How SXSW Became the Place to Launch the Next Big Thing

Hear from SXSW's Hugh Forrest how he brings together creativity and innovation to give attendees a taste of the future

At first glance, the program options at this year’s SXSW (said “South by Southwest” by those in the know) music, tech and film festival read more like a list of potential Mad-Libs fillers than your typical event agenda:

After we go Trainspotting, let’s take Driverless Cars: Our Transportation Future to The Most Epic Board Game Ever Meet-Up where we can have a Conversation with T.I. about Humans and Robots in a Free-for-All Discussion.

While you may not normally expect to see rappers, board game aficionados, and robotics nuts in the same room (let alone sentence), a closer look at this seemingly mad-cap combo of events reveals the true mission of the festival: to provide a place for connectivity around the next best thing, be it a band, a better way to watch movies, or a bot like Eno that lets you pay your bills by text.

Cultivating this cross-cultural experience is the motivation behind the approach to the festival offerings, says SXSW’s Chief Programming Officer, Hugh Forrest. To find out more about how SXSW comes to life, we spoke to Hugh for his insights on how he and his team choose the schedule, what came out of this year’s festival and what’s on tap for the future.

Chief Programming Officer for SXSW seems like a cool gig. How did you get started at SXSW and what do you do in your role now?

Hugh Forrest: I have been working SXSW since 1989. It started in 1987, so I came on board in essentially its third year.

The story that never ceases to get people to laugh is the reason I got hired at SXSW—way back then I had a computer and they didn't. So, early lesson in the importance of having the right hardware at the right time.

Flash forward to where we are now: My new title is Chief Programming Officer. There's about 50 people who I manage. They're working on conference, content, programming, panels, presentations. I'm also at this point overseeing the film festival and the music festival and the interactive festival. So again, I'm overseeing all of the content that is hopefully compelling, is hopefully inspirational, is hopefully informational, is hopefully giving people a taste of the future. Which is what I think we do in our best days.

When you say, “a taste of the future,” can you explain a bit more about how you bring that into the festival?

Hugh: The bulk of people who are speaking, showcasing new work, and performing here…they’re folks that most people haven't heard of before. They're new, they're young, they're hungry, they're doing lots of really interesting things. But those interesting things probably haven't reached the mainstream. A lot of those people may make all the right moves over the next two years and become names, figures, idea makers that are more well known. And it's cool for someone to say, "Wow, that's cool. I saw that person at SXSW three years ago." Showcasing that top up-and-coming talent is always one of our biggest missions.

How much do you consider the “next big thing” when you go about choosing the program?

Hugh: Oftentimes it's less us being smart and more us seeing how smart the community is and trying to fit that into our programming. We are very in-tune with our global creative community, and we understand that they have a lot of really great insight and ideas on what is going to be hot in the future. So, we leverage those ideas by using an interface we call SXSW PanelPicker®. It is essentially a crowdsourced platform where people can send in their speaking ideas. We typically get somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 ideas. Of those, 700 to 800 are picked for the event and provide this really great content.

Is there anything that's really surprised you in terms of proposals that folks have sent in?

Hugh: Given the volume of proposals we're getting this year, we will have almost every topic covered in almost every crazy way. But one thing the PanelPicker® gives us is a lot of really great data. Last year, we got zero proposals focused on chatbots. This year, we got 25 proposals focused on chatbots so [we see] it's an emerging trend. And that is real.

Another one that I always mention is two years ago when we had a big bump in proposals related to Cuba. This was right when Cuba was just willing to open up more and there was a lot of talk and interest and excitement about entrepreneurialism in Cuba and startups in Cuba. [We] see one proposal about Cuba the year before and then we see 10 proposals this year and [we say], “Wow. The community must be thinking about that. And that's something we ought to cover.”

How do attendees of the three different aspects of the festival—film, music, and tech—connect with one another and with the other parts of the fest?

Hugh: Well, the thing that absolutely connects them together is creativity and innovation, which are always two of the things that we celebrate the most at SXSW. Whether it's a filmmaker, a web designer, a musician—hopefully the bottom line of what they're bringing to Austin is this kind of massive creativity.

What stood out to you the most at the festival this year?

Hugh: I think the biggest thing this year is A.I., artificial intelligence. That has been something that has been an undercurrent in all of our programming. We had 24 different tracks, from government, to start-up, to style, food, fashion, sports, and there’ve been sessions about how A.I. will impact in all those tracks.

Another trend is around this junction of the transportation industry: self-driving cars, autonomous cars—there's a huge push on that this year. I think that's a very sexy topic.

Another big trend this year: health, medtech, and biotech. We had a couple of really high profile speakers in that regard, one being Jennifer Doudna, who is the co-founder of the new technology called CRISPR, which will potentially enable her to program and edit human beings like we edit code. We were also fortunate enough to have Vice President Joe Biden talk to me about the Cancer Moonshot project, which was incredibly moving.

I think we'll see a lot more health in the next three years at SXSW. So much of the health stuff ties into new technology. At present, your smart watch can monitor your health. But it won't be too long before the clothes we wear can monitor our heart beat, our other bodily functions.

What is it about Austin that offers a unique experience for the festival?

Hugh: Well, I think that Austin and SXSW go hand in hand. It's kind of impossible to separate one from the other. And SXSW is always a very, very strong reflection of what is hot in Austin. We started as a music event in 1987 because there was a very strong music scene here. And the fact that we got this new medical school in Austin, it's pretty obvious that this will generate much more of a health, medical, healthtech, medtech, biotech industry in Austin. I think SXSW will reflect that over the next few decades.

There are a lot of wonderful cities around the US and around the world, but no place you could do this like you can in Austin. There's long been a creative culture here. I also just think it's the way the city has just developed where alternative voices have been given credence. Where creativity has been celebrated.

What’s next for SXSW?

Hugh: Great question and I wish I could tell you that we have a, you know, multi-year plan. We don't have that as organized as we should. But, as I mentioned before, I think we'll see more and more health stuff in the coming years.

I think we've also got to get a lot better at figuring out new ways to let more people absorb, connect, experience the event virtually. The city’s only so big; at this point, we're pretty maxed out on how many people can come to Austin. Given some of the VR (virtual reality) technology that we've seen at SXSW, in the future, can we create some kind of experience where you put on your headset and go to your room or whatever and you feel like you are in Austin? You feel like you're in that creative-rich environment that we help to create? I think that's going to be much easier said than done because one of the ironies of events like SXSW is that we celebrate technology. We talk about new technology. We showcase new technology. And yet, at the end of the day, what makes the event so special is face-to-face connections and interactions, which are totally low tech.

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