Off the Beaten Path at SXSW

This year SXSW was its usual banquet of technology invention and energy

By Diane Smith

I recently attended the super-cool South by Southwest festival, held in super-cool Austin, Texas. South by Southwest (often referred to as SXSW or just South By) began back in the late ‘80s as a music festival and since then it’s grown like kudzu. The Austin festival has expanded to include nine days of film, music, and technology and is full of panels, performances, and mind-bending innovations. SXSW has been so successful that it now also produces separate conferences on education, the environment, and entrepreneurship.

This year SXSW was its usual banquet of technology invention and energy. Even President Barack Obama attended; the first sitting U.S. President ever to do so. He spoke off the cuff for 45 minutes about privacy, online voting, and civic engagement.

By now you might be asking – what does a high-tech confab in a big urban center have to do with rural and small town America? Plenty. For one thing, lots of the energy at SXSW was focused on technologies that are vital for those of us who choose to live outside big urban centers.

For example, food was a big SXSW topic this year. New technologies were highlighted that have a real chance of helping us decrease the amount of food we waste, grow our food more efficiently, and distribute food more effectively. Since rural and small towns are often at the forefront of food production, creativity, and delivery, tech developments in these spaces are pretty important for us.

Remote education and healthcare tech were also a big focus. Don’t we all get that the more remote education and healthcare tech improve, the more attractive rural and small town residency becomes?

Self-driving cars? Yep, not too far away. Those of us who drive a lot (like most of us in fly-over states!) might miss our windshield time, but we’ll also likely be among the most liberated by autonomous car technologies.

The opportunity for communities off the beaten path to be vibrant and prosperous depends in large measure on our ability to utilize the new technologies so vividly on display at SXSW. That’s not an outcome we should take for granted. It will require farsighted and thoughtful government involvement at the state, local, and federal levels to ensure that we continue to have the infrastructure necessary to participate. Sadly, “infrastructure” isn’t a concept particularly in vogue right now. But we can’t afford to delude ourselves about all that’s required for a future that’s way more imminent than most folks think.

SXSW is where developers of drones, wearables, mobile apps, holograms, augmented and virtual reality capabilities all get together for a few days with filmmakers and musicians for inspiration, education, and a pretty accurate glimpse into the future. It’s not just about big city centers; it goes way into the daily lives of those of us living off the beaten path. This isn’t just super-cool progress; it’s good progress. Now, though, is our time to get ready.

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