March 21, 2017

SXSW 2017: A Year for Empathy

By Tom Kelshaw Director of Creative Technology

Tom Kelshaw

Tom Kelshaw

Director of Creative Technology

Of more than 1400 session titles at SXSW 2017, the most popular word was FUTURE (114 mentions). Other popular terms were Tech (85), Design (77), Innovation (54) and Marketing (46). So, what kind of future are we talking about at SXSW? How does technology, design, innovation and marketing affect it?

US Senator Cory Booker’s opening keynote called for more empathy. The ‘woke’ Americans call it seeing each other. Seeing means acknowledging that different people exist. Those who vote the wrong way or aren’t excited about software eating the world. Important themes in technology’s culture of disruption and rapacious capitalism, and in a world that seems more fragmented and divided than it needs to.

For me, SXSW2017 focused more than ever on empathy for people in different counties, countries, stages of socio-economic and technological development, age and ability.

Cuba in Austin

Cuba was a popular topic, indicating growing interest from the tech and marketing worlds. Innovative solutions Cubans have developed in the absence of widespread internet.

* The first is the ‘paquete’, a courier network that delivers USB drives each week, with new content downloaded from overseas. This enables Cubans to stay up to date on global news, pop music, spanish-language publications and the latest Game of Thrones.

* Kewelta is a classifieds network that can operate offline, via wifi, to provide classifieds, job postings and event advertisements.

* There was also a warning. Overseas tech startups must be considerate of Cuba’s specific political and social conditions before charging in. Airbnb is now very popular, but first needed to work with local communities to solve for lack of internet (they use networks of phone calls to contact hosts).


North Korea Paquete

Designing for Age and Ability

The UN projects the global population aged 65+ will average 22% by 2050. In markets like Japan, South Korea, Germany, Greece and Italy, already at 22% – 27%, it will average 35%.

Despite our fascination with Millennials and Gen Z, which offer best hope for consumer growth, an aging population will have serious macro effects on business and society. So how do we design systems that cater to the current and magnifying needs and opportunities of an aging population?

I heard from accessibility specialists from Dopplr Labs, which released earbuds that alter incoming sound. They can phase out office or street noise, enhance concert experiences, or improve general hearing and conversation. Current medical hearing aids are $4000+. When my generation of headphone-wearers gets older and needs hearing support, Dopplr is aiming to have a cool gadget that can support the market for much less.



As the population ages, more families will be required to care for relatives. This places strain on their time and energy, opening opportunities for more on-demand services. As a VC who invests in disability care said: “We’re too worried about busy, time-poor millennials. They’re not busy – they’re distracted. Speak to a single mom or a working lady looking after her 80 year old mother. They’re time-poor. They’re exhausted. They need delivered, prepared solutions.”



Filed under “Only In Japan”, Panasonic demonstrated some of their concepts for the home. The Delisofter is a machine that pre-softens food so it can be easily chewed by old or disabled people. Panasonic say this maintain dignity and a sense of family as everyone can eat together.

Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling and the Universal Basic Income

WIRED founder and futurist Bruce Sterling closed the Interactive festival with his usual blend of prescience and wit. As technology continues to disrupt and productivity replaces more jobs, what will we all do?

A Universal Basic Income is being championed by some in Silicon Valley to offset their disruption. Sterling outlined 12 possible scenarios for humans in a post-work world: among them constant war, pleasure, study, art or religion. As a sci-fi author, Sterling is comfortable using the future to explore the present. I think it’s time to start using some empathy now to understand the consequences of change and how it affects others.