SXSW 2018: A summary

Two people posing in front of TV. Photo.

Every year in mid-March, “everything and everyone” in the field of movies, music and interactive media is gathered at South by Southwest (SXSW), in Austin, Texas. Including Itera, this time represented by Kristian Enger and Niko Nyström

A short intro to SXSW

The conference lasts for six days with hundreds of talks, panels, lectures, keynotes, workshops, parties and meetups, as well as good discussions over coffee, food or a beer. We could have written a huge book about the different topics presented, but have chosen some topics we considered especially interesting.

Several topics must be left out this time:

• Smartphone development (where some people are predicting the death of the smartphone within 5 years)
• Chatbot (not that much in focus this year)
• Platforms and cloud (a matter of course)
• Big data and data science
• Smart cities & self-driving cars
• Cryptocurrencies
• Methodology

In this report, you will also find links to presentations, webpages and videos we recommend. Enjoy the reading!


The overall perspective: Humanizing tech (or human-centric tech)


The topic “humanizing tech” is not new, but is embracing all areas of SXSW this year – from art to health, and from B2C to B2B. Innovation is no longer a question of technology, but about people’s ability and willingness to adapt to and use the technology. We have all experienced “dehumanizing” technology – tech that seems to diminish our ability to communicate with others or to function effectively in our daily lives. From life-saving apps to cutting-edge military defense, humanizing tech will explore and expand the boundaries of what it means to be human and how we consume tech. The speed of tech development is faster than the speed of human development and we need to understand this dilemma to avoid “moral panic” or tech fatigue.


By 2020, more people will have mobile devices than running water or electricity at home. Mobile will generate half of US’ ecommerce, and 85% of customer interactions will be handled without a human.

However, if you know where to look, you can already see the future all around you, right now — from how people use messaging apps in Southeast Asia to mobile payments in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Research from Facebook’s research center, Facebook IG, highlighted, based on Facebook’s immense global dataflow, the following developments to be central until 2020:

Cultural shifts:

  • More focus on gender equality among brands
  • People live longer and start new careers and activities later
  • Half of the workforce in 2020 are millennials
  • They want to work more flexibly
  • E-mail is replaced by live chats


  • New language as combination of words, pictures and video
  • Mobile makes us faster. The younger you are, the faster you scroll
  • Mobile video is skyrocketing on Insta, Snap etc. on mobile. People watch it longer than static content. 20% of videos are live broadcasts
  • VR and AR will merge because people will not care


  • We are shifting to one-click buying
  • People will pay for convenience
  • Messaging is still increasing
  • The consumer journey is getting shorter and might collapse (Convergent commerce)


  • With IOT things start at home
  • Simplicity is important to avoid information overload. Top 3 apps account for 80% of the usage
  • 3B people will gain access to smartphones by 2020
  • Solely mobile… 1/4 of millennials are mobile only, 70% in India


  • Video is at core
  • From families to global communities
  • People in global markets feel connected to a global community
  • The community is redefining “belonging”

Almost every speaker, from Elon Musk and Melinda Gates, via London mayor Sadiq Khan and HRH Crown Prince Haakon to CEOs of a lot of different startups, are all pointing out tech as a necessary solution to global problems. Tech is not an aim in itself, it’s just a way of solving our human problems. Hence, we need to secure that everybody has the same opportunity to utilize tech solutions. That’s our social responsibility in 2018.

New area of design

Design in tech is evolving rapidly and is moving from being treated as a separate subject to become an essential and integrated part of overall business creation and mission. Both IBM and McKinsey have appointed designers as top managers or partners the last two years. This development demands designers to understand and embrace technology and exploit all opportunities. AI will be especially important – in 2018, we will see fantastic AI design tools that we need to learn how to utilize. China seems to be in front of this development.


Furthermore, designers must understand and increase focus on business development. Designers should also take co-responsibility in creating social impact by design/new customer journeys. Players like AliPay introduce social responsibility to designers when launching new solutions like “AliPay plant a tree”.

Silicon Valley design guru John Maeda (and others) distinguishes between three categories:

  • “Classical” designers, who create physical objects or products
  • “Commercial” designers, who innovate by seeking deep insights into how customers interact with products and services
  • “Computational” designers, who use programming skills and data to satisfy millions or even billions of users instantaneously.

Business value is only created by the latter two. A “computational designer” will:

  • understand computation and coding
  • think critically about technology
  • actively learn AI and other new stuff
  • use all three kinds of design (including classical design)


  • AliPay: plant a tree-campaign
  • Volvo: car sharing ideas based upon computational design
  • Voice and chat based concepts: No Isolation


AI is all over

AI research has been going on for decades, and a rapid development started 8 to 10 years ago. AI is a very broad term. The best way to think of AI is not as a particular tool, software application or spoken interface. AI represents the next era of computing, after the tabulating era (very early computers) and the programmable systems era. This summary will focus on the use cases that seem most relevant for us. These include areas were computers can do activities that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception or speech recognition, decision making, and sensing and navigating in a complex world.

According to experts, Google is the world’s largest AI company today. They are working on autonomous vehicles, speech recognition, intelligent reasoning, massive search and most classic AI problems. Each major cloud provider now offers off-the-shelf AI software. Google’s software, TensorFlow, is now an open source software project that takes the best AI software libraries from Google and allows the community to use it pretty much encumbered. Amazon’s SageMaker lets developers train their own neural nets, while Rekognition detects and tracks people, activities and objects in video. Microsoft’s Azure platform includes a machine learning studio, to help developers build and deploy solutions. The same applies to Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba in China.

We’re now seeing a shift in highly technical AI applications that professional researchers use to more lightweight, user-friendly apps for less-specialized developers.

Many organizations have AI on their agendas, but are struggling with the execution. The most important challenges organizations are facing when developing their AI skills are:

  • Lack of understanding within senior management
  • Lack of in-house competence
  • A common perception of AI being a daunting change: can it change/eliminate my job?

Examples of areas where AI is used now and in the very near future:

  • Recognizing visual patterns such as identifying faces and objects in scenes
  • Detecting visual defects on the manufacturing line
  • Spotting cancer markers on pathology slides
  • Estimating the damage to a car from inspection photos
  • Determining when a brand logo is being used without a license
  • Predictions of which customers are likely to churn, or are most likely to convert to paying customers
  • Predictive maintenance: detect machine parts which should be replaced .
  • Predicting which credit card transactions are likely to be fraud
  • Suggesting which movies a person will like based on recommendations from others.
  • Detecting activities in our network which represent a potential cybersecurity breach.
  • Speech and natural language processing such as automatically screening and ranking resumes / CVs or determining the sentiment of a customer to help call center agents to better respond to customers.
  • Digital assistants will become personal and know what we do and what we like. In a few years, everything we do on the web today, a digital assistant will take care of. Digital Assistants figuratively and literally automatically deliver you the information you need to know, just as you need to know it.
  • Very soon Google (and others) will be able to translate speech from one language to another in real time in a large scale
  • Other areas such as energy management, agriculture, health diagnostics, drug development will improve substantially
  • It was also emphasized that AI development still will require decades of research in many other areas, resulting in a slower progress therefore will be much slower

As a consequence, machines ethics are getting a lot of attention and will require strong data sets for training the machine learning programs.


Voice as the next big thing

All major American and Chinese technology giants have now launched their own versions of digital assistants. The technology and quality of voice as a communication tool is improving rapidly.
As a user interface, voice is the most natural solution and will replace keyboards and touch screens in a near future.
Voice technology has made it possible to recognize who you are, even without seeing your face. Voiceprints are the set of unique characteristics that make up your individual voice. New machine learning techniques, combined with vast data sets of recorded voices, have now enabled researchers to identify individuals simply by listening for the micro signatures produced when they speak.


  • Voiceprints could be used to unlock the door when your arms are full of packages—and to help digital assistants, such as Alexa, to customize interactions for each member of your family.
  • Several Chinese companies have developed new social networks based on voice. Lizhi is a voice based social network with 150 million users. It offers multi-user voice-based socialization tools, singing competitions and a dating site based on voice only.

Blockchain becomes mainstream

Blockchain is a buzz-word also at SXSW, but the discussions go far beyond Bitcoin. All sectors from banks to logistics and from health to lawyers are looking into blockchain solutions. The conference shows a lot of pilots, but few real projects creating business value based on blockchain yet. Bitcoin and others are still treated mainly as an early-stage cryptocurrency with high speculation effects, but not matured as technology. A major negative side of blockchain is the fact that the blockchain system demands a lot of energy. Networks connected to Bitcoin alone use more power than whole Ireland.


  • Diwala – Norwegian impact startup based on blockchain
  • Hospitals – using blockchain to document medical treatment
  • Startups – using blockchain platform to build money transfer systems

Impact - the new mantra for everyone

SXSW is a conference with a very broad perspective, featuring a variety of tracks that allow us to explore what’s next in the worlds of technology, film, culture and music. A much emphasized topic through many of the presentations was social responsibility and creating impact by tech. Whether driven by one’s own ego, by a need for creating employee satisfaction or by a heartfelt acknowledgement of the need to care to make the world a better place – people are describing a lot of different concepts for impact generation.

The Nordic community at SXSW had their own stand focusing on startups with an impact ambition. Five Nordic impact-startups pitched their business idea in front of HRH Crown Prince Haakon, business leaders and special invited guest. From Norway participated:

  • No Isolation: a robot based on AI with the purpose of reducing loneliness
  • Diwala: blochchain based solution to secure refugees a digital identity


New ways to work

4-5 years ago, Gartner introduced the concept of bimodal working. At SXSW, this concept confirmed its relevance, with increasing focus on level 2 activities (exploratory, experimenting to solve new problems, optimized for areas of uncertainty).

Many established companies presented together with startups they had partnered up with. Together with accelerators like Plug&Play, the world’s largest tech accelerator, or Kite, a Saas-solution for startup eco systems, they pointed out their key learnings:

  1. Create a culture for empowerment, risk-taking, cooperation and co-creation with strong support from top management
  2. Work fast, fail fast, based on big data science and clear innovation methodology
  3. Utilize a platform approach and open source development
  4. Think global, act local

We also experienced a focus on being part of (or creating) an eco system of services, ideally connected to a platform (either own or others’, often Facebook, Google etc.). One of the challenges with these platforms is lack of transparency, and there were a lot of good discussions about the threats of the big 5 (including Alibaba).
This topic is relevant for all established players in the Nordic market. The growth of startups is seen both as a threat and an opportunity.


When Volvo is working out their new concept car to be launched in 2020, they work together with a lot of different partners, including the gaming industry, AI-partners and the smart city community. We see the same in all sectors, where it is more and more common to seek inspiration and knowledge from new and established partners. Sparebank 1 in Norway is using both partnership models and acquisitions to transform their organization into the future.

The rise of China Design and Tech

Everyone should be paying extremely close attention to China. The Chinese government is investing hundreds of billions of dollars into artificial intelligence, genomic editing, green technologies and renewable energy sources, smart farming systems and space exploration.

The development of AI is our modern version of an arms race, and in 2018, China will lay the groundwork to become the world’s unchallenged AI hegemony. If data is the new oil, China’s massive, 730 M online population puts it in control of our largest, and possibly most important natural resource going forward—human data—and it doesn’t have the privacy and security restrictions that might hinder progress in other nations.

Many Chinese digital companies have developed innovative solutions and are now starting to export them to Western markets. In addition to the giants Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba, a number of smaller companies are moving rapidly forward.


At SXSW VipKid, a learning platform used in over 30 countries, Ofo, a bikesharing service without the need for docking stations, Lizhi, a voice based social network, Sugr, the company behind Sense, a platform and Voice User Interface for voice enabled products and eyemore, a company integrating cameras to AI platforms, presented their products and growth stories. While these are just a few examples of innovative Chinese companies, they represent a trend that is important to follow. Many of the most exciting digital innovations in the years to come will come from China.

Questions or comments?

Please do not hesitate to contact us!

Niko Nyström and Kristian Enger.


Planning to visit SXSW next year? Some tips:

  • Invest time to study and understand the conference, program etc. before you go to Austin
  • Don’t think you will be able to see and hear everything - you need to prioritize and have a good schedule
  • Take good notes and work through them during night – or you will experience information overload
  • Enjoy life and get in contact with new people – we got some of the most interesting discussions and learnings from meeting random people

Links to relevant and interesting stuff

Reports to download