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  • Marc Curtis

2021 - The year SXSW went virtual

Attending the now ubiquitous South by Southwest conference in the midst of the pandemic was always going to be a different experience. This would have been my sixth visit to SxSW in Austin, however this year the whole event was 100% online.

SXSW started life as a music and film festival back in 1987. Over the years it’s grown into what it is now – a heady mix of technology, comedy, music and film.

In normal years the event takes over the whole of the Austin downtown area to accommodate the 230,000 visitors who come to be part of the event.

The conference part of the festival boasts over 2000 sessions (keynotes, panels, workshops etc) with 70,000+ conference attendees.

For me SXSW has always been the one event in the year that recharges my innovation batteries. Every year I attend with an open mind and a thirst for new experiences, and I’ve never been disappointed. There have always been moments of revelation, meetings with fascinating people and themes that seem to presage the trends many of us are just becoming aware of.

Did it work online?

So how was this year? Can such an iconic event work in an online format?

The short answer is no. Unsurprisingly, the experience of attending the event via a video window on my laptop in my kitchen doesn’t deliver anything approaching the experience of being there in the flesh.

The organisers did do a great job curating and recording a large number of sessions. There was also a VR environment loosely based on 6th street – more on this in a moment.

The problem with online festivals, however, is that it’s really hard to replicate the immersion, the serendipity and the atmosphere of and event. Spending a week in Austin exposes attendees to so many unexpected and unplanned experiences.

Some of the best sessions I’ve attended have been because I couldn’t get into the one I wanted to attend and ended up seeing what was in the room next door.

The online version of this almost produces the opposite experience. There are few sessions with a maximum occupancy, which means that you can jump in and out of talks on a whim. Unconsciously, you end up treating the schedule like the infinite scroll in TikTok – always looking for the next better video. It might just be me, but if you suffer from a short attention span, then an online format is an invitation to distraction and consequently, a poorer experience.

Key themes

There were some positives from attending the festival (although they were a little more sparse).

There were some clear themes that dominated the online festival. Here are four that resonated with me.

XR – or extended reality

Apparently someone decided to rename VR, AR and MR under one umbrella – Extended Reality.

The organisers created a couple VR environments in a multi-platform VR app called VRChat.

The experience was reminiscent of the early days of Second Life. A bleak, poorly rendered environment with soulless musak playing in the background and a steady stream of strange looking avatars asking each other if their microphones are working.

Maybe I was looking in the wrong places, but beyond the novely aspect of the experience, I was unable to detect any actual point to the whole exercise.

There were some interesting panel sessions. One that I managed to pay attention to for more than 10 minutes was an interview with the VP of Oculus at Facebook, Mark Rabkin.

Mark was unsurprisingly optimistic about the future of VR, and with good reason. Following the hype around VR, things have moved rather more slowly than many expected.

However, with the launch of the Oculus Quest (and now the Quest 2), the entry level to high quality VR has been massively lowered. Consumer adoption is finally on the up, as is business adoption (albeit at an earlier stage).

This is in part being driven by the lower cost of the hardware and in part by the ever-increasing range of applications available for the platform.

Facebook is investing heavily in better avatar (the 3d version of you in the VR world) technology to create more meaningful experiences in VR.

From a business perspective, the main application seems to be better virtual meetings. Given how much we are now all forced to rely on Zoom/Teams etc, the experience of sharing a virtual space with colleagues has many advantages; not least the fact that research has shown that meetings and workshops in VR create better and more distinct memories for the attendees as opposed to those carried out in video platforms.


Sustainability tech has been a recurring theme for the last few years at SXSW, and this year was no different.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended was hosted by Business Finland. Wood is a major renewable resource in the Nordic countries, and Finland was able to showcase some amazing innovations in almost all areas of business – including packaging, biofuels, medicine and (my favourite) dyes and inks.

Using wood-based nano-structures, teams from Aalto University, have created these amazing iridescent dyes that can be used for a variety of purposes. They are biodegradable and don’t use harmful chemicals. All from trees!


One of this year’s major sponsors was a company called High Grade Hemp Seed, a company selling cannabis seeds with the same kind of tasking notes normally associated with fine wines.

This is driven by the fact that North America is well on the way to legalising cannabis for recreational and medicinal use, having finally started to accept that many of the laws criminalising cannabis use put in place for reasons other than the health and safety of its users.

This is a trend that will inevitably impact Europe, with many companies already looking at how they can monetise not only the drug, but the many other uses of the plant – for example packaging, clothing, fuel etc.

The Empathetic Workplace

The final theme I want to share is around the idea that, in part due to the pandemic, anxiety in the workplace is on the rise.

According to Katherine Manning, in 2019 in the US, 1 in 12 people reported having an anxiety disorder. Following the last 12 months, 1 in 3 are now experiencing anxiety issues and 53% of Americans believe that the pandemic has or will affect their mental health.

This is a real problem for the workplace. According to Manning poor mental health can reduce cognitive performance by a third.

So there is clearly a need for employers to create an environment of phycological safety for their employees.

Manning discussed what she refers to as ‘Institutional Betrayal’. This is the idea that, if an individual seeks help for some trauma (be it physical, psychological or emotional), and the institution they reach out to responds in a non-caring way, the individual can experience the trauma all over again due to the betrayal of trust.

Following a year in lockdown with different work environments and a massively reduced contact with colleagues, friends and family, being told that they are all expected to return to the office with little regard for the emotional impact of such a massive change can create real anxiety.

Manning proposes that employers need to create an environment of phycological safety for workers. This kind of empathy needs to come from the top management down, with middle managers being trained or advised on how to care for their teams in yet another period of massive upheaval.

Next year will be better?

I remain a huge fan of South by Southwest. It will always be the highpoint of my work year, a chance to immerse myself in a world beyond the sphere in which I work, and a chance to bring some of the revelations and knowledge back to Lyreco.

My experience of a virtual Southby was a poor one. I felt none of the excitement and wonder of discovery I’ve felt in years gone by, even if some of the talks have been brilliant.

I’m crossing all my fingers and toes that SXSW 2022 will be something more like years gone by. I miss you Austin.


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