SXSW 2022 Was All About Resilience, Change and the Pursuit of Happiness

SXSW sign

Here are some key nuggets worth mulling over.

By Dave Caygill, Global Executive Director of Future Strategy, Iris

SXSW is many things, including a cultural, sensory and experiential overload that admittedly inspires and energizes but it’s also exhausting in scale and impact. Poignant therefore, that the big themes this year were those of resilience, change and happiness (or the pursuit thereof).

First up, Resilience.

Let’s consider what it is and what it isn’t. Is resilience a matter of being able to bounce back from adversity? Is it the ability to stand up, dust oneself off and keep on walking, striving and fighting? Or, as John Maeda pointed out in his Resilience Tech Report 2022, is it the ability to bounce back yes, but also transform?

Simply put, it’s all of these things. And with that in mind, here are some key drivers and detractors of resilience which it would serve us all to keep top of mind.

Driver #1: System thinking—One thing we’ve all become acutely aware of in a post-pandemic, post-Brexit, mid-Ukraine crisis world is how interconnected we are. We’re not only talking about supply chain disruptions and The End of Abundance Thinking as referenced by Fjord’s trends talk, but more critically on collaborative mindsets and systems analysis. For example, EV manufacturers are having to work closely with power grids to develop solutions that can scale to support demand, essentially as the challenge and solutions are too large and complex for any one company to tackle.

Driver #2: Adapting to change—Through the drive for ever-increasing efficiency, supply chains have become brittle and cheap, unable to withstand shocks from climate, conflict, cyber-attacks or COVID-19.  Resilience here requires having redundant suppliers or strong detectability tech so that disasters can be managed in real time. Leaders need to spot negative black swan events and plan for them, which will ultimately help companies become “all-weather companies” who actually perform better when something bad happens

Detractor #1: Lack of trust onlineTristan Harris pointed out in his talk, Humane Technology: Why The Social Dilemma Is Not Destiny, that the rise of AI tools which can quickly and easily create credible but misleading content is a neutron bomb for trust on the internet.  We have things like GPT-3 which can instantly generate perfectly readable content, based on real, true facts but are misleading.  We have deep fakes, able to generate realistic looking videos or images of real people from a couple of seed images.  This combined with engagement-based content ranking algorithms mean that the most divisive and controversial content rises to the top of the feed.  This has turned the complex system of social media and digital advertising into a ‘digital cult factory’.

Detractor #2: Cancel culture—The rise of rejectionism not only creates fear, it leaves no room for learning or for mistakes.  We need to move away from driving diversity to building a truly inclusive culture. Inclusive leadership is leading in ambiguity and in these scenarios, mistakes will happen, as asserted by Scott Galloway in his Provocative Predictions which he then got a taste of as a parent of a transgender child confronted him in the Q&A on Fast Company about his cross dressing.

Next up, Change Brings New Frontiers.

Disruptive change is seemingly everywhere and while we’re feverishly creating new stuff, new ways of governing and also interacting with each other despite this turbulence, there are a few things we must get right.

Web 3 and the Metaverse… in other words, “something new we must build well.” As these decentralised virtual places of connection begin to scale, there’s an urgent need to establish ways to keep people safe.  We are already seeing examples of harassment, abuse and hate.  Platforms are dodging responsibility and putting the vulnerable in self-created mobile prisons.  Beyond safety, there’s a big UX technical challenge to make it easy and fun to jump between worlds, taking avatars and assets with you.  We don’t want to spend our time managing multiple avatars in multiple metaverses.

The truth… “something old we need to save.” Our ability to reliably find, consume and share the truth is being eroded.  After years of progress towards credible mass media we’re now in reverse.  Resulting from the use of engagement-led digital distribution algorithms, content which is the most controversial often spreads fastest, costs the least to promote and is the most rewarded by Facebook and other social platforms. This leads to a dramatic polarization of communities and a lack of common understanding. When people lose access to a common refence point of truth it can be impossible to “bring them back.”

The future of work… “something we can change for the better.” The war for talent is allowing companies with progressive, flexible work policies to snag people from companies who are blindly dragging employees back to offices. Beyond finding top people, we’re also seeing a huge rise in the search for purpose within one’s work. Passion projects which started during pandemic lockdowns became side hustles and are now scaling into jobs.

Happiness… Aka the End Game.

More than a few talks came back to one particular “tale as old as time”-topic.  Whether it was Scott Galloway searching for the “big unlock” of the pandemic or Harvard Professor Arthur Brooks helping us live better second half lives or even Priya Parker reflecting on gatherings, it always came back to happiness.  How might we define happiness for ourselves in 2022?  Happiness is not a feeling in and of itself; feelings come from happiness. We are told by Brooks, based on his social science research, that people who describe themselves has happy have three elements in abundance and in balance: purpose, satisfaction and enjoyment. Enjoyment begins with positive pleasure which you can elevate with a little education (i.e. learn about music so that pleasure becomes enjoyment). Satisfaction is the reward for a goal met or a job well done.  Purpose is meaning in our lives. Some people make the mistake of trying to find happiness without purpose, and that rarely works. Furthermore, with meaning and purpose comes suffering and unhappiness. You can’t have happiness without recognizing and accepting unhappiness.  These are the “macronutrients” to the meal of happiness. They need to be nurtured and present in our lives.

SXSW has the above in spades.