Being on the ground at The White House for South by South Lawn (#SXSL) — a one-day festival bringing together entrepreneurs and innovators across the nation doing important work to improve the lives of others — I heard from some of the leading innovators and changemakers of our time. Even more exciting than the technology on display (from virtual reality simulators to 3D printers) was the mix of makers — leaders like United States chief technology officer Megan Smith and Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant — who are already hard at work harnessing the power of technology and community to create a better world.
The event was inspired in part by President Barack Obama’s appearance at South by Southwest in Austin last spring, where he urged attendees to start thinking about ways innovation could solve some of the world’s existing problems. A few thousand guests from around the U.S. enjoyed live musical performances (a big "Ho Hey" to the Lumineers); a screening of The White House Student Film Festival winners (as introduced by the Stranger Things cast); and interactive panels, discussions, and exhibits exploring how leaders in art, technology, food, social change are helping move the country forward. Some highlights: New York Times Magazine writer Jenna Wortham moderated a panel about how technology can solve some of our nation’s biggest challenges; President Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Dr. Katharine Hayhoe discussed the realities of climate change and the importance of protecting our planet; civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis touched on how to effect meaningful social change. And we all witnessed what was inarguably the most epic #swagsurf The White House has ever seen.
Here, a few attendees share their own SXSL highlights:
"I loved what President Obama said: ‘Better is not always enough. Better is not always ideal, and in the case of climate change, better is not going to save the planet. But if we get enough better each year, we're doing something that's making more progress and moving us forward, increasing clean energy, then that's ultimately how we end up solving this problem.’
There is an underlying sense of impatience in his words. I really connect with that – the kind of slow, incremental change that we see happening with women in the workplace isn't enough either. We have to embrace our impatience with the huge problems of our time and get to work."
“As someone who works at the intersection of tech, diversity, and education, I was extremely happy to see such a diverse crowd of attendees. From tech leaders and scientists to entertainment professionals, the variety of professions and ethnic backgrounds represented there was done right! SXSL should be taken as an example of how people from multiple cultures can come together to innovate around pressing societal issues.”
“I was inspired by Will Allen, founder and CEO of the national land trust Growing Power. The organization is dedicated to providing affordable food for people in all communities by teaching them to grow their own high-quality, safe, healthy food. At SXSL, he talked about the need for a better farm bill. He believes we need more money for farmer development and infrastructure, greenhouses, and hoop houses to expand urban farming. He even vowed to use some of the funds to give a second chance to individuals, mostly of color, who have been negatively affected by felony convictions. As a friend and relative of countless victims of mass incarceration, I applaud Mr. Allen's effort and am now a supporter of the urban agriculture movement and his belief that it will help heal our communities.”
“I was really excited to learn about how community-based farming projects are utilizing technology to help people grow food in their own homes and local communities. Some of the most important work ahead of us in increasing food access to people living in food deserts. Having access to fresh, non-processed food is an important factor in improving both the physical and mental health of people living in this country.”
"The SXSL interactive exhibit that moved me the most was The Guardian's "6x9: A virtual experience of solitary confinement.” It really showcased the power of virtual reality technology as a tool for education and creating empathy for the 80,000 to 100,000 American prisoners who sometimes spend years isolated in those cells. You’re looking around, learning about the objects that are in there, and listening to different prisoners' experiences. You even experience some of the psychological effects that they suffer from spending 23 hours a day in there. I was only in there for nine minutes, and it was extremely tough.”
“It's empowering to see so many venture capitalists and technology leaders working toward solving some of society's biggest challenges. I thought Chris Redlitz’s tech training program and incubator for incarcerated men and women called ‘The Last Mile’ was fascinating. Aside from providing an ostracized part of our population a chance to succeed in the workforce, it reduces the recidivism rate in the U.S. and provides them with second chance at life. That's what SXSL is about: bringing together brilliant minds to inspire and help spark change in our world. It's a call-to-action for all us.”