SXSW Eco, taking place this week at the Downtown Hilton, isn’t the first ecology conference to take place in Austin this year. That’d be the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, which was held at the Austin Convention Center in August. Where that one was a sober affair for the most academic of academically-minded ecologists, SXSW Eco is—well, it’s not totally clear yet what it is, but it’s only day one.
There are a bunch of questions about this festival, and it sounds like even Scott Wilcox, director of the conference and technology director for SXSW Inc., is still figuring out some of the answers himself. “The important thing is to get the core of this right,” he explained when we talked about the event. “Hopefully we’ve got the focus and the attention right.” The focus here, he says, is on professionals who hold a stake in the ecological discussion—and the slate of speakers at the conference reflects that. There are a handful of academics from UT and other universities, and people from organizations like Worldchanging and The Nature Conservancy, but there are also a whole bunch of people coming from Wal-Mart, Dell, Whole Foods, Hewlett-Packard, Siemens and corporations like that.
The format of the conference is a whole lot of speakers—sometimes on panels, and sometimes presenting individually—on important topics. Some of them are very smart, and others seem to spend a lot of time preaching to the converted. There’s a benefit to that, too, of course, and with registration running a staggering $800, it’s hard to begrudge people for wanting their beliefs and biases confirmed. Still, the Tuesday keynote, in which Worldchanging’s Alex Steffen dropped not-exactly-radical ideas like “We need to take a real look at climate change” and bold, but hard to implement goals like “We should be carbon zero by 2030” into his presentation, just raises more questions: namely, what exactly are we supposed to be getting out of this?
Of course, we is a nebulous term at SXSW Eco. I’m writing this as a layman with an interest in ecological issues, but nothing resembling expertise. And just because a layman can have a lot of fun at SXSW Music or SXSW Film, that doesn’t mean the experience is going to translate here—or even that it’s supposed to.
Matt Patterson, an environmental science and public affairs graduate student at Indiana University, who came into town for the conference, has a different perspective on the event. “It’s an opportunity to do some networking, and it’s been an opportunity to see what people are doing in the field, and the stuff that’s coming down the pipe,” he says. “Since I’m coming at it from a research angle, for me this is very novel.” Furthermore, he adds, getting all of these people together in one place has advantages outside of just hearing them talk. “Sustainability as a field is so broad that it’s hard to stay abreast of developments,” he says. “Here, they have the social side, the business side and some practical ecological stuff.”
That means that there are opportunities to learn from other disciplines and from people who are on other sides of the issues. “I’m not going to find out what Dell is doing to make their packaging more sustainable anywhere else. It’s good to see that there are people in these organizations who are dealing with these issues. This can be a really depressing field to work in—you don’t get a lot of good news. This is an opportunity to talk about positive things that are happening.”
While attendees who work in the field are interested, is that enough to draw the sort of crowd that SXSW needs to fulfill its obligations to attendees who are showing up to network, or to provide the speakers with the sort of crowds they deserve?
It’s a fair point. It also speaks to one of the challenges that SXSW Eco faces—namely, that it’s right now a very niche-focused event that doesn’t have anything like the mass appeal of the rest of the SXSW events. While someone like Patterson, or any number of other attendees who work in the field are interested, is that enough to draw the sort of crowd that SXSW needs to fulfill its obligations to attendees who are showing up to network, or to provide the speakers with the sort of crowds they deserve?
Right now, the answer is a pretty resounding, “We dunno.” At the end of the first day's presentations—which were largely engaging, particularly the 15-minute “Straight To The Point” sessions, where a single expert would deliver a sharp assessment of a particular topic—there was a two-drink reception in the Hilton lobby. It wasn’t uncommon, standing in the drinks line, to encounter someone who paid nothing to get in. One attendee, who’ll remain anonymous, explained to CultureMap that he had no plans to attend, until a Facebook message was sent to Austinites with connections to the SXSW organization that they were being offered free badges. To this point, it’s also been difficult to get exact numbers in regards to how many people are actually registered—something that SXSW has never been shy about reporting before.
All of which isn’t really an indictment of SXSW Eco: this is a first year event, and it’s a conference for professionals, much as SXSW Music, Film and Interactive are. It’s just that an ecology conference has fewer opportunities for mass-appeal tie-ins than a music conference. Scott Wilcox was keen to suggest that, going forward, there may be opportunities to attract people who are unlikely to get excited about hearing a lot of speakers, but would probably be interested in, say, a trade show.
“It’s too early to say right now,” Wilcox said when I asked him what he hoped to see out of SXSW Eco 2012. “We want to take some time and get some feedback from the people who are here now, so we can be as responsive as possible.” The event is still in its infancy, and just because it’s called SXSW doesn’t mean that it’s going to succeed the way that SXSW has. But anyone in Austin who has seen what that organization was capable of once it gained momentum, should be cautious if they want to bet against SXSW Eco in the future.