Heading South (by Southwest)
Interview by Todd Reubold
Austin, Texas, is legendary for Longhorns football, night-flying bats and a bustling music scene. In 2011, the organization that founded the city’s most famous music festival—SXSW—took a leap into the sustainability space. The result, in true Austin fashion, was an event that brought together entrepreneurs, eco-geeks, sustainability visionaries, leading academics and more. This year’s conference promises to be even bigger and bolder, and Momentum will be in attendance, covering the week as an official supporter. Before heading south, Momentum caught up with with Scott Wilcox, SXSW Eco director, to get the lowdown on this year’s event.
SXSW is famous for music, film and interactive festivals. Why the expansion into sustainability?
Seven years ago SXSW formed a sustainability team geared towards making our operations more environmentally friendly. As our efforts grew, so did our interest. One day a new staff person, Chris Sonnier, approached me about doing a conference in this space. He was in the middle of getting his master's in environmental science and was deeply engaged in the topic. As we discussed the possibility with various staff members, it became apparent to us that the greatest contribution to furthering eco-oriented thinking was for us to produce a conference for all of the smart working people in this space. This is something that organically fit with our interests and something we knew we could do that would be a good thing.
This is the second year of SXSW Eco. What's new?
This time around we’ve expanded the programming to be more inclusive and cover a larger spectrum of topics. Overall, we aim towards a diversity of voices across many topics, such as clean tech, energy, food and agriculture, conservation and restoration, digital media and information technology, climate change, economics, culture, and design.
Since sustainability is such a broad term, other events often focus on specific areas. With SXSW Eco we intend to grow the event to include many subjects because we feel that SXSW events are successful by getting people to meet who do not necessarily run in the same circles. So this year we have added the Startup Showcase, a clean-tech venture capital pitch competition; the i2i Awards, presenting early-stage innovations with the potential for the greatest impact on the planet and society; the NGO Toolkit, a working group led by Ambassador Lewis Lucke to create a crisis response app that nongovernmental organizations can use in the field; a Hackathon, using U.S. Department of Energy data to create apps for end users; the Cousteau Bay Game, a large-scale participatory simulation based on the Chesapeake Bay watershed; two exhibitions; and many more networking events than last year.
What do you hope the conference accomplishes?
We hope to promote solutions for a sustainable world. Our goal is for attendees to make new business relationships and collaborations. We want the attendees to feel inspired and to learn something new, and we hope that solutions come directly out of three days of the event.
Who do you expect will attend?
We hope we get a diverse group of people who are open to unique collaborations, including professionals from companies, academia, nonprofits and the government sectors.
The Startup Showcase looks fascinating. How were projects chosen to compete? What do the winners receive?
Fifteen semi-finalists have been chosen to present pitches to a panel of five judges. The winner will receive a prestige award during the Awards Reception with the recognition of being the SXSW Eco Startup Showcase Winner. We want the venture capitalists in attendance to feel free to do deals directly with the winner without us getting in the way.
With so many environmental conferences out there nowadays, what makes SXSW Eco stand out from the rest?
I think SXSW Eco is, and will be, the most diverse event in this space covering a wider range of topics and bringing together a greater mix of groups than other, more narrowly focused events. SXSW Eco drives towards solutions and is action oriented. I also think SXSW Eco is going to be a lot of fun.
What's the one part of the event that you’re personally looking forward to the most?
There are so many things I am excited about. I am personally looking forward to meeting our attendees and speakers at the welcome dinner and opening party. I also can't wait for the DJ Spooky multimedia performance Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica.
Austin is known as a great city for music, the arts, entertainment, etc. Will you be showcasing the city as part of the conference?
Yes, absolutely. In addition to using the AT&T Conference Center we will be doing a number of things around Austin, including field trips, a welcome dinner at Johnson's Backyard farm, a performance at the historic Stateside Theater on Congress, the opening party at the Blanton Museum of Art and the closing party next to City Hall and Lady Bird Lake.
As people depart the conference, what do you hope they'll be thinking?
I can't wait until SXSW Eco 2013.
SXSW Eco is a three-day conference addressing the need for a concerted, cross sector approach to solving the challenges facing the economy, the environment and civil society. In its second year, SXSW Eco will be held October 3-5, 2012 at the AT&T Conference Center in Austin, Texas.
The conference is geared toward on-the-ground innovators and executive level decision makers from the public and private sectors as well as thought leaders from academia.
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Last modified on January 23, 2012