Day 3: SXSW makes us think deeply about how we think, live, and create today as a result of technology

Changing behavior and forming new habits are some of the fundamental results of good media planning. Having sat in half a dozen panels over the past 2 days writing down (repeatedly) about the benefits of expansive thinking, I knew I needed to do more of it. To get out of my comfort zone, to leave the Brand and Marketing track, and go far beyond my core discipline. And so Day 3 at SXSW began, with Biotech and the Megacity. The discussion centered around biology, and how it’s one of the most important technological platforms of the 21st century. This was said at SXSW two years ago, and again yesterday in the Emerging Trends session so I was keen to find out more.

The panelists agreed that the focused and direct use of biology will be the solution to many of the world’s most significant problems, from access to clean water, waste management, public health and even climate change. Yet one of the biggest barriers to the deployment of cheaper, and more effective biotech solutions lies in the public’s staunchly negative opinion of all things genetically modified. Our fear of GMO is so deep, the likelihood of any suggestion that GMO solutions be used in controlled external environments, such as wetlands to help manage and eradicate pollution, is likely to be rejected without a second thought. It seems to me that the biologists may be in need of the folks filling the Brand and Marketing track. Equally, the communications experts need to roam the other halls and explore the complex, interconnectedness of diverse industries so that we can better understand people and their broader world views. It’s not enough to think of consumer journeys within the constraints of a single brand or product category because we are all increasingly aware that the actions and events in one sphere will likely have a profound effect on another.

On that note, I moved to New Localism: Reimagining Power in a Populist Age, where the discussion was around the effects of the political events of 2016. We’re seeing a structural shift and a new way of problem solving, as cities become networks with both market and civic power, taking on more responsibility and driving bottom-up policy making. There was a call for greater civic engagement, for people to be more informed, engaged, and empowered to take charge of, and contribute to their own communities, and to consider running for local government. And this was of course echoed in London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Convergence Keynote. Khan talked about how he sees cities as being the nervous centres for infrastructure, for ensuring that they become ‘smart’. It is city government that can cope better at turning the upheaval caused by the tech revolution into advantage. Khan explained that whilst technology has brought many benefits, it is also leaving growing numbers of people behind, which in turn is leading to unease, fear, and the rise in nationalism. He added that the tech and social media companies, with their algorithms ‘blinkering us from different points of view’, needs to realise that they need to exercise a stronger duty of care to connect and democratize the sharing of information in a way that makes everyone feels safe and valued. It was a pointed statement to make at SXSW, which is teeming with Silicon Valley techies, but clearly that was precisely why he said it. Khan added that we also need involvement from our citizens to get involved, to make their voices heard, and share their points of view and to not allow disengagement and disillusionment to takeover.

But how can diverse voices be heard at scale? Well a rather interesting approach was laid out in Sensemaking for Cities: Conflict and Complexity. Dave Snowden, Founder of Cognitive Edge described an innovative approach to civic engagement to capture citizen’s voices and identify patterns that can be used to resolve conflicts and build more equitable cities. Essentially, it’s ethnography at scale. The way it works is that in places where there is a conflict to resolve, you give people the technological means (their phone) to tell their own stories through images, voice, and text. Each person records their impressions, their thoughts and feeling, and they offer their own interpretation of that information they have provided, rather than having an expert researcher do it and inadvertently corrupt it with their own biases. Those individual stories are converted into data points that are triangulated, and from there you see how people in a community genuinely feel about a situation. And by mapping those stories over time, you can not only measure how effective city governments are at bringing about improvements, but you can also develop strategies for managing groups who might be at polar opposites from one another. Thus, peoples’ stories become their solution.

What started out as a day to delve into a completely different discipline, ended up bringing me right back to the heart of what I do in my day-to-day role; storytelling. Whether it’s helping our clients craft the most compelling stories for their brands, or unearthing the insight in people’s stories to shape our media strategies, storytelling is a critical part of what we do. I wonder what stories will be told tomorrow?


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Chrissie Hanson

OMD Global Chief Strategy Officer

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