Blogs & Comment

The next big thing will be physical, not social

Daniel Fogg is an entrepreneur and strategist working in Dubai and London      

“Every March for the past 17 years people involved in all aspects of interactive business and culture have come together in Austin, Texas to share ideas. Originally taking its name from the direction most attendees needed to travel (south from San Francisco’s Silicon Valley to Los Angeles, then south-west from Los Angeles to Austin), South by Southwest (SXSW) has grown into an international phenomenon. Notorious for breaking new social media trends – both Twitter and FourSquare were ‘discovered’ at the conference – and previewing the future of our technology and media-driven society, this year did not disappoint.

While social media companies have sparked excitement at the conference in recent years, this year the focus was on hardware start-ups, specifically companies building web-connected physical products in a developing area known as ‘The Internet of Things’. Made possible by the proliferation of smartphones and the advent of crowd funding sites like Kickstarter, we are already seeing many of these new products hit the market. In the field of wearable technology and the ‘quantified-self’, the Nike Fuel-band and Jawbone Up are already becoming popular with consumers. Soon we will also be seeing clip-on ‘life-logging’ cameras such as the Memoto, a wide range of iWatches including, rumour has it, one from Apple, and the augmented reality headset Google Glass, which drew attention throughout the week. Products such as the Nest thermostat, an intelligent environment control system developed by ex-Apple designers, will change the way we manage our homes. Beyond this, we will see our office environment and even our cities connected together in a way that will impact every aspect of our lives. These devices are designed to change our behaviour, making us healthier, safer and more environmentally conscious. Such products have the potential to be a significantly disruptive technological force in our lives over the next decade.

The idea of the ‘sharing economy’, the redistribution or reuse of existing things, also enjoyed a large amount of attention. The leaders in this field are companies such as AirBnb, which allow homeowners to rent their homes (office, boat or treehouse) for short periods of time, and ZipCar, a car-sharing rental service becoming popular in the US and Europe.

It seems the sharing economy is a response to post-recession global austerity and the growing realisation that natural resources are limited, and it has been made possible by online technology. However, the advent of these services also underscores the desire for experiences and the changing attitudes towards ownership within the next generation of consumers, who would rather borrow, rent or share things than own them.

Although not dominating the spotlight, social media companies and the gurus of the social industry were still out in force. It seems the social media industry is now entering a new phase, with the focus shifting past the observation of communities and the interactions they have, and instead onto a deeper understanding of user and consumer behaviour which can be gained through the analysis of big social data. One example on offer was a researcher who has determined how to judge a person’s age, gender, race and location based simply on the things they ‘like’ on social media. Another would be how big social data has allowed companies in the TV industry, such as Netflix, a US online content streaming service, to tailor not just programming but content specifically to the social media habits of their viewers. This intelligence-led, data-driven approach to understanding consumer behaviour using social media is ushering in a period where companies will be adapting and targeting their services to rapidly changing desires or even to individual consumers.

SXSW is also about big ideas and great conversations, and at times can feel like an open, more inclusive version of the annual TED conference. The dominant themes and conversations this year were: ‘Moonshot Thinking’, or how to create teams and companies that can achieve the impossible (personified by Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk); the importance of serendipity in the modern world; and the CleanWeb and Sharing Economy as opposed to CleanTech as the answer to the world’s climate change problems.

So in an attempt to separate the signal from the noise, there are some stark implications for brands and agencies from SXSW 2013. Firstly: the next big thing will be physical not social; changing tastes in the new generation will favour experience over ownership; make the most of your customer data, especially in social media; and if you want to save the world, get off your backside and do it.”