hundred years, “Woo the muse of the odd.” You may be a geek. You may have geek written all over you. You should aim to be one geek they’ll never forget. Don’t aim to be civilized. Don’t hope that straight people will keep you on as some sort of pet. To hell with them. You should fully realize what society has made of you and take a terrible revenge. Get weird. Get way weird. Get dangerously weird. Get sophisticatedly, thoroughly weird, and don’t do it halfway. Put every ounce of horsepower you have behind it. Don’t become a well-rounded person. Well-rounded people are smooth and dull. Become a thoroughly spiky person. Grow spikes from every angle. Stick in their throats like a pufferfish.”

photo of woman holding a gray laptop in front of systems

SXSW 2021: still walking

Many companies, stores, concert halls, museums and workplaces are trying to move from in-person to virtual this year. Employers identified a new challenge in connecting teams and fostering a sense of belonging.  Museums virtualized their catalogues of art all over the internet, national orchestras brought Wagner, Puccini and Vivaldi to YouTube and Microsoft Teams.

Hugh Forrest and his team stayed on their forefoot all year, anticipating every move, rolling with the punches. They’re bringing a complete virtual festival, partly on immersive platforms. The set-up is well beyond the Olympic Minimum for a transition year.  It looks like SXSW 2021 simply “Is”. Unexpected, challenging, in your face.  Weird. If this is a transition year, Hugh Forrest, you can already count me in for next year’s hybrid bonanza.

SXSW 2021 Austin: here I come!

I has a sad.  For the very first time in sixteen years I will not be spending my favorite two weeks of the year in Austin, Texas. Last year, braving hell, doom, lock-down, airspace closures, toilet paper shortage, Trump tantrums and a little bandit called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, I hopped to SXSW 2020. I found it with the doors locked, the festival cancelled, the town in shock, and a couple of thousand innovation die-hards stranded.

12 months, a new president, two lock-downs and three quarantines later, I am once again packing my bags. Not to go to Austin -sometimes I need to use the little sense that is left in me-, but I will be going to SXSW 2021. I’ll be spending the next week in an innovation bubble, away from the world, on US time, following as much of SXSW as I can. My micro-brewed beer is cooling, the  White Russians are ready, and some BBQ baby-racks are slowly getting smoked to perfection. SXSW? You need to taste it Texan Style.

If you cannot join it: beat it

If I cannot roam the Austin Convention Center, hang out in the Techset Lounge, and watch the turtles at the County Line, I will settle for the next best thing: VR. SXSW is revealing an XR world for SXSW 2021: an online virtual event, but on steroids.  They’ve recreated the speakers venues, hang-out stages and every downtown Austin landmark from Congress Avenue to Red River Street in virtual reality. Because, well, SXSW… and keeping Austin weird.

Austin 360 reports that SXSW worked with artists and XR companies to recreate the best parts of town, including the Paramount Theatre, the Contemporary Austin, Mohawk, Empire Control Room & Garage and Cedar Street Courtyard as virtual spaces.  Inside these XR (extended reality: covering virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality)- spaces, SXSW 2021 attendees will be able to attend live panels, keynotes, enjoy meet-ups and special events. On top, virtual cinema programming and 2-D video feeds of all of the SXSW programming can be watched. SXSW’s XR experience runs on VRChat and is available via PC, PCVR and Oculus Quest headsets.

Ready for the future?

This years festival is roughly build on 7 tracks which are specifically focused on this unique moment in history and a glimpse into what the future could look like” says congress boss Hugh Forrest. The #SXSW2021 chronicles give us a little more information (summarized here below):

2020 has amplified issues like racial injustice, poverty, nationalism, and the climate crisis amidst a global pandemic. The future depends on the business, non-profit, government, science, and technology communities all working together. What advancements are needed to create immediate and lasting progress?

If we are to achieve real change as a society, then the many ways in which the tech industry impacts our lives must be leveraged as a positive force. To build a better tomorrow, what lessons can an industry integral to our existence learn from its current failings?

Great art often thrives in times of turmoil and chaos. How will the eruption of creativity we are currently seeing across music, film, experiential, written, and visual arts impact our culture for the next decade and beyond?

From start-ups to small companies to major corporations, capitalism must be examined as we look to rebuild the global economy. A potential levelling of the playing field awaits if we seize this opportunity for more equitable systems across race, gender, and class.

Conventional wisdom from entertainment industries has lost its shine in the face of evolving consumer habits, technological advancements, and an increased focus on social issues. These pressures are forcing a much needed metamorphosis. What lessons can music, film, television, sports, and gaming learn to keep up with an ever-accelerating pace of change?

We’re living lives we never could have imagined as we head into our own brave new world. The consequences of social isolation have been brewing for years. Now online platforms are some of the only outlets available to foster a sense of community. How do we return to a world where individual concerns give way to embracing the value of humanity?

Biohacking, consumer space travel, quantum physics, radical life extension, drone delivery — these concepts that once belonged in science fiction are now part of our immediate future. What mind-blowing new ideas will inspire the next generation of innovators?

Brain candy

In addition to Willie Nelson, George W. Bush, Pete Buttigieg, and Ava DuVernay I’ll be able to listen to Emmy Award-winning host Samantha Bee; founder and Chief Executive Officer of Streamlytics, Angela Benton; Entrepreneur and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson; Cannabis rights activist Steve DeAngelo; Entrepreneur, author and academic Joost van Dreunen; Co-founder and CEO of Relativity Space Tim Ellis; Academy Award-winning actor, author, producer, director and philanthropist Matthew McConaughey; Square co-founder Jim McKelvey; Mathematician, data scientist and author Cathy O’Neil; Comedian, writer and How to Citizen podcast host Baratunde Thurston; Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) Dr. Michael Watkins; Quantitative futurist, author and founder and CEO of the Future Today Institute Amy Webb; and Elizabeth Banks, Mary J. Blige, Erin Lee Carr, James Cameron, Mark Cuban, Dominique Crenn, Cynthia Erivo, Mick Fleetwood, Melinda Gates, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Bill Hader, Taraji P. Henson, Barry Jenkins, Mark Mothersbaugh, Desus Nice and the Kid Mero, Indra Nooyi, Amber Ruffin, The Russo Brothers, Werner Vogels, Chris Webber, and many many others.

Nothing better than some neuron-heating discussions and mind-popping content to bury a COVID infested year. SXSW, I missed you. My brain is ready.

#SXSWCorona: NO, COVID-19 will not break the internet. It was built to withstand a global nuclear war

Country after country goes into lock-down. City after city grinds to a halt. Businesses migrate from the office parks into the living rooms of countless workers. While fiber connected, high speed internet wired office buildings are now populated by skeleton crews, most of the internet users are now connecting from the -safer- confinement of their homes.

Millions of students are banned from schools, colleges and universities, and are confined at home, with severe restrictions to their mobility. While they are supposed to be studying and attending online classes and courses -and, we are sure they are 😊-, they also connect massively to more re-creative uses of the internet.

With a population of 60 million clustered at home, Italy saw its internet use go through the roof. Online access to goods, news, work and entertainment accounted for a massive pike in the country’s internet use.  Collaborative platforms, streaming movie services and online gaming platforms (especially Fortnite and Call of Duty) found their way towards the hesitant bandwidth of the Italian homes.

Disconnected. Connected. Repeat.

Thousands of people complained about faltering connections and difficulties to connect to the world wide web. Telecom Italia, “We reported an increase of more than 70% of Internet traffic over our landline network with a big contribution from online gaming.”

Bloomberg said 48 hours later that: “Telecom Italia’s network is working perfectly and with higher volumes compared with previous days, the issues reported affected temporary just some applications and the internet.”

Similar scenarios in Spain, France, Belgium, the USA, the UK… where the lock-downs become more real, the internet usage dramatically changes -and increases-.  Co-working tools struggle, connections seem slower than usual in lots of cases.  

Demand for online video and chat tools, from Slack to Zoom to WebEx, is also increasing. The traffic to Cisco’s videoconferencing went up to 70% even 80%, the company said. Video conferencing service GoToMeeting admitted that “it was experiencing unprecedented traffic for our product during peak starting times,” causing its services to falter.  Even Microsoft’s Teams collaborative software suffered outages this week. The Seattle based company scrambles to address the issue, and to keep pace with the growing demand.  VPN use was up 53% in the U.S. last week, and more than doubled in Italy, according to AtlasVPN.  Pornhub proudly reports double digit increase in all lock-down areas, and World of Worldcraft sees massive gatherings on its servers.

The tougher guidelines in the US, limiting groups to  10 people (5 in some States), multi-week school closures, and enforced social distancing,  are expected to increase the home internet use 10-fold.

Will we break the Internet?

The glitches, and perceived slowing down of the internet highway is causing some concern, up to downright panic that the Internet will break, cutting our lifeline with life and business-as-we-used to know it.

Matthew Prince, CEO of Cloudflare, a Internet infrastructure and security company is convinced that the Internet can handle the extra load:  “The Internet was really designed from the beginning to respond to literally a nuclear emergency.

DARPA: redundancy and dynamic rerouting

The current internet, also known as the World Wide Web is built on, and intertwined with the old military (D)ARPANET. Based on a concept first published in 1967, (D)ARPANET was developed under the direction of the U.S. (Defence) Advanced Research Projects Agency ((D)ARPA).

In 1969, the idea became a modest reality with the interconnection of four university computers. The initial purpose was to create a redundant and dynamic reroutable web between military installations, and by extension a communication web between users and connected institutions that was next to impossible to take down.  ARPANET took advantage of Vint Cerf’s  new idea of sending information in small units called packets that could be routed on different paths and reconstructed at their destination.  Cerf coined this dynamic rerouting development in the TCP/IP protocol that still governs the internet, that network of networks, today.

The internet at its very basic is just a very large number of computers all networked and connected. A large office building with a couple of thousand computers connected in a network to allow file sharing between employees, is connected to the internet via a cables/connections. Severing that cable, the building’s connection to the outside world (the internet), would go down, but not the building’s intra-net. A cell phone modem could reconnect the building to the rest of the world. You could theoretically segregate a whole country or area of a country from the rest of the internet if you severed all the possible routes between that area and the rest of the internet. As long as one line is open though, communications will re-rout.  To “destroy” the internet, you would have to destroy every server and every service provider, every connection point. Considering that they are located throughout the entire world and there are literary millions of them, it seems unlikely that somebody or something could destroy the internet faster than it can be repaired or rerouted.

Prince is right: it was built to withstand a full-on nuclear war.

The weakest link: your homegear

While the internet will be all right, your home connection might not. Offices are routed on high capacity nodes, most households are using throttled down internet access (squeezed down by the internet provider in your contract’s commercial restrictions), and lower capacity/slower routers, switches and Wi-Fi radio’s.

In short: most homes are (not yet) wired for a full blown, all guns out, full family 24/h internet use at the same speed as the big office parks/buildings are able to provide. Routers are slower. WiFi is often slowed down by too much concrete at home, and not enough WiFi relay stations, older (slower) cables, etc.

At home, an internet connection of 30 megabits per second will normally be enough, linked to a lower to mid-tier Wi-Fi router.  But when you, the kids, and your partner connect to a single Wi-Fi network at the same time to stream or host video conferencing, keep digital TV up, and some connected gaming… the system congests, and the more data hungry apps will collapse under their weight.

Providers worldwide are now scrambling to upgrade house internet speeds to a guaranteed 50 megabits per second, resulting in faster speeds and more bandwidth.

The “O Shit” VPN

Another weak link in the system might be your company’s VPN, VPNs are virtual private networks. Companies and organizations use them to let workers securely access their systems, even if they’re not in the office. It allows centralized security, and control.

You can think of it as almost a castle and moat strategy where all the employees and all the secrets of the business are in the castle and the bad guys are kept out through the moat,” Cloudflare’s Prince said in an interview with NPR: “VPNs are like drawbridges that let certain people into the castle, such as employees who are on the road or working remotely. A lot of companies never built it  to accommodate the entire workforce being outside of the castle.”

Go easy

You can help to bridge the gap, avoid peaks, and speed your web up:

  • Work offline. Go to the server, take your doc, log-off, work local, put the revised document back on the server
  • Avoid video conferencing. Honestly, most of the time voice is enough. Or send a document around to amend. Highly efficient. Avoid screen and document sharing on a low  speed line: send the presentation in advance, so people can follow if their connection is slower.
  • If you must do video: 360 pix is enough. Nobody needs to see your pajamas in 4K.
  • Buy a faster home modem, or switch from WIFI to cable (faster)
  • Switch off your TV, your Spotify and kick your kids from your home router 😊.

COVID19 will ebb away, but your values will go viral

What is civilization? The poet Robert Frost once eloquently described civilization as “a clearing in a dense dark forest”.  As we collectively hacked our way to establish a clearing, to industrialize, to modernize, we began to think that this vista of our action was the defining world view. This is an idea that we continuously strengthen through the everyday.

It looks like that clearing in the forest might be very temporary after all. The meadow of civilization seems to be extremely vulnerable. As soon as something rattles the very fragile fabric of civilization, the dark reptilian ancestor in our brain seems to take over, and human values are banned and contained.

Fighting for toilet paper

People bash each other’s heads in for 12 rolls of toilet paper, and a flacon of hand sanitizer. Here in Austin, stores opened at 8am and had sold out of their full stock of milk and bottled water five minutes later, some gas station pumps are running dry. Finding masks, hand sanitizer or bleach is next to impossible. “Some people bought in bulk and are not hesitating to resell at a premium” said Tevin Hunter, a sales representative at Target in an interview with the Straits.

Shopping mall parking lots are empty. Some non-essential stores are open, but with a staff that longs for one thing: going home. Pasta, rice, virgin olive oil, meat and toilet paper are sold out at most places. Bizarrely, some other things are getting short in supply. Headphones and webcams are sought after items, tech stores run out of external monitors. Homeworking takes its physical toll on the supply chain.

Bikes and tents and moonshine

People bought more bikes, apparently to avoid public transportation, or to self-exercise now that gyms are closed. As a high number of these bikes are off roaders, it seems people are preparing for the apocalypse. Tents, flashlights, camping gear. You never know. Most Texans keep their impressive V8 vehicles topped up to the brim.

An Austinite was filling the flatbed of his truck with cases of beer, wine and Bourbon. “I need enough to kill the time before my moonshine is ready”, he laughed: “Smokes and booze, I can as well be honest about it.

Guns and ammunition

More worrying are the long queues at some gun shops.  Some of these shops sold more than a month worth of inventory over the last few days. Pistols, guns, rifles, and ludicrous amounts of ammunition were sold.  While we experience some fights on the parking lots of supermarkets in Europe, I do not dare to imagine what this would look like in a US State that allows for open carry. Gun ownership in Texas is at an estimated 35,7 percent, nor are Texans required by law to register their firearms.

Mind you, people do not buy guns and rifles to go hunting or fishing in this time of (perceived!) short supply.  Ken Booth, a gun owner, told the Buffalo News that he was stocking up on ammunition for his rifle and his girlfriend’s new handgun because he fears if there are widespread closings of stores selling essentials such as food, it could create social and economic turmoil and result in lawlessness.

People haven’t stood in soup lines in this country since the Great Depression,” said Booth: “What happens in a month from now when people start coming for what I have?” Booth said.”

Racism and extremists

The Chinaman disease” or “stay away from the yellow fever”, I heard somebody call it, a bit in line with Trump’s consequent usage of “Chinese virus”.  Some extreme right wingers finger point immigrants, hope COVID19 erases the homeless, or see a solution for the “pension problem” as COVID19’s primary mortality victims are the elderly.

Battling disinformation

Some of the biggest technology companies banded together in a commitment to fight coronavirus-related fraud and misinformation, as the internet was flooded with conspiracy theories, disinformation and hoaxes. The group includes Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube.

Amongst others, Twitter and Facebook are committed to providing non-governmental organizations vast advertising credits to boost public health campaigns and spread targeted and correct information.

Tech companies stepping in

Cisco announced free access to its video conferencing tool Webex for all countries where it is available, on top of the recent free availability of the platform that was limited to the countries affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that Google would roll out free access to the Hangouts Meet video conferencing capabilities to all G Suite customers globally. The rollout will begin starting this week, and free access will be available until July 1.

Microsoft offers a free six-month trial of its Teams product, which facilitates remote work through video and text chat.

Telecom operators worldwide offer higher bandwidth, and/or free access to on demand content. Some newscasters take down (albeit partly) their paywalls.

Onlineschools.be offers a comprehensive suite of (free) tools for schools and educational services.

Doing good

All in all, companies scramble to maintain business continuity, while at the same time ensuring flexibility and safety for their employees. Ranging from home-working where possible, over flexibility on sick-day-credits, to help with medical bills or day care.

The hotel (Lakeway Resort and Spa) in Texas where I am typing this, is providing staff AND visitors alike with gels, latex gloves and pro-grade masks for those that need to go through an airport.

Countless entrepreneurs and consultants offer services and advice for free, and set up platforms, websites and ways to help. Local volunteers take care of babies, childcare, and help the elderly with their shopping needs.

As often, a crisis brings out the best in people. The herd protection reflex at its fullest: the knowledge that together, we are stronger. That as a species, to prosper or to survive, we need each other. That, to maintain our clearing in the forest, we need to co-operate.

The dark side

Sadly, the same crisis also makes masks drop. Some people and corporations show their darkest side in full survival mode. They will rather throw the others under a bus, if they think it will give them the tiniest advantage.

A time of reckoning

We will learn a lot from this crisis. From each other. From our colleagues. From our bosses. From our friends. From our partners. From our neighbors. From our suppliers. From the old man in the shop.

In three weeks, we will know each other’s true hair color, and we will know each other’s true colors. No more hiding. No more pretending. Values are what you display when you are at your best, or at your worst. As an individual, as an employer, as a friend, a spouse, a parent, a brand.

May history be kind on your words, your actions and your mails. As this COVID19 crisis will pass, your empathy and your actions will go viral and will not be forgotten.

Take care.

#SXSWcorona: Living and working through your keyboard

All the sudden, millennia of civilization grind to a screaming halt. Streets are empty. Flights are cancelled, hotels go to minimal service, or close. Lockdown and curfew are used in our daily vocabulary for the first time since WWII.   A small sneeze or cough generates (understandably) immediate concern and panic. People are willing to maim each other over some rolls of pink slightly perfumed toilet paper.

Offices, restaurants and shops are moving their business out of the open. Work from home, stay in, don’t go out. Meetings that mandatory required everybody’s presence, are all the sudden morphed into videoconferences and conference calls. The laptop is the window to the world, the smartphone the only weapon against isolation.   

While most people have had multiple ways of digital contacting at their fingertips (ranging from messenger and WhatsApp, to Skype (for business) , WebEx, Hangouts, Teams…) it is shocking to see that a lot of them have never used it to the fullest in their personal or private environment.  For some employees, these platforms are just an icon on their desktop, that was never used until now. Too bad businesses did not invest in training programs and tutorials before the shit hit the fan.

Shift your thinking

Working and communicating remotely is quite a shift from being in the (open spaced) office. It is work, hard work, but not as you are used to know it. While the same business imperatives apply (delivery on time, on spec, and on budget), the rules of engagement and practicalities shift. Things taken for granted and years of habit go down the drain. You’ll have to shift your thinking, the virtual communication world is complex, powerful, and has lots of possibilities. You will just have to think outside of the non-virtual office box. Here are the tips I gathered from three decades of being a mobile warrior, enhanced with devilish wisdom from some of my fellow keyboard knights and SXSW veterans. They are brought to you from a mobile device, on the edge of the Texan desert.

The Goodies: hard- and software

  1. You need a computer (preferably a laptop), a (smart)phone and a (fast) (unlimited) internet connection. Without this, things are a tad difficult.
  2. Invest in a good headset for calls and reaching out. You might consider investing a bit more in noise cancelling varieties, with an easy mute button. A soundproof bubble with crystal clear sound is totally worth the surplus cost. (all online shops ship them overnight. Don’t rush to the store buying one). A good webcam helps obviously for the video-calls.  Most laptops and phones have them build-in. While the webcam focuses mostly on your face and nostrils, I invite you to avoid taking calls in pajamas, and -please- wear pants. I’m unable to forget the sight of one of my clients casually getting up in the middle of a video-call to grab coffee. He had totally forgotten he was only dressed up from the waist up: most disturbing Mickey Mouse sighting ever (on his boxers).   
  3. If you do video, make sure you have correct lighting. Turn your face TOWARDS the window or install a little LED that illuminates your face. Little cameras suck in low lighting.
  4. Install the right software, and check if it’s working before hopping on client calls. If necessary, contact your IT department. I am sure your email is set-up right, but ensure you have the rights to install/operate specialized tools like Slack, Skype for business, Microsoft Teams, Bluejeans, etc…
  5. Get a mobile subscription with unlimited data if possible.  That makes you truly mobile and offers a good “B” plan on those moments that Wi-Fi falters.

Your workplace

  1. Urm: it’s work. Ok, at home, but still: work. Taking that video-call in your onesie sitting on your bed chewing chips and downing a liter of Chardonnay might give the wrong impression. That basket of dirty laundry behind your shoulder, or youporn.com playing on that screen in the background are also things to avoid.
  2. Your kitchen table, dining table, or coffee table are totally acceptable. Just make sure the background is tidy, and as professional as possible. Too bad for the cat. It will have to move.
  3. Do make your home/work environment efficient and pleasant. You need outside light, a view, and some space to be creative, efficient and productive. Some soft music, cold water, and a green plant or two do wonders. Cacti might make you depressed 😊.
  4. Set a schedule. Divide your time in “work”, and “off”. Get up in the morning. Shower. Dress. Eat at noon. Turn off around end of business. This schedule is of the uttermost importance to get your spirit up, and your energy flowing. Follow the cycle of natural light as good as you can.
  5. Make your house members aware of your schedule. Show them the worktimes that you need to use to concentrate, and the video call moments where you’re going to be off-limits.  Toddlers and babies are forgiven everything, as it should be.
  6. Might seem obvious, but eat, drink (water), sleep, repeat. Being in your own bubble might make you forget that your body needs to continue to function. For that, it needs exercise, food, fluids and rest.
  7. Set a schedule with your co-workers, clients, managers. Keep taps on people, keep feeling the pulse of what’s happening. Keep connected, keep connecting. Even in lock-down: it’s not the end of the world. Yet.
  8. You need a fresh nose and some fresh air from time to time. A balcony, a garden, a terrace. If allowed, go for a walk. Even if allowed, steer and stay away from other humans. Worst case scenario: open a window. It helps clearing the lungs and the head.
  9. Code-word: healthy snacks. You WILL go for snacks and comfort food. For the sake of your wardrobe, let it be carrots, celery sticks, mini tomatoes and cauliflower.

Do’s

  1. If you can, go for video meetings. Just audio will make you lose a lot of the non-verbal communication that is essential for good interpretation and understanding. It also helps “humanizing” the whole situation. The other party is probably at work from home too: you give each other a glimpse of your private space, which is important for bonding and client intimacy.
  2. Stay close to your camera and your microphone (when not using a headset), the microphones on smartphones and laptops are excellent, but are calibrated only for short range.
  3. Please, mute if you are on a multiple person call. If you are the organizer, ask everyone except the presenter to mute. Cappuccino machines, screaming babies and an ear shattering feedback beep are very disturbing.  Mind that they are on mute, so, if you ask a question: allow them a second to unmute, or… tell them to unmute if they want to talk. It would not be the first time that somebody talks for a couple of minutes into a muted microphone.
  4. Do send presentations and documents before the call. Yes, you can share your screen, but some people on slower connections might have difficulties if there refresh rate goes down. They can still follow your talk, when they have your slides local.
  5. Send a clear agenda upfront, follow it rigorously, summarize highlights and certainly action points (and action owners) during the call, and repeat conclusions and decisions. This allows everybody to be on the same page., and gives everybody time and occasion to react, or assert that the information/summary is correct.  Send a summary of the call, with clear action points, action owners, and due dates within 12 hours after the call. Invite all to accept/amend before calling the minutes “final”.  If you plan to record the meeting: ask permission upfront and make the recording available for all.
  6. While not in the office, mail, chat, and connection tools are all you have: so, keep an eye on them during office time and (re)act timely. A nudge on WhatsApp is the digital equivalent of a little tap on the shoulder. It’s comforting for co-workers, clients and management that you are -indeed- available and connected. On the other hand, respect that it might take a bit longer for people to respond to you. There is a small natural lag in digital conversations.
  7. Do point out “better” hours for connecting via video/sound (I’ll be without kids in half an hour is a great argument!)
  8. Respect your natural working time. Working remotely does not mean “always working”. When you’re off, you’re off: except in emergencies you should not work.  

Don’ts

  1. Eat while conference calling. Food crunching during a call is gross and extremely disturbing. So is drinking. And farting.
  2. Do not take calls, even audio, from the comfortable porcelain seat in your bathroom. Just… don’t.
  3. Don’t take long calls from the warm intimacy of your bed: you WILL fall asleep, and nothing more embarrassing that snoring during your board call…
  4. Disclose if there are other people with you (kids, spouse…) so people can judge what level of confidential information they want to share. Don’t forget: NDA is NDA, at home, or not. Don’t let sensitive information spread.
  5. Make sure your mute is a real mute before cursing, ranting, or making out with your loved one.

If you have other tips, please let me know: I’ll gladly add.

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