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The rise of blockchain at SXSW Part 1


Self-proclaimed as ‘the most diverse, collaborative and inventive communities in the world’, the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival was first launched in Austin, Texas, in 1987—about the same time U2 released its Grammy award-winning album, The Joshua Tree, The Simpsons debuted on US television, and gasoline was less than USD 1 per gallon.

Flash forward more than 30 years, and the event has certainly evolved from its early roots as a venue to showcase local musicians, artists, and free-thinkers. It’s now a mega-festival, bringing together the hottest acts in music, along with media and communications tycoons, actors and film buffs, as well as some of the most innovative thinkers from the tech space. And while the event has changed over the decades, it remains the same collaborative platform for bringing together the brightest and most innovative minds to network and share fresh ideas.

Knowing the event would provide me with an opportunity to learn more about the emerging trends and disruptive technologies impacting our clients’ businesses, I joined more than 30,000 attendees at SXSW Interactive to explore what’s next in the world of technology and digital media. SXSW Interactive consisted of seven tracks: Brands and Marketing, Code and Programming, Design, Health, Intelligent Future, Style, and Workplace. Complementing this strong line-up, attendees enjoyed feature sessions, showcases, exhibitions, and networking opportunities where they could engage with start-ups and large tech companies to share real-world experiences. Among the exhibitors were 55 start-ups at the accelerator pitch and demo events—12 of which were focused on blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT).

The rise of blockchain

In previous years, mobile apps dominated the technology exhibits at SXSW. It’s where Twitter, Foursquare, and Meerkat all had their viral moments. More recently, artificial intelligence (AI) dominated the conversation, and in 2018, blockchain burst onto the scene with 50 keynotes and panel sessions on the agenda. Conversations centering around connected devices and business-to-business efforts isn’t typically what people think of when they hear SXSW. However, this year, heavy company pitches around identity and blockchain were pervasive, leading supply chain venture capitalists to take bullish positions on low-hanging opportunities.

Blockchain start-up Consensys, led by Joe Lubin, the Canadian entrepreneur and a co-founder of the blockchain computing platform Ethereum, hosted various panels at the Consensys House located on Rainey Street. Experts and enthusiasts gathered at the house to discuss blockchain topics, ranging from smart contracts to misinformation around this disruptive technology. Excitement around Lubin and blockchain was evident by the thousands of people who waited in line to see his official SXSW keynote on Friday, when blockchain was the third most Tweeted about theme, in reference to speaker discussions throughout the festival, according to Twitter.

As I mentioned before, blockchain and DLT keynotes and panel discussions numbered 50 this year. But why so many? Quite simply, the industry is beginning to understand that DLT offers benefits around better security and trust, more efficient transaction processing, and lower costs associated with transactions.

As for the sessions themselves, there were several baseline talks covering what blockchain is, and how will it change the world. Discussions included how the decentralised and distributed nature of transaction recordkeeping provides trust amongst participants, removing the need for third parties to settle transactions and, subsequently, erasing those third-party costs from the transactions currently being paid by the transaction participants. I’ll talk more in detail about blockchain and DLT in Part 2 of my SXSW round-up.

There were also some interesting sessions that explored the current trust crisis. There’s a growing trend for some people to lose trust in institutions, or even people, for that matter. The sessions discussed the need for blockchain to do real business between entities and individuals, while also exploring the business benefits of blockchain in more detail. Another illuminating session explored why the value of blockchain tech equals 10X the Internet’s value.

There were plenty of interesting vertical sessions, including how DLT technology is geared to solving specific use cases in targeted industries, and which will be most successful out of the gate. Sessions of note included blockchain use cases in healthcare, mobility and logistics, finance, and media and entertainment. Then, there were more specific, deep-dive sessions around some of the underlying technology and applications of blockchain. Ethereum, one of the most popular blockchain networks/platforms, and smart contracts (code that executes contract terms based on a triggering event), were heavily discussed across many sessions, raising points around application development practices and whether smart contracts can actually replace lawyers.

My experience of attending this conference was energising, to say the least. Each day was an opportunity to participate, learn, and network. And I must admit, of all the conferences I’ve ever attended, this was one of the most informative and interesting, as the people were doing real work in the space, sharing their experiences, whether in POCs or in production, as opposed to analysts or so-called ‘academic experts’ only theorising on the technology domain.

Coming up next…

Next up in Part 2 of my SXSW round-up, we’ll take a deeper dive into blockchain and DLT technology, including a use case where blockchain has real potential to positively impact the healthcare industry.

To learn more about the blockchain technology trend, I encourage you to read the blog “Blockchain – key to our digital fabric” by my esteemed colleague, Debra Bordignon, CTO of Dimension Data Australia.

Until next time…

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