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.”
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.