Like any relatively media savvy, basically progressive person who finds himself living in Texas, I have longed to attend a SXSW-something. I finally did, and I'm glad I choose SXSW Eco.
Now completing its third year, this international eco-hip conference seeks to facilitate discussion about a broad range of fairly predictable interdisciplinary topics about all things green. The real focus is on not just debating and sharing, but turning ideas into action. Complete with a strong workshop-hackathon-venture capital focus, new ideas emerge to be applied to new world problems in practical and tangible ways. It even seems downright revolutionary at moments.
This sensibility rings true to me. The reason I diverted my career path some twenty-six years ago from the practice of architecture and urban planning into books and publishing was, I later had the perspective to realize, for the same goals I'd studied architecture to begin with. Architecture like publishing, for many practitioners, is about creating the new and changing the old within society, rather than simply provide shelter. It is about looking forward -- albeit sometimes that requires a good look back -- to imagine solutions to new and old problems; finding new ways for people to live. Age and experience has allowed me to see this clearly, and to connect my two avocations in a way that makes complete sense to me now. More than to simply entertain or inform, books -- for most of the inspiring people I've had the privilege of working with over the years -- are meant to spark debate, facilitate understanding , and lead to ideas and solutions in society in need.
I was in Austin for SXSW Eco with somewhat of an old world goal: to discover new writers and acquire books for publication. However, on day one I found myself feeling a bit under-armed: not up on all the latest eco-lingo, connected with plenty of wireless devices yet in awe of the "techcreativity" surrounding me, and simply not finding many people who wanted to talk about the book business. Or, so I thought. That worry wanes quickly and, as the sessions unfolded, I found that almost every speaker had written one or more books. How "old school" of them!
Of the many sessions I attended, a few stood-out most. Meeting Dr. Robert Bullard, widely known as the father of the environmental justice movement, was a highlight. Favorite panels included: organic farming in an age soil quality crisis; exploring the fashion industry as the largest consumer of resources after the petroleum industry; discovering ways to re-tool cities in an age of climate change; and, developing new models to demonstrate the economic viability if not vitality of environmental stewardship. All opened my eyes and sparked my own ideas. Along the way, other topics as well: updates on oceans, questioning eating versus feeding, imagining the future of the travel industries, optimizing technology to study endangered animal species behaviors, how to market the urgency of the eco message to a largely unaware or misunderstanding public, and innovative redesigns of public spaces. My favorite, however, was "Slow is Fast," about intentional tourism in our own community, and slowing down to learn what is around us; by a couple of guys who spent months traveling the California coast by bike to discover on a micro level what makes their state great.
So, amid all of this talk of intentional disruption, social revolution, and energized eco-optimism, I was curious to discover that the backbone to much of this was the good old-fashioned book. It seems having written a good book remains a true litmus test, intentional or unintentional, for passage to authority status. I wanted to buy, and read, most of them (as ebooks, of course) while also falling in love with myriad new apps to allow my phone to help me restructure my eco-lifestyle.
Alas, in the end, SXSW Eco was an engaging few days and I can see why it has developed such a strong international reputation in such short time. And, I became really good as conversations with prospective authors that began with "So, what are you working on ... next?"