Blog post
April 25, 2023
Nathan Rowland

Learnings and Insights from SXSW 2023

Organisation growth

Having recently returned from South by South West, the team reflect on their experiences, learnings and thought-provoking conversations.

Having recently returned from South by South West (SXSW), the annual tech, film, music and creators conference, team members from Sunderland Software City and Digital Catapult North East Tees Valley have had a chance to reflect on their experiences, the thought-provoking conversations we all had as well as the renewed excitement we experienced for future tech and cultural innovations.

There were a staggering number of topics, workshops and talks to attend during the week whilst our team was there. Below are just a few of our highlights.

Getting Inspired

One thing SXSW was not in short supply of was inspirational speakers which was evident from the outset. Each day of the conference hosted a featured keynote speaker; day one was Texan native Simran Jeet Singh and author of the book ‘The Light We Give: Lessons from Sikh Wisdom. Simran talked about finding the light in everyday interactions which he learned after finding the middle path between ‘fight or flight’, looking to past examples of his mother encountering racism in Texas in the wake of 9/11. He emphasised the need to take time to notice the good that communities create in times of difficulty, like the neighbours constantly checking in on his family during this difficult period. Simran also shared with the audience a mental exercise he uses to reflect on his life and actions, asking himself how an alien would report back on his priorities and encouraged the audience to think similarly about our concerns.

It was the perfect talk to kick-start the conference, encouraging people to be kind and close to one another which was a prevailing feeling throughout the week our team was there. Equally, the organisers asked the audience to embrace curiosity, and to be unafraid to strike up a conversation with our neighbours – be it in the food cart line or the person sat next to you at a talk!  The community was certainly a tangible thing we felt. This same inspiration extended to a panel from NASA revealing new imagery from the James Webb Telescope and a passionate talk from World Central Kitchen’s José Andrés who instructed us all to build bigger tables, not bigger walls.

If you’d like to listen to Simran’s talk here, you can do so here.

Nathan Rowland, Ashmita Randhawa and Debbie Berry at SXSW.

UK House and the Digital Catapult

This year, in partnership with Belfast City Council and the Department for Business and Trade at UK House, our colleagues at Digital Catapult Northern Ireland were there to discuss all things Immersive and to showcase the stellar research and innovation that’s occurring in their region. One of Nigel McAlpine’s panel discussed whether the relationship between creativity and innovative technologies was akin to the chicken and egg metaphor – did one truly preclude another? An all-star line-up of founders and directors in the field of immersive technology (Deepa Mann Kler, Naomi McGregor and Zoe Seaton) showed just how integral these two concepts were and how transformative technologies like extended reality (XR) have paved the way to sharing Northern Irish talent and stories to a global audience.

Digital Catapult Northern Ireland discuss Immersive with UK House and Belfast City Council.

Adapting to an Artificial World

One unavoidable topic across the conference was the popularity and zeitgeist-alerting phenomenon of Artificial Intelligence (AI), particularly with the recent releases of consumer products such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Bard as well as generative media engines like DALL·E and Midjourney.

Chris Hymas, CEO of Indeed, talked about the future of the job market and the disruption that technologies provoke within it. He believes that people who catalyse these disruptions must be conscious of the changes they will make. Just like doctors who take a Hippocratic oath to protect people’s well-being, modern software developers and technological researchers should study humanities-based subjects as a core philosophy.

Another provocative topic that was covered was the use of generative and synthetic media and the need for a structured global framework to regulate it. The panel featured Christine Custis and Claire Leibowicz from Partnerships on AI, Andy Parsons from Adobe, and Jacobo Castellanos Rivadeneira from WITNESS. They delved into the multi-modal nature of media, the power of generative media to provoke collective action, and the issue of regulating the grey areas of content such as ‘dark humour’ and political satire.

The concept of provenance, taken from the art world, was introduced as a means for users to express their model identity and version identity when creating and identifying digital content. However, the panel acknowledged that the framework doesn't yet answer the question of sheer volume and that recommended algorithms owned by the likes of Google will have to do the heavy lifting. They emphasised the importance of integrating trust signals to prioritize the "best" sources of information, but recognised the challenge of determining what these values mean in different social and cultural contexts.

Listen to Chris Hyams talk

Listen to the panel on AI

Esports entertainment panel discussion.

Esports & Gaming - What’s Next?

There was a good deal of talks and pop-ups showcasing the future of esports entertainment across the conference.

The esports entertainment panel championed the recent success stories of creator-led events. Activations from the likes of Ludwig, XqC, and Disguised Toast have recently purchased their own esports teams and have shown that the industry is maturing into something entirely different. The panel also highlighted their own policies and action towards diversity-based hiring, so as to be reflected in the competitive space; diverse minds creating diverse solutions. Chris Greely, Head of esports at Riot Games, underlined the need for ‘spectacle’ in order to create those ‘sticky’ experiences, similarly to watching a weekly game with your friends in a sports bar.  

In addition, the ‘All About Games’ presentation discussed data, trends and what’s next for 2023. The talk highlighted data that showed how Gen Z and millennials were the first consumers to cancel subscriptions during recent economic downturns. The talk also discussed how the pandemic increased gaming's popularity with global consumers, but how the overall market had started to plateau and, in some areas, even depreciate due to wider socio-economic factors. As a result, the gaming industry was experiencing a time of consolidation and risk aversion, where flagship efforts like Google Stadia were shut down and game studios focused much more on developing low-risk franchises rather than new IPs.

Listen to Esports Entertainment in the next decade

Listen to gaming in data, trends and what’s next for 2023

Final Thoughts

All in all, the team’s week at SXSW was uniquely inspiring and we’re excited to see how these discussions and insights will emerge in our local region.

If you would like to learn more about the fantastic innovative projects that we are working on, please check out our website here.