So Long, Cowboy! My Four SXSW Take-Aways

From Indie band Star Crawler to Elon Musk’s surprise Q&A, SXSW is a festival that largely lives up to its hype. Attending at the invitation of German Haus, this quirky Austin-based festival of interactive, film and music industries felt to me like a (western) world stage for everything digital. I came away from my five-day trip, footsore - there’s a lot of walking - tired - there’s a lot of queueing - but ultimately inspired. Here are my top four SXSW takeaways.

1. From UX design for autonomous cars towards designing for the mobility experience

My main reason for attending SXSW was to take part in a German Haus hosted panel: "K.I.T.T. is real - why autonomous vehicles are just not enough and how conversational AI changes the way we drive (not only for Knight Rider)." The inspiration for the panel is that while we don’t know for sure what the future of transportation will look like, thanks to emerging technologies such as conversational AI, it is likely to be an improvement on K.I.T.T, Knight Rider‘s autonomous car from the ‘90s. My fellow panel members included Stuti Pandey from Moia (Mobility), Daniel Mieves from German Autolabs (digital assistant for drivers), Marcel C. Thiemann from Xapix and the panel was moderated by Dirk Evenson.

We discussed the tech opportunities and hurdles surrounding conversational AI and new mobility, including the human dimension, possible business models, as well as examples of self-driving / conversational AI innovations from different sectors and what these mean for new mobility. One of our key conclusions is that UX design needs to move away from a one-dimensional driving experience towards a mobility experience where “why” we move in the first place or “what” we do while we move, is more important than just getting from A to B. This shift is likely to be accompanied by the need for mobility brands to opt for a service business model and stop selling products. All themes we discussed at some length in Futurice’s Future Forces 2018 recently.

2. “Just because you have an innovation lab, doesn’t mean you are Apple”

Enterprise innovation was a big focus for SXSW with Shell, Daimler and Accenture discussing why Fortune 500 companies work with startups. These businesses outlined what they look for in prospective innovation partners namely high energy levels, the ability to solve business problems and to discuss business strategy at C-Suite or board- level. There was also recognition that where innovation is concerned there is no silver bullet: “just because you have an innovation lab doesn’t mean you are Apple.” What really struck me is the dilemma these big companies face between encouraging radical innovation and protecting the existing business model. There is no point investing in an innovation lab that really pushes limits, if the wider business refuses to implement any of its recommendations.

When it comes to startup partners hoping to get a seat at the table, Shell, Daimler and Accenture had this advice: Would-be partners need to be fluent in the client’s culture and to learn sales, so that they are ready for tough conversations with their procurement teams.

3. Designing UX for AI is a hot topic

As we are only at the beginning of the AI revolution it’s not surprising that SXSW conversations about AI and IA (Intelligence Augmentation) were unstructured. (For more structure, download Futurice’s Intelligence Augmentation Design Tool Kit here.) There was general agreement that bringing design/tech/business and data scientists together to co-create services that best support humans, is the right approach to designing UX for AI. There was also broad consensus that AI needs to assist humans in our tasks and everyday lives rather than take over and make us redundant.

Intelligence Augmentation was also a big subject – with a range of other phrases used to describe it including “task based digital assistants.” We are seeing a growing number of AI and IA applications in all industries including healthcare where the rise of smart assistants is having a great impact by being incorporated into medication to improve its targeting and effectiveness. What further applications will look like is unclear, however the discussions at SXSW attempted to draw an analogy with the way in which sensors in other sectors, are increasingly being embedded with deep learning-based technology, to create smart sensors that enhance the real-time insight they deliver.

4. Tech needs to get serious about ethics

A consistent theme at SXSW is that the tech sector must put its house in order from an ethical point of view. This means that all companies need to be clear which side they are on. The issues covered were very far-ranging but included everything from transparency around data use, platform businesses that don’t comply with local rules of the markets they operate in or which don’t pay taxes, to AI putting people out of jobs. One particularly moving session was hearing London Mayor Sadiq Khan discuss the Islamophobic hate posts he is receiving via social media. For me, the need for the tech sector to work with governments, politicians and opinion formers to encourage innovation while making sure it works in society’s best interests rather than its worst, was one of SXSW’s most resounding messages. And one which only resonates the more since recent revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

So what does this mean for Futurice and our clients?

It was encouraging to travel nearly 9,000 kilometres and find so much synergy between Futurice’s approach to digital innovation and the innovation strategies discussed at one of the world’s premier tech events.

Hearing Shell, Daimler and Accenture outline what they need from their innovation partners, felt like a reinforcement of our own future capable approach to enterprise innovation: our emphasis is very much on supporting and challenging our multinational clients at the highest level to help them be ready for the opportunities of the future.

We recently worked with E.ON to utilize digital innovation in developing new business models and new services, working on innovation culture and scaling from initial idea to the launch of a substantial new business. This included creating a complete end-to-end digital sales and delivery platform for its photovoltaic and battery division which contributes to reducing the cost of customer acquisition and increasing overall sales volumes.

We also support corporate startups in defining their services, including minimum viable proposition and scaling, while also building the right culture so that we can transition the know-how. We worked with Digital Energy Solutions, a joint venture between BMW Group and Viessmann group, to develop a user experience strategy and explore new opportunities within the ecosystem of mobility and energy.

However we don’t just support our clients with advice, we also put our money where our mouth is through our digital venture builder Futurice & StartUps where we create startups together with our corporate friends. One example of this is Solar2Go, an intelligent monitoring platform pilot project we started with global clean energy firm Fortum and Indian solar energy company Boond, to help local solar companies in the Unnao district in India, offer solar energy systems to households.

To find out how we can help your business - and gain further insight from SXSW - feel free to get in touch.