SXSW learns to live with – and revel in – organised chaos
The Interactive director talks Trump, Web Summit and keeping sane over two decades
Hugh Forrest: “One of the big reasons why people like coming to SXSW is the city itself.” Photograph: Heather Kennedy/Getty Images
The world-famous South by Southwest Music, Film, Art and Tech extravaganza, which takes place over the next two weeks in Austin, Texas, is the product of months and months of careful planning by a team of logistics experts.
SXSW director Hugh Forrest won’t reveal the exact number of years he has led this team for fear of showing his age. That’s what the internet is for. His LinkedIn page says he has been director of the Interactive arm of the festival program since 1994. Let’s hope that’s a reliable source.
It’s hard to imagine what kind of tech would have been showcased back in the early 1990s. The innovations on display at this year’s event include everything from artificial intelligence, virtual reality, blockchain, gaming, etc.
Back then, SXSW Interactive was the only game in town. Now the emergence of various competing tech conferences makes keeping things fresh and interesting that bit more challenging.
“We start planning and working out the schedule in May or June of the previous year,” says Forrest. “Every year new challenges arise, though. There are so many moving parts to an event as complex as this.”
Forrest travelled to Lisbon last November for the Web Summit, the first time it was held outside Ireland. “I’d never been to the city before, and my memories will forever be soiled because that’s where I watched the US election results,” he laughs.
“The event has grown incredibly,” he says. “Props to the organisers for achieving so much growth in such a short space of time and being able to bring together so many start-ups. It’s quite a success story. However, there were too many people sharing the same space.
“It was really crowded and made me wonder: is it as bad as this at SXSW? I hope not. I don’t think we have that problem, because our festival is spread out across the city of Austin.”
Not that SXSW doesn’t have its own infrastructural shortfalls. The festival has grown significantly since 2004. Growth has led to problems, particularly finding beds for everyone over the two-week event. Hotels are booked to capacity months in advance. so Austin-based AirBnB hosts make a killing every March, with one recent report of a tent in someone’s back garden renting for $177 (€167) per night.
Michael Dell has recently announced that his annual DellWorld event, which has been staged in his hometown of Austin for the past six years, was moving to Las Vegas, citing the Texas capital’s ill-equipped infrastructure as the reason. However, Austin is central to the draw for many people who come to SXSW.
“One of the big reasons why people like coming to SXSW is the city itself,” Forrest says. “It’s a huge part of the festival experience. It could never be moved simply to cater for growing demand.”
And despite the accommodation issues, the festival tends to run smoothly, quite a feat for an event that doesn’t quit for two weeks and brings an extra 250,000 people into a city on a par with Dublin in terms of population and size.
“We’re lucky that police, city officials and event organisers have been able to work together so well all these years,” he says. “But we put a lot of effort into this relationship, which means compromise and lots of negotiation on all sides. Each year, if new problems present themselves, we try a different approach the following year.
“The city understands it is a really important event in terms of positioning the capital to the rest of the world, so they want it to run as smoothly as possible.”
This year’s event includes two days of talks, panel discussions and workshops devoted entirely to what the future holds for the tech industry under Donald Trump. While SXSW has never shied away from controversial issues (politics unofficially creeps into many aspects of the Interactive programme anyway) “Tech Under Trump” is perhaps the most explicitly political series of talks ever curated for the event.
Forrest was central to this decision. “I personally spent a lot of time putting this one together. It’s a very interesting area where a lot of unanswered questions remain. There just so much semantics with this new president. No one knows what’s politics and what’s policy. All we know is that things are going to be very different from the last eight years.
“I hope the new administration finds reasons to criticise the SXSW programme,” he adds, “because even now, two months into their term, we still don’t understand their tech policies. Much of this ‘Tech Under Trump’ programming will likely be informational-based.”
Collision, Paddy Cosgrave & co’s American version of the Lisbon Web Summit, will return to New Orleans this May for the second time. Collision has been called “America’s fastest growing tech conference”, and its popularity and location so close to Austin puts it in direct competition with SXSW.
Forrest isn’t all that concerned. “They’re not the same events. Sure, you can draw parallels in terms of the focus on tech. But we don’t have as many start-ups as they do, whereas they don’t have the political dimension that has become such a major part of Interactive.
“To be honest, every time I go to another tech event, I see things they’re doing better than we are. So I’ve learned to stop going as much to save my sanity.”
SXSW takes place in Austin,Texas from March 10th-19th 2017. See sxsw.com.