SXSW 2023: key trends

SXSW 2023 anticipated the arrival of post-human futures, AI relationships, brand bards, and soft tech.

Published by: Wunderman Thompson
Date: 16/03/2023

The lines were back at SXSW this year, and even the looming cloud of Silicon Valley Bank’s (SVB) collapse couldn’t fully dampen the air of excitement as the masses descended on Austin for what was predicted to be its largest gathering to date.

From rel[AI]tionships to human-nature symbiosis, and liberated spaces to brand bards, attendees got a taste of the future. Read on for the SXSW vision of what’s in store.

Post-human narratives

Symbiosis imagines a “post-human biotope” filled with “mixed symbiotic life forms.” The XR experience drops participants into a virtual world set 200 years in the future, where they become a “symbiont”: a human-animal or human-machine hybrid. The idea is “to change the body into a non-human alien being,” Marcel van Brakel, founder and lead designer at Polymorf and Symbiosis codirector, tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.

Another XR experience, Forager, places people in the full life cycle of a mushroom. The goal is to “create memories for people where they can embody something else,” Winslow Porter, Forager cocreator and creative director tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. Porter is also behind the 2017 experience “Tree” that dropped participants into the perspective of a tree.

“Because we’re on top, we think that we’re the dominant species,” Porter says. “But the largest organism in the world is a honey fungus in Oregon. [Mushrooms] are way more prevalent than we are as humans. They’ve lived through five mass extinctions.”

Van Brakel goes one step further: “Our human-centric position—only thinking from a human perspective—is toxic,” he says. “We can’t sustain that in the current crisis with nature.”

Soft tech

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Symbiosis. Photography by Luciano Pinna

SXSW immersive experiences heralded the rise of “soft” tech. “We work with a more feminine kind of technology,” van Brakel says. “It’s air, it’s soft. It’s not your vibrating phone telling you your friend is calling.” What if, he imagines, we could use “softer” senses like smell to communicate via tech? “It might be much more interesting to smell your friend when they call. That’s what we’re trying to do: involving the whole body to have a different relationship with technology.”

The entire Symbiosis experience, in fact, is powered by air. “We wanted a different approach to immersion than only visual,” van Brakel says. “It’s more organic. That’s why I like soft robotics. It’s not metal, or very masculine and harsh, aggressive, non-living. It’s merging into something new.”

Winslow agrees: “We’re in many ways computers ourselves,” he says. “How can we have technology that is less hardware focused and more organic?”

AI deputies

AI is driving a human knowledge revolution, said keynote speaker Ian Beacraft in his feature session “How AI and the Metaverse will Shape Society.” It fundamentally “changes our relationship with work,” Beacraft said. Historically, to have a successful career, “we were told to specialize [in a trade],” Beacraft said. “But now, we’re at an era where AI can outpace any individual in a specific area”—so specialization becomes a detriment rather than a boon.

Workers needn’t be worried, though: “It’s not that AI takes away jobs. A person using AI will take away a job,” Beacraft reassured. “We won’t lose our jobs; we’ll lose our job descriptions.”

In fact, Beacraft predicts that AI will facilitate the future of work. “These systems can become proxies on our behalf,” he said. Instead of having “my people” talk to “your people,” “it might be our AI agents talking with the AI agents of other people.”

Brand bards

“Next gen creatives will be prompt poets,” Amplify chief creative officer Jeavon Smith and executive creative director Alex Wilson said in a SXSW panel on worldbuilding. They went on to explain that consumer-brand relationships are moving from distinct, standalone touchpoints to cocreation of and participation in immersive brand worlds. “We think of worldbuilding as the evolution of brand building,” they explained.

In the future, brands should “place storytelling at the center of everything we create,” they said—and give consumers the tools and creative freedom to co-construct that world alongside the brand. “Worldbuilding is about extending out, forging connections,” they said. “It’s the community that will make your brand last forever.”

Liberated spaces

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Body of Mine

The extended reality (XR) experience Body of Mine is creating virtual spaces of liberation. The experience puts participants into the body of another gender. “We designed the piece with two objectives in mind: for a cisgender audience, we wanted to share a little bit of what [gender] dysphoria might be like, or just share some understanding of the trans experience,” Body of Mine creator and director Cameron Kostopoulos tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “And then for our transgender audiences, we wanted that warmth of gender euphoria. We wanted to create a space where you can see yourself reflected in the gender that you do identify with."

Kostopoulos stressed the power of creating an embodied space for this experience. As a participant, it was critical "to see your hands move, to see yourself blink, to really believe that you are somewhere. Otherwise, what you’re watching is a dream."

A panel titled “Designing Justice: Architects in Social Activism” explored how the built environment has historically been constructed to perpetuate racism in the United States. Physical spaces need to be reexamined moving forward, speakers Brandi Mack and Raphael Sperry urged, to unbuild racism and other “-isms” from culture. The session explained how built environments like prisons can violate human rights, and pointed to organizations like Designing Justice + Designing Spaces as pioneers in building the next generation of liberated spaces.

For brands, this serves as a powerful reminder that even as we look ahead to the future of virtualized living, physical spaces shouldn’t be ignored—and will prove powerful vehicles for change.

In the panel on worldbuilding, Lego and Pinterest emphasized the importance of creating brand spaces that are inclusive. “Inspiration begins with inclusion,” said Judy Lee, global head of experiences at Pinterest. “We want to make sure that we have a space where everyone can see a place for themselves,” echoed Kristofer Crockett, global brand director at The Lego Group. “‘Niche’ is no longer about beginnings,” moderators Smith and Wilson said, “it’s about a place to belong.”

The impact imperative

Many speakers acknowledged that we are in a pivotal moment of reckoning that will drastically change how brands show up in the world. While in the past, brands and companies were expected to stay out of political and social discourses, they’re now seen as apathetic and irrelevant—at best—if they don’t take a stance. Does the future of political, climate and social change lie with corporations? In one session highlighting the importance of purpose-led brands, Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s answered that question with a resounding “yes.”

“Companies are aware that they have created a lot of the mess that we’re in—and they’re going to be held accountable at some point for cleaning that up,” said Corley Kenna, Patagonia’s head of communications and policy. “We have to hold companies accountable.”

“It’s not just about having a point of view, it’s about instigating meaningful change,” insisted Christopher Miller, head of global activism strategy at Ben & Jerry's. “Our business has grown year over year for 45 years. This is a driver of our business, not a distraction from it. This is where the world is moving.”

Finding joy

Amidst this wave of radical repositioning, many reiterated the importance of centering joy. “Our approach to change is joy on the journey to justice,” said Miller.

“We really embrace fun. If you lose sight of that, it's a dark, dark world,” said Kenna.

Kristofer Crockett, global brand director at The Lego Group, shared that play and joy are at the core of Lego’s mission, which is all about “creating community and connection through the power of play.”

And as Deepak Chopra said in a featured session on mental health, “The purpose of existence is joy. If there is no joy, then what is the point?”

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