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Inspiration from South by South West

Published on Wednesday, 1st April 2015

A snapshot of Chris Thurling's recent visit to the interactive festival South by South West

Nearly 50 people gathered at Goldbrick House last week to hear Chris Thurling talk about his recent visit to Austin, Texas for the world’s largest interactive festival, South by South West (SxSW).

Chris had wanted to visit for a number of years. His partner at 3Sixty - Jon Waring - had been as have a number of other people from Bristol’s digital sector, so when Bristol Media asked him to undertake a research visit, he jumped at the chance and said last night it was one of the most amazing things he’s done in his career.

Chris started by putting into perspective the sheer size of the festival. At the interactive festival alone, there were in the region of 1,200 talks with 35,000 tickets sold.  Over the three weeks of the festival (which includes music and film) around 150,000 people from all over the world descend on Austin – that’s like putting Glastonbury right in the middle of Bristol!

Chris obviously experienced so much about how digital is changing the world at this transformational time – but there were 4 headlines in particular:

*The third wave of the internet revolution

*The creative/tech fusion

*The sharing economy

*What a great time it is for start-ups

On the third wave of the internet, Chris was particularly taken by a talk by Steve Case, the founder of AOL.  Steve discussed the first wave which he was involved with 30 years ago when the internet was being built, the second wave began around the turn of millennium, as websites, apps and social media made the internet an integral part of all of our lives.  But the third wave is perhaps the most exciting for young entrepreneurs and start-ups today. This is where the internet integrates into every-day life, transforming sectors such as healthcare, education, food, energy and transport. In the third wave, dialogue with government to create powerful partnerships will be key.  Steve Case quoted that 50% of the US economy is ripe for this disruption – worth $8.5 trillion – translate that into GBP and we’re talking £1.5 trillion.

And whilst we’re talking statistics, in the States, 75% of start-up capital goes to three states: California, Massachusetts (MIT) and New York.  47 other states are now fighting back quite rightly wanting to see some of the funding for themselves. The “Rise for the Rest” initiative hopes to spread the benefits more evenly.  Some might say we have a similar issue in the UK, with the majority of funding going to London-based companies.

The second talk that impressed Chris was by Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States who gave a tour de force on the pressing need to tackle climate change.  The talk contained lots of scary facts, but these were followed by a good dose of optimism that humanity has the power to pull us back from the brink…but it will take political will combined with disruptive technologies.  Al had a few caustic lines for the 'deniers' such as the CEO of Exxon, who apparently said "What's the point of saving the planet if it hurts humanity?"

Google’s Makani Kite which is disrupting renewable energy sources will be of interest to Mr Gore and I bet he’s already had a go in one of Google’s driverless cars which they seem unable to crash.  And Google have also made headway with their drones which in the next few years we will see delivering small packages to residential areas, cutting down the need for vast articulated trucks travelling through our cities.

And this is perhaps where the sharing economy starts to play a part with businesses such as Uber, Lyft and airbnb  encouraging people to use their assets in a different way. Airbnb and Lyft are seriously disrupting the two big markets of travel and transport. What sectors will be next?  It’s really up to you!

Biz Stone - one of the original founders of Twitter and now also Medium (where every day thousands of new voices publish their unique experiences, views, and reflections) Jelly and Super - led Chris to think that the US seems to completely understand the fusion between creativity and technology, something that here in Bristol we are also beginning to see.

One of the recurring themes throughout the five days was that of failure and in the States there seems to be a different cultural attitude to this.  The ‘can-do’, optimistic attitude of many Americans can grate a little for British ears, but there’s something infectious about it.  If we are going to be seriously in the tech game, we’ve got to overcome our cultural stigma towards failing - because in this space, if you’re not failing, you’re not trying!  (I feel better now!)  Dr Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at Google x says: “Failing doesn’t mean not succeeding…it’s about making mistakes faster and learning from them”.

There is a Start Up Village at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Austin, next door to the Convention Centre where start-ups can pitch their ideas to a panel of global businesses.  One of these was Bristol’s own Paul Archer, a former resident of Engine Shed’s Webstart.  Paul, like any brilliant young entrepreneur, raised his own cash and took his business Duel app to Austin.  He pitched it along with other US start-ups to Unilever and L’Oreal.  Paul won the pitch and then found himself in a glorious battle between Unilever and L’Oreal, both of whom wanted to work with him.  Dreams really do come true in Austin.

Finally, Chris talked about his own experience of SxSW.  He had gone out there with colleagues James Ray from Armadillo and Tom Quay and Sam Westlake from Base in Bournemouth and felt that not being on his own was a real advantage.  The group were able to talk about what they had seen and heard, meet up for lunch and dinner and enjoy the shared experience, both while they were in Austin and now they are back home.

Chris would go again at the drop of a hat: “It’s a fantastic chance to step outside your own world for a few days; there’s a real sense that if you are in our industry, this is the annual centre of the universe!  It reminded me that we are operating in a global market and that our competitors of the future are just as likely to be from Texas as they are from Birmingham. I’m excited by the opportunities of the third wave and really hope that Bristol can be a leading city, not just in the UK but globally in all that lies ahead, especially with our strong creative and tech sectors.  We have to take a leaf out of Paul Archer’s book and get out of our comfort zones or there is a danger we will be left behind by more dynamic and outward facing parts of the world. I highly recommend a visit to anyone who works in digital and I hope that Bristol can have a real presence there in 2016”.

If you’re interested to hear more about Chris’ experience at SxSW you can see some more highlights at Storify and if you’re interested to join a bigger delegation from Bristol Media going to SxSW in 2016, email caroline@bristolmedia.co.uk

Thank you to Sam Westlake from Base for the use of some of the photos. You can see more of Sam's pictures from SxSW here.