For anyone who has attended a South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, certain adjectives come to mind—inspirational, spontaneous, and fun being three common descriptors. For two weeks each March, the gravitational centers of music, film, and emerging technology shift over Austin, Texas, as the intellectual leadership of each industry gather from around the world. The result is something akin to an experiment in controlled chaos.
“What we hear with SXSW each year over and over is about serendipitous meetings you couldn’t have anywhere else,” said Chris Sonnier who is the Program Coordinator for SXSW Eco, a new conference set to launch its second iteration this October 3-5. According to Sonnier, the ethos of the sustainability movement is ingrained in the DNA of the SXSW employees, and that is what has led the company to create a conference that caters to the sustainability community.
As most of this site’s readership will know, sustainability has emerged over the past two decades as one of the most influential and rapidly-evolving social and political movements. Whole-systems and lifecycle analysis have become pervasive in everything from corporate supply chain management to urban planning. Part of the impetus for the diffusion of sustainable thinking is the growing consciousness regarding human impact on the environment—a trend captured eloquently by Dr. Raymond Orbach from UT-Austin’s Energy Institute. An arguably more important part has been an explosion of innovation in sustainability-oriented technologies that drive down firms’ cost of doing business while simultaneously yielding environmental and health benefits.
The strength—but also challenge—of the sustainability movement stems from the diversity of its constituents. It’s in bridging the gaps between historically-disconnected communities that Sonnier sees a role for SXSW Eco.
“What we are best at is convening diverse communities. There are some issues that can’t be decoupled—energy and water for example. We’re focused on having a full conversation about sustainability that leads to actions and solutions,” Sonnier said.
In many ways, SXSW is a newcomer in the world of sustainability. When asked whether this posed challenges to the company’s ability to convene the movement’s various stakeholders, Sonnier replied that their position as an outsider in fact gives them one unique advantage.
“We’re not an authoritative body; we’re a cultural body with a mission to provide the best possible conference to the community. This allows us to be unbiased, adaptable, and move quickly to best serve the community.”
Some of the more intriguing elements of this year’s program are included in the conference list of special events, which boasts items such as a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored Hackathon to develop usable tools for energy use decision-making, and an “NGO Toolkit” workshop to create software tools for nongovernmental organizations that improve crisis response capability. Even for participants without any special skills, the conference offers various ways to get hands-on, such as the AMD-sponsored effort to clean up Austin’s historic Waller Creek.
Above all, Sonnier hopes participants will have fun.
“This can sometimes be a daunting topic, one that deals with matters of life and death. But we’re also creating a very fun event where like-minded individuals can interact.”
Triplepundit will have ongoing coverage of SXSW Eco when the conference convenes October 3-6 at the AT&T Conference Center. Contact us for information about discount tickets.