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6 Exciting Ideas from South by Southwest

The festival offered a glimpse into tech and trends that may change your life

By Steve Mencher

I didn’t exactly feel old on my way to Austin’s South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) this week. But when I told my seatmate on the flight she could reach me at my email address, she could barely suppress a laugh. Apparently using a Yahoo address isn’t cool, but I thought maybe it could count as retro. Guess not.
SouthBy, as the locals call it, is a 10-day, three-ring circus, combining a technology conference with separate music and film festivals. (The music festival started in 1987; interactive and film in 1994). Although the emphasis is on youth culture, I’ve been there four times as an ambassador from the world over 50 and there’s nothing like it for providing a peek around the corner, and proving that tech and the arts are necessary partners in creating the future.
Here are six big ideas from Austin this week that will inform — and change — my life and maybe yours:

(MORE: 8 Technologies Boomers Need to Learn)

1. Inspired by Al Gore: Use data and social media to motivate action and change.
The first time I saw Gore at SXSW, he joked about having invented the Internet and seemed to wallow in the “almost president” persona that hung over him like a shroud. No more. As outlined in a recent New York Times profile, Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slideshow has been updated with hopeful images. The reinvented former VP — he is founder and chairman of the Climate Reality Project — was one of many at SXSW to harness data to make his case for change. The numbers tell him that renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, are finally taking off. Now, instead of Gore emitting a feeling of despair, he emphasized action, asking the crowd to take part in grassroots efforts via social media to tackle climate change and call out those who deny it.

2. Tech is changing food, from how we buy it to what we eat.
You may know Andrew Zimmern from his TV shtick about eating the inedible on the Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods. One of his biggest passions is changing the way America eats, to emphasize health. Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, shares the dream of making quality food available to everyone, everywhere, and is using tech to understand plants from every corner of the globe. His company is replacing animal ingredients in common foods with plant ingredients, starting with Just Mayo and Just Cookies. His goal: making food that’s tastier, cheaper and more sustainable than what’s available now.
(MORE: How Machines Could Ease the Caregiver Shortage)

3. Robots will enable everyone to navigate the physical world, and views of disability and aging will change.
Kavita Krishnaswamy has a progressive disease that robs her of movement. She hasn’t been able to leave her home in years, and her mom has become a full-time caregiver. Knowing that her mom won’t live forever, Krishnaswamy’s passion is designing devices that will allow her to accomplish the tasks of daily life — from eating to toileting — independently. But to do that, she needs to collaborate with others. BeamPro is a robot telepresence technology that lets Krishnaswamy attend conferences and meetings and even visit museums. She and Henry Evans, whose TED talk has been viewed more than a million times, attended SXSW without leaving home.


4. We can redefine success: When it’s about nurturing who you truly are, success becomes inevitable.
Ava Duvernay, the director of Selma, realized that success was only possible if it was accompanied by what she called correct “intention.” Depicting a key moment in civil rights history, she told the rapt crowd at her film keynote, her intention was simply to serve that story. Was she disappointed at not being nominated for an Oscar? Was she stung by criticism that she’d been unfair to LBJ or distorted history? No. She had served the story, and that was her metric of success.
(MORE: Oscars’ Winners Near and Dear to Our Causes)

5. Storytelling keeps evolving: Use all available tools to make your own story engaging and interactive.
Storytelling is the default mode at SXSW. Actor-director-producer Mark Duplass of HBO’s Togetherness shared tips in a keynote about becoming successful at storytelling. And The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman talked about the importance of keeping control of your ideas and creations. But the takeaway was about upgrades to the ancient art of storytelling.
Maker Studios, the video network bought by Disney last year, works with 55,000 storytellers who get 11 billion video views per month on YouTube. Maker knows who is watching every video, for how long, where they’ve come from and where they’re going online. Every bit of data informs their interaction with the individual YouTubers who create their content. Yes, storytelling is about emotion, but smart use of metrics can help a story find an audience and make a stronger connection with it.

6. Everything old is new again.
Lesson: Nobody knows what the next big thing is, but it may not be what you expect.
SXSW attendees are always chasing the next breakout app or idea, especially since Twitter blew up there in 2007. But sometimes the next big thing is the next old thing, like the guys cutting vinyl records on the floor of the tech trade show. Still, I suspect that my Yahoo email address won’t be hip again in my lifetime.
Steve Mencher writes about culture, politics and technology for Next Avenue, AARP and other publications. He's also a jazz musician with the Willis Gidney Quintet. Follow him on Twitter @menschmedia.

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