Drowning in Inspiration, What Innovation at SXSW Looks Like in 2018
Josh Goldblum, Founder & CEO, Bluecadet
The first time I attended SXSW was over a decade ago when Bluecadet—then consisting entirely of me, my laptop, and my kitchen table—was nominated for a Flash website. The experience was then, as it is now, both amazing and excruciating. I felt myself poised on the edge of an angry ocean of inspiration that could at any point throw me off the rocks and pull me under. That first year I learned a lot about the industry and about where I wanted to take Bluecadet. I learned, essentially, how to swim.
A lot has changed since then. I’m no longer a lone swimmer trying to stay afloat. I lead a crew of about 50 and for me, SXSW is most useful as a barometer of the industry, an indicator about where the next market is and how the tides are changing. It doesn’t mean you can build a sustainable business on those changes, but you might want to start setting a course. At that first SXSW I attended, the conference was overrun by startups and the award show was packed with websites, apps, and games. Five years ago, Flash was dead but apps and touchscreen experiences were still thriving and innovative. This year the best-in-show prize was won by an Artificial Intelligence service.
SXSW is serious stuff now. Deep waters. It no longer feels like a place for hobbyist or even direct to consumer products. At this year’s event, there were some very interesting, very complicated things being shown by huge organizations who are developing technologies that could profoundly alter the way we work and live. There was a lot of discussion about machine learning, AI, augmented reality, voice interfaces, camera vision, and robotics. But on the other end of the spectrum, there was also a new focus on experience design — interactive moments in shared physical space that are sometimes, and sometimes not, augmented by technology. These were humanist, sometimes magical experiences. Once again, I find myself starting out at a dangerous and unfamiliar sea of inspiration.
It’s one of the things that still beautiful and terrifying about SXSW and the entire design and technology industry. Every two, three, or five years the tides change. The sooner you can adjust course, the safer you’ll be. But you need to start steering the ship carefully, without capsizing it or having to abandon it completely. That can be a challenge for mid-size agencies. Where do we fit in this new ecosystem? How do we safely absorb risk? How do we be aspirational while maintaining the stability of the firm? How do we make stuff that makes an impact, that’s useful, that’s innovative, but at the same time employ 50 people and offer the benefits they deserve? How do you stay relevant in the industry while making sure we continue to serve our clients? Those are the challenges I’m dealing with now. I think a lot of people are.
Bluecadet was nominated this year for a touch-wall we designed for the NASA Goddard Space Center, and I feel lucky that we slid into the awards with what is increasingly seen as a traditional interface. I’m glad the hard work and creative thinking of our team was recognized and I know they’ll continue to excel no matter which direction we head. Of course, there are still websites and touchscreens that need to be built. We love that work and we do it well. But there was a lot of Flash work to be done at one point too. So, we’re starting to push our interfaces a little further, to create smarter interactive and more immersive spatial experiences that have the potential to transform public space. We’re focusing more on empathy and empowerment and experiences that evoke emotion. We’ve instituted dedicated RND days to increase the time we spend prototyping new ideas and experimenting with AR, machine learning, and other emerging technologies. RND days are of my favorite days. I’m constantly amazed at what our team comes up with and inspired by where their innovations might lead.
So I’m no longer worried about drowning. I’m focused on steering the ship and leading my crew. I don’t know if I’ll be at SXSW next year, but I do know what Bluecadet will look like. Five years from now is another question. But we’ll continue to grow, to learn, to adjust course as necessary.
About the Author: Josh Goldblum is the founder and CEO of Bluecadet, an experience design agency that works with cultural institutions, universities, and mission-driven organizations. With offices in both Philadelphia and New York, Josh built Bluecadet’s interdisciplinary team to unite revolutionary innovations with a sense of human craftsmanship. He has overseen the design and development of interactive experiences and planning strategies for clients such as MoMA, The Smithsonian Institution, Doctors Without Borders, National Geographic, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.