It’s difficult to pick highlights from any industry event, but SXSW Eco is especially diverse and packed innumerable experiences into three short days. By the numbers alone there were more than 100 educational sessions, 300 speakers, and dozens of special events, including a design competition (previously), a startup showcase, keynotes, breakfasts and more.
But as always, the meaningful stuff isn’t in the facts or figures. It’s in the experiences. I was delighted to run into friends from Sseko (who ended up winning the Startup Showcase in the Social Impact category; congrats Liz!) and had too many thought-provoking conversations to count.
Below are just a few of the highlights of SXSW Eco as we experienced it.
1. Place By Design
This year SXSW Eco added a design track to its programming, and the Place By Design competition was the most visible evidence of it. The interactive lounge was bedecked with reclaimed-wood stools and kiosks where attendees could learn about each of the 15 finalists.
The competition brought together architects, entrepreneurs, and artists from global design firms and local activist groups alike, and the lounge allowed for a chance to mingle with all of them. Alix Ogilvie from Architecture Humanity discussed the obesity epidemic in the context of her team’s submission, Designed to Move. Key to the Street’s Jessica Lowry showed off her mobile-friendly website designed to enable community input on infrastructure upgrades and city beautification projects. And Stephen Glassman, the artist behind Urban Air, discussed the air-quality benefits of his idea to reclaim billboard space with live bamboo.
My personal favorite, and the victor in the Global Potential category, was The Looper by RTKL. The idea is ludicrously simple: take the prototypical urban greenhouse (producing fish and vegetables in closed-loop systems) and stick it on a barge. By locating such a facility on our urban waterways, the greenhouse can use the polluted water and return it to the river cleaner than before.
2. Collaborative Communities: Share, Build, & Create
If each session was as poignant as Tuesday’s panel discussion on the impact of placemaking in our cities, more people would attend these types of conferences. It was one of the liveliest and best attended events of the festival.
Moderated by Austin’s chief sustainability officer, Lucia Athens, each panelist shared stories about affecting real change in their communities, from Mike Lydon’s story of how creative vandalism can make our streets safer and earn the ear of city governments to Ashara Ekundayo’s efforts to transform an Oakland storefront into a community hub.
Sarah Baird, from the Center for a New American Dream, highlighted one of the biggest problems we face when trying change our cities for the better: the fact that we rarely know our neighbors. Through its Get2gether program, New Dream is helping connect like-minded community members to form support networks for local projects.
3. Austin’s Sustainable Food Center
An unofficial tour of the festival was the one I received of the new Sustainable Food Center in Austin’s Chestnut neighborhood, a working-class community east of downtown. The nonprofit runs four weekly farmers markets in Austin and offers affordable cooking classes. Executive director Ronda Rutledge and the building design team explained all the benefits of the nonprofit’s new headquarters, which houses offices, a commercial kitchen, and support spaces for its various programs.
The building itself was beautiful, with reclaimed wood, earthen tiles, exposed particle board, and custom metal planters on its deck. On a second deck sat a large, custom-designed table where employees were eating lunch. Sited next to a new public transit stop, the building is part of a “social village,” a multi-building development whose tenants are socially conscious community organizations. Currently two of the three buildings are completed. A planned urban farm across the Metro tracks is underway.
More than 300 million trees have died as a result of the recent droughts in Texas. As a way to raise awareness of this environmental devastation, the artists collaborated with architects and landscape architects to suspend a ghostly white tree above Lady Bird Lake accompanied by 14,000 white prayer flags, all printed with the silhouette of the tree.
That’s it for 2013! Stay updated on the details for SXSW Eco 2014 here.