Lessons learned at SXSW2013

A 3 minute read written by james April 9, 2013

SXSW Interactive Conference

I can't believe I’ve done four years back-to-back at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, TX. Thousands of nerds converge in Austin every year for this mega-conference of interactive, music, and film. This year I decided to focus on higher learning, big thinking sessions with speakers like Rachel Maddow, Al Gore, Jason Silva, and Tina Roth Eisenberg. Here are my top three takeaways from SXSW2013.

Iteration and Prototyping

The tech blogs are right: the 3D printing revolution is here. Bre Pettis, the founder of MakerBot, has helped usher in the revolution with affordable 3D printers. Starting at $1749, MakerBots flagship Replicator printer allows a DIY nerds to manufacture their own lego blocks, toys, mechanical parts, or anything they can imagine. Businesses all over the world are finding creative uses for these inexpensive 3D printers – seven of the top ten architecture firms in the United States use Makerbots. Bre opened this year’s SXSW and spoke about the new generation of tinkerers, makers, and creators that can now prototype and iterate on their own 3D designs.

"Seven of the top ten architecture firms in the United States use Makerbots."

These 3D "makers" aren't afraid to dive in right away and print something. They brainstorm, model, print and play. The iteration process is expected in the engineering and fabrication industries, yet we in the interactive industry are expected to solve complex problems on the first try.

I'd like to see a shift in understanding of the feedback process across our industry – especially with our clients. We need to promote user feedback loops early in the design and development phases. We need to think like engineers and fabricators, knowing we'll never get it right the first time. Once we can do that, the real fun begins.


"The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Or, when radical stuff happens by chance."

Bill Aulet and Sanjay Sarma from MIT's Media Lab spoke about designing their creative spaces to promote the random collisions of people, thoughts, and ideas.

The New Serendipity was an incredible panel discussion featuring Joichi Ito, Director of MIT's Media Lab, Kevin Rose, Venture Partner at Google Ventures, John Perry Barlow, Founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and finally Colin Raney, Associate Partner at IDEO. This loose discussion touched on many topics surrounding serendipity including luck and its relationship to serendipity, navigating networks and serendipitous relationships, serendipity's love of enthusiasm, creativity, zeal and optimism, and how selfishness kills serendipity.

"Keep running from adulthood and you will never be bored."

One of the best takeaways from this talk is the idea of the "beginner’s mind." Serendipity loves enthusiasm, creativity, zeal and optimism. These are all key characteristics of so-called “beginners”. As we learn and develop we start to rely on our experience instead of thinking outside the box. A beginner’s mind is filled with endless possibilities because they have so few constraints. So how do we keep that beginner’s mind?


Companies are becoming friendlier to remote workers, and embracing technologies like Skype and Google Hangouts to make collaboration easier. Sharing ideas between co-workers, offices, companies, and industries has become a hot topic.

Unfortunately some still withhold knowledge to gain the upper hand, thinking that this gives them a competitive advantage. The problem is that selfishness kills serendipity. Without open collaborative environments, ideas can’t grow or get feedback. Most of the time they wither and die.

"Who you hang out with determines what you dream about and what you collide with." - Seth Godin

Some of the greatest opportunities are created through strong relationships, open collaboration, and serendipitous adventure. Generosity and collaboration create luck.

Tina Roth Eisenberg's trick is to surround herself with like-minded people. To her, "..nothing is more important than making connections in real life." This led her to start the successful meetup group Creative Mornings, and gave her the inspiration to create a beautiful collaborative workspace called StudioMates. Her simple advice for success? "Stay away from ego and collaborate".

Most of these themes aren't new, but they seemed to dominate SXSW. With the resurgence of DIY production, creative thinking, collaboration, and serendipity are on everyone’s minds. These things are important to think about no matter what your job, as they all have a direct correlation with your quality of life. While this my 4th year at SXSW, it won’t be my last. Tell me what you’d make with a 3D printer, or how you retain your beginner's mind, or how you collaborate in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.