As a seasoned consultant and a green entrepreneur, I’m always interested in conferences focused on sustainability and social innovation. What makes SXSW Eco particularly special is its Austin location. In association with that famous organizer of fun, SXSW Eco has a reputation for seamlessly blending learning with celebration. As a first-time attendee, I was very curious to see if this conference would live up to its reputation and by all accounts, it did not disappoint.
From the moment I walked into the Austin Convention Center, it was clear that this was going to be a unique experience. From the way people dressed to the structure of the event, SXSW Eco felt like the “un-conference” – instantly cooler and yet somehow just as serious. This is a major professional business conference with a “meetup” vibe, where people from all over the country convene to make change happen. As SXSW Eco Program Manager Chris Sonnier put it:
2014, without a doubt, has been the best SXSW Eco yet. Never before have we seen a more diverse group of dedicated individuals coming together to catalyze solutions for the future we all hope to see.
South By stands out by delivering an engaging social experience without going down the path of setting up the over-scheduled “summer camp” approach. Speakers range from world-famous athletes and movie producers to high-powered executives wandering the halls in jeans. That woman you want to talk with – the one who is usually surrounded by a cordon of her people at other events – is easily approachable and interested in meeting you here. It’s as if just by coming here you’ve passed through the portal that is Austin and everything changes.
It is not all perfect, though. So many panels and concurrent sessions make it difficult to settle on a program track. I found myself wanting to be in two or three places at once. This dilemma was repeated throughout the three days. For example, I found myself completely entranced by Dan Malloy and Kellen Keene as they presented on their two-month bike journey across California and their introspective point of view on family farming. To see this, I had to skip the session on the next-generation energy grid, which sounded equally interesting. But whichever presentation you settle on, you get the impression that it was the one you were meant to see. In the presentation on his new book Slow Is Fast, Dan Malloy did a brilliant job of giving a face and a personality to the many families who are fighting to succeed on small organic farms across California.
While there was a theme, the conference content did meander a bit. Also, there seemed to be an absence of scheduled networking time, leaving attendees to seek each other out often at the expense of missing something else. But Austin as a backdrop provides an infinite selection of fantastic gathering spots and opportunities for more informal networking. And none of these quirks diminished the experience. I found myself having fun, learning and leaving with several incredible connections for my business. That is the hallmark of a great conference.
Still quite small compared to its larger siblings like Interactive or the Music and Movie Festival, Eco is in its early years. Now having attended one, I think South By has an incredible opportunity ahead of it to leverage the atmosphere and the brand to build an informative, action-oriented event that will endure for years. I would also challenge the organizers to turn the event into an annual call to action.
SXSW Eco has the horsepower to attract high profile speakers and capture the attention of individuals who are in a position to make things happen – not just from the Eco community, but from the music, movie and mainstream South By communities as well. With the possibility of cultural transformation folded into three days of learning and relationship-building, the reverberations of SXSW Eco should echo long after the conference is over.