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We don't need another app for social change or my 4 days at #sxsw

Craig Zelizer

March 16, 2017

From March 10 through March 14, 2017 I was fortunate to attend my third SXSW in Austin, Texas. For those who may not know, SXSW is a huge, crazy, fun, bizzare, sprawling annual event (actually many events in one) where tens of thousands of people from around the world, descend on and (literally almost) take over the city of Austin.

It has become one of my favorite times of the year, as SXSW is unlike any other event I attend. It is a unique combination of social activism (there was a heavy emphasis on digital activism this year), corporate PR (many of the events sponsors are leading corporations), and technology (for all uses) ranging from drones to good, to surveillance. Remember Twitter? It was first launched at a SXSW.  It is a week full of random and inspirational meetings, thought provoking conversations, meetings, sessions, exhaustion, waiting in lines, resting one’s tired feet and brain, and so much more.

In this short piece I want to summarize some of my key reflections from the week regarding the role of technology in our lives as I saw at the conference. In addition as PCDNetwork does at events we did a series of Facebook Live Interviews with innovators from around the globe.  See our full archive of videos here (several are embedded below)

1) Tech is the Solution and the Problem – It is clear that technology is increasingly taking a central part in the our everyday lives as human beings, workers, consumers, and more. SXSW highlights both the potential of technology to continue to contribute to improving our lives, helping address some of the key global challenges of the 21st century such as climate change, extremism, and corruption. At the same time, much of the technology being used for social good, also has the potential to be used for more nefarious purposes. The age of 24 hour connection, monitoring and putting our entire lives online has already arrived. But what is coming next is the rise of artificial Intelligence, virtual reality, deep machine learning, and biohacking where people and machines will actually start to become more merged or at least connected to humans. Instead of having an external cell phone or glasses, embedding chips in our bodies or other devices we may soon start embedding technology into our bodies. While this may have huge potential for improving health and other things through real-time monitoring, there are also huge security and privacy concerns.

Machines are also becoming better at recognizing patterns and analyzing data. One fun example is a short music piece was I able to create using IBM’s Watson (the world's leading supercomputer or nowadays cloudnetwork), even though I’m not talented musically. I entered a few random notes on a keyboard which was then turned into a variety of fairly cool songs. 

2) The age of Virtual and Augmented Reality are the next phase of media – One of the biggest trends I saw this year as the increasing promotion of how virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality are on the verge of becoming part of our daily lives and experiences. I demoed three VR experiences this year (where I put VR Headset such as Facebook Oculus or Samsung , headphones and then had an immersive experience) these included probably the most sophisticated one I’ve ever tried called Notes on Blindness. The VR film is based on a book, documentary film and now VR film that is based on the experience of John M Hull, who was a professor of religious education. He began to lose his sight and over the course of his experience created a series of reflections about the transition. The VR film was an amazing experience of having some  sense of how people who are blind or visually impaired sense the world in a completely different way.

I was also able to demo the VR film and interview film producer Arnaud Colinart


There were also many more VR films that are featured in the SXSW film festival which I didn’t have time to attend this year, see http://schedule.sxsw.com/2017/events/FS21505

There is a huge debate in the field of VR with voices that stressing VR will be a great tool in creating an age of empathy. As the technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, people will be able to virtually enter and experience the lives of others, whether to simulate what it means to be refugee, a victim of a police violence, or a tourist traveling to a new city. Personally, I’m somewhat skeptical of these claims. I do think that VR will allow people to experience things in a way never done before. But I think VR will also be used to market new products, dumb-down entertainment and just like social media has increasingly become to keep people in echo chambers where they may largely choose to experience only things that fit their worldview. Of course I hope I am wrong.


3) No one sector can solve all problems – One of my favorite parts of attending SXSW is the incredible diversity (it can be overwhelming) of sectors and professionals from around the world who attend. The world faces an incredibly broad set of challenges and it is clear no single sector, person or institution has all the answers. It is often in the convergence of fusion of different sectors that some of the most intriguing ideas and possibilities emerge. Whether this be how robotics can be used to help increase mobility for amputees (was able to chat with the developer of the world’s leading prothestic), or using VR to help increase empathy for people who are autistic to lead to more positive social interaction and policy challenges. The beauty and chaos of SXSW is all about this type of interaction and changes.


4) The appification of change will not bring change – Creating an app to build change or sell a product will NOT foster or sustain the long-hard slog of social change. I think the age of “appifcation of change” may be coming to an end (at least I hope). The world doesn’t need more apps. What we need are social movements, ecocystems of change, and strategic thinking. I did see many apps at SXSW that promise a new way to short and share videos, photos, etc. But honestly these didn’t interest me. The app/platform that I particularly loved was one from Indonesia, which for the first time had a country space in the exhibit hall.

Screenshot of the homepage of Qlue.com

Qlue is a “.. is an ultimate smart city solutions with a mission to globally connect city information with citizens. “ The team that has built qlue is working with the president’s office and mayors in select cities to empower citizens to report challenges ranging from a potholes, streetlights, and also access information on services. They have also worked with the government to create a rapid response to the feedback submitted by citizens.  Qlue is being used for a wide-variety of issues including mapping traffic patterns and helping make adjustments, turning off/on smart street-lights around Jakarta. It is helping to increase the responsiveness and accountability of the government to its citizens and also saving money.

See our interview with Qlue


See the full list of exhibitors https://www.sxsw.com/exhibitions/trade-show/exhibitors/


5) Innovators and innovation can come from anywhere – One of my favorite parts of SXSW each year has been attending the Dewey Award Ceremony that recognizes digital innovators using technology for social good. Two years ago, Dr. Catalina Rojas, our director of innovation was a recipient. Last year 50% of all awardees were PCDN members. This year 20% of the recepients were PCDN members including Blair Glencrose, founder of Accountabilty Labs. The org is doing pioneering work on accountability and increasing citizen/government linkages in some of the world’s most challenging contexts. Instead of using a name and shame approach, they are using a name and celebrate and fame approach and are having very strong results. See our interview with Blair,


Kevin Mercer, accepting the Dewey Award on behalf of Dr. Baraba Moser-Mercer, the Founder of Inzone.

One of my favorite organizations (I am also proud to serve on their advisory board), the Inzone Project was also a recipient this year. Inzone is working to advance access to higher education for long-term displaced populations in some of the world’s largest refugee camps. Less than 1% of refugees have access to higher education opportunities. Inzone is working to change this through innovate projects including setting up MOOC education centers in refugee camps, distance learning and providing ways for certification.

For the full list of Dewey Awardees click here


For a third time SXSW has left me full with connections, inspiration and a lot of food for thought. It is certainly an event one goes to learn, share, connect and walk away with more questions than answers. I encourage people working in tech, social change, media, arts, and other sectors to take a step into the world of SXSW next year. Hope to meet as many of you as possible in Austin in 2018. Also for those working at the intersection of Tech and Social Change consider nominating others for the Dewey Award Next Year.



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