Travelogue from SXSW 2019

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Even at a progressive Tech conference a few things seem to stay the same from one year to the next: Firstly, the format: SXSW is a huge tech conference attracting businesses and people from across the globe spanning numerous industries and areas of operation. This year more than 80.000 attendees visited Austin, Texas over the ten day period of the conference. The majority of the sessions center on tech with a business, government or cultural angle. The conference attracts big names from all these fields, as well as start ups and a celebrity or two and as of this year: a number of politicians. Secondly: trust has been a central topic for several years at SXSW – this year it was an integral element in almost all sessions whether they centered on tech, politics or branding.

For the most part tough, SXSW is a showcase for rapid tech evolvement: AI and Machine learning were hot topics this year and most sessions centered around business cases in which applied technology had created significant business value. Biometry and mobility were also headlines of a number of sessions in which fascinating cases were presented. And China is quickly catching up and moving to the forefront in many areas of tech. 

With more than 5000 speakers and 2000+ sessions, of which many run parallel, prioritization is a key. My summary below centers on sessions where data and insight were central topics and sessions that present state of the art cases from client industries and technologies that may have an impact on MR or our client industries.

Summary of sessions:

Amy Webb of the Future Today Institute is a returning participant at SXSW. Her company develops the annual «Emerging tech trends report» based on comprehensive data analysis and development of trends and scenarios. And speaking of rapid development: the 2019 report contains 30% more trends than last year’s report due to among other things breakthroughs in robotics and AI. Despite an extensive report, Amy only had one hour on stage and focused on biology, green technology and biometry:

  • The Chinese have built mega farms growing vegetables underground - will Amazon build similar farms close to their distribution centers? And what would consequences be for farmers and global trade?
  • The Chinese are developing a “key free” car in which all functions will be managed through face recognition, gestures and smart cameras. Webb foresees a future in which we will not need passwords, wallets or driver licenses.
  • Amazon’s Alexa is learning how to assess your physical and emotional state and will probably be able to recommend you proper medication.
  • Amazon has also started building homes together with the largest real estate developer in the US: The Amazon home is already a fact.

Watch Amy Webb’s presentation:

Download full report: 

Future Institute Today: Scenario from Emerging Tech Trend Report – some scenarios more catastrophic than  others.

The founder of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, kicked it off on the first day of the conference talking about the croassroad of the internet triggered by the big tech platforms’ self induced lack of trust. As opposed to the content providers, the platforms have earned good money, but they have had no control of the content they publish. To overcome the trust challenge, Jonah argued, content providers and platforms need to provide Joy and Truth moving forward.

As head of a successful content provider, Jonah also offered some words of advice: «make good internet content, not shitty TV!». The internet business model has evolved over the years from being centered on views, to clicks and then to shares. BuzzFeed now focuses on moving onward from “passive media consumption” to the next level of «real world experiences and transactions»: Tasty, BuzzFeed’s food adventure, has triggered a lot of baking and cooking – as well as sales of kitchen supplies.

Jonah Peretti’s presentation:

BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti kicking off SXSW 2019

A number of sessions covered the challenged retail industry – even though Amazon represents a threat to the industry, the giant only has about 2% of global retail. A number of machine learning and AI cases were presented in which retailers have developed models for personalized offers, dynamic pricing, demand forecasting, product ranking and recommendations and promotional planning. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, was present with its CTO, Jeremy King. With more than 4600 stores, 1,5 million employees and 160 distribution centers, the company has ambitious goals for increasing customer satisfaction and employee productivity through application of new technology of which VR learning programs, shelf scanner robots, advanced predictive programs, personalization of products and new ordering and distribution opportunities are just a few examples. When asked about challenges ahead, Jeremy pointed to data and the challenge of collecting, categorizing and filtering data to create true business value.

Walmart CTO Jeremy King with Robot Oscar (who is really tall and good at scanning shelves)

Under the headline Drowning in Data, Starving for Insights, Fox talked about how they use data both to create better creative content and measure effect and ROI. Fox is increasingly working with “Emotional analytics” which consists of two types of data: operational and experiential. Canvas AI, a supplier to Fox, applies academic and transparent approaches in developing validation tools that measure emotional involvement with the argument that an emotionally engaged user has a higher value than just any “impression”. Canvas AI has also developed automated tools for coding open ended questions in order to assess engagement. Their databases includes a trillion coded facial expressions and semantic models for different audiences. Based on their experience, fancy dashboards is a less efficient mean of presenting data than integrating the data into the users’ operative systems. Fox’s ambition is to develop a new currency with more sophistication than CPM/ CPT. Predictive models are also in the works: It is rare that one metric is predictive in and of itself. Canvas AI’s approach to take the context of data into account is to start with an operational outcome and move backwards to identify the drivers. The best results had been achieved when combining technology and knowledge/ experience. 

A consumer-centric approach to insights was also discussed by the Insights directors of Mars Wrigley Confectionary and PepsiCo. In the US, big brand competitors of Mars Wrigley have grow by a negative 2%, whereas smaller brands have grown by +6%. The large brands explained the development partly with slow organizations working with established business models that are not fast enough and the need to become smarter in how they use insights. Technology has changed people’s expectations. Consumers are in control and demanding new relationships to brands.

A number of sessions dealt with privacy. Interesting perspectives were discussed regarding e.g. various approaches to privacy: Whereas Europe has had a strong focus on protection of data, the Chinese seem to focus more on controlling data and the US on commercializing on data. Federal regulation is however being discussed at the moment in the US.

China and AI

Interested in following cutting edge AI? With substantial government support and no privacy – China is quickly moving to the forefront. China is number two on the global ranking of tech graduates with 4,7 million annually (US is #1) and also has incentives in place to attract Chinese talent abroad to move home. China is already #1 in publishing research papers on AI and has 50% of all AI patents worldwide. Chinese authorities are building a new smart city with the size of Chicago 100 km from Beijing as a testing ground for mobility and connectivity endeavours.

Tencent, which many regard as the most interesting of the three big tech platforms in China, is a conglomerate and own the “super app” WeChat, which is Facebook, Messenger, Paypal, Google and Amazon all in one, with 1 billion monthly users. ByteDance is another company to be followed. The internet company runs several machine learning enabled content platforms.

The Chinese tech platforms have developed advanced targeting functionality for advertising, with audience, context and relevance based targeting and also AI-generated creatives. They also have MR offerings in place used for pre- and post testing of new product launches and focus group solutions both led by real moderators and chatbots. And according to the presenter: there is no longer a need for panels….  

Tech is also used for surveillance and propaganda: Xinjiang province in northwestern China has a population of 22 million mostly muslim inhabitants. The area has become an epicenter for demonstrating the dark sides of tech with e.g. “web cleansing apps” used at checkpoints, extensive tracking of people’s home and movements, DNA testing and facial imaging.

Chinese State Council: applying tech to identify the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Like earlier years, there were numerous sessions about cryptocurrencies. One of the featured events included the Winklevoss twins, Harvard alumnis famous for having sued Facebook for stealing their original idea when founding the platform. After winning USD 65 mill in court, they have since ventured on to launching Gemini, a crypto currency bank. Even though the «crypto winter» was the talk of town, the twins argued for their long term commitment to creating a crypto that will co-exist with money and that they envision will become possibly more used by machines than humans, e.g. for transactions by self driving cars. The biggest challenge right now, though: Trust. The Winklevoss’s called for government regulations as a necessary step to rebuild trust in crypto.

Winklevoss & Winklevoss on crypto

No SXSW is complete without at least one session with NASA. This year I learned about the cooperation between NASA and private companies like SpaceX, Boeing and others to reach the Moon as a stepping stone for deep space travel to Mars. And a few quick space updates: The Mars expedition has been postponed to 2035 and the Chinese have landed on the dark side of the Moon.

Implications and key take-aways

So, based on new learning and lots of inspiration from a great conference – what are the key take-aways?

  • Trust continues to be a scarce commodity representing a challenge to internet platforms, politicians, brands and media. I strongly believe that objective third party evidence is of increasing importance. Do the internet platforms and media channels deliver what they promise in terms of audience and involvement? To what extent do political issues and/ or brands engage the people? When looking to third parties to ensure trustworthy evidence, Quality data and Transparency is crucial – this will ensure that you know where the numbers are coming from, how data were gathered and what they can tell you.
  • Increased competition and disruption and the faster pace of change necessitates consumer driven approaches to product development, branding and innovation. Do you know what consumers need, what their preferences are and what they actually do? And do you know the market and not only your existing customer base? Third party data are valuable and an important complement to customers proprietary data. I am confident that best in class players across various fields will have one thing in common: they have a strategic approach to data utilizing both third party and proprietary data, and a number of different data sources.  
  • Agility: things are changing at a fast pace in most industries, including Market Research. I believe agility needs to be a core value to ensure quality, efficiency and satisfaction of customer needs. It is also important to work with suppliers and partners that share this core value, to ensure that they can follow up on your needs and ambitions: what target groups and markets are relevant, which third party data are needed and how would you like the data reported to ensure maximum business value?

You know you’re in Texas when….. the guys stick their pants into a nice pair of boots...