With around one thousand attendees, last year's inaugural South by Southwest Eco conference (SXSW Eco) was a much smaller, more intimate affair compared to the tens of thousand raucous attendees drawn to the hugely popular SXSW: Film, Music and Interactive events that have been taking place in Austin, Texas for the past 25 years, but according to Director of SXSW Eco, Scott Wilcox, last year's event was "the spark" that showed them the possibilities of this budding event.
Prior to the launch of SXSW Eco, the topic of sustainability was one that had been woven throughout SXSW events in the past, mostly in the form of specific films or panels or speakers devoted to the topic. In 2007, the conference made news here on TreeHugger for attempts to reduce its overall carbon footprint with offsets. And in 2009, we highlighted the role SXSW was playing in helping to steer the music industry in a more sustainable direction, but despite those valuable efforts, the 2011 expansion into a standalone conference devoted to sustainability marked the biggest nod to sustainability to-date for the SXSW brand.What led to this decision and why was 2011 the right time to make this leap?
I reached out to Scott Wilcox via email to ask a few questions about how they decided this was a worthy endeavor and what attendees should expect this year.
TreeHugger: How did you feel about last year's SXSW Eco and what will be different this year?
Scott Wilcox: I felt that last year's event was the spark that showed us the possibilities of SXSW Eco going forward. Last year we planned the event in only three months. Although attendees responded very well to the program, we learned a lot of lessons about how to do it better.
This year there are many more facets to the event including more networking opportunities and evening events. With more time to produce the event we will be covering a greater range of topics including: cleantech, energy, food & agriculture, conservation & restoration, digital media & information technology, climate change, economics, culture and design. Additionally, we have twice as many sessions and about a hundred more speakers from around the world.
We have also added a number of brand new programs including: the Startup Showcase - a cleantech venture capital pitch competition; the NGO Toolkit - a working group creating a crisis response application for organizations in the the field; the SXSW Eco Hackathon - - using Department of Energy data to create energy efficiency apps for end-users; the i2i Awards - a global challenge program seeking innovative technologies and companies with the greatest potential benefit to our planet and society.
TH: What are the main goals of the conference? And how does the lineup of panels and speakers help to accomplish that?
Wilcox: SXSW Eco aims to promote solutions for a sustainable world. Our panels include speakers from across the business, non-profit, governmental and academic sectors from around United States and the world. We feel that this cross-sector approach to issues will result in tangible solutions which will work. Overall, we aim to foster more cross-sector dialogue to help tackle some of the most pressing challenges of our time.
Our goal is for attendees to make new business relationships and collaborations. We want the attendees to feel inspired and to learn something new. We hope the event will aid the attendees in furthering their professional and aspirational goals. Additionally, we hope that solutions come directly out of three days of the event.
TH: What factors led the SXSW team to decide it was worthwhile starting a new, standalone conference devoted to environmental issues?
Wilcox: There was a high demand for content on sustainability and the environment during the Interactive part of SXSW, but those sessions were getting lost in the larger conference. SXSW staff were passionate about creating a space for that content to get the attention it warrants.
One of the things that SXSW does best is convene diverse communities – whether it be for Interactive, Film or Music- to collaborate, develop new partnerships and share information just happens organically. SXSW saw the need to create a similar forum for Eco where the broad range of people working on related topics could come together and collaborate in ways that can help solve some of the major environmental challenges facing our world.
TH: But why does Eco need to be its own event, disconnected from the existing Music/Interactive/Film events?
Wilcox: We gave SXSW Eco its own time of year because of the importance of its aspirations. With over 6000 events already happening in Austin in March during Music, Film and Interactive we did not want this program to get lost in these mature events which have been already going for two decades. SXSW Eco tackles an important topic which deserves its own space and room to evolve.
TH: What is the long-term vision for Eco as it relates to the rest of the SxSW line-up of events?
Wilcox: Long term, we hope that SXSW Eco will grow in size and importance to have the cultural impact that our other events enjoy today. The attendees at SXSW Eco are a passionate community and to give them the space and opportunities to discuss these passions allows for the work done at our conference to carry on and make a lasting impact for the good of the world.
We also think it’s important that this be an ongoing conversation that our nation stays engaged in. Given SXSW’s legacy, we aim to not only create a forum that curates a dialogue, but we ultimately aim to elevate the conversation around environmental and sustainability issues and solutions among mainstream audiences.
TH: Anything else you'd like TreeHugger readers to know?
Wilcox: SXSW Eco 2012 is going to be a lot of fun - the schedule is can be found here and we hope to see you in Austin!
I was fortunate enough to attend last year and will be returning this year, as well. There is still time to register and we always love to meet TreeHugger readers IRL, so let us know if you're going!
SXSW Eco is also offering a discounted registration price for TreeHugger readers. Click on this link to get access to the special $195 registration rate: http://goo.gl/NRBfk