SXSW Eco: By Any Means Available

Conference slate features diverse range of speakers

The Climate Wise Women
The Climate Wise Women

The environmentalist mantra "think globally, act locally" may seem like a bumper sticker platitude, but for organizers of SXSW Eco, the sentiment still rings true. SXSW Eco is now in its third year, and the organizers continue to hope that the conference can be an incubator for effecting worldwide change. With 3,000 expected attendees necessitating a move to the roomier Austin Convention Center, the audience for that message is certainly growing.

"We've learned from our other events that unexpected business partnerships occur when you get a lot of diverse but like-minded professionals in the same space," explains SXSW Eco program manager Chris Sonnier. "SXSW Eco was built to be the time and place where positive things can start, and we are hoping to catalyze projects and partnerships at this year's event."   

Like those of the conference's more established music, film, and interactive siblings, some of SXSW Eco's partnerships can be unexpected. This year's keynote is being delivered by Shepard Fairey, the street artist behind the Obama "Hope" campaign poster. Hip-hop activist the Rev. Len­nox Yearwood Jr. will be speaking about how culture affects environmental change, and supermodel Amber Valletta will be discussing sustainable fashion. Those names may not be immediately associated with the environmental movement, but Sonnier says they are part of an interdisciplinary approach.

"We're interested in hearing different perspectives from both industry and cultural leaders," Sonnier says. "Fairey and Yearwood are two examples of individuals who are using untraditional mediums to harness culture and spark positive change. SXSW Eco is about highlighting solutions using all means, which is why you will see presentations from energy executives, investment bankers, artists, and scientists all in the course of this three-day event."

And while many of the speakers have national or international appeal, Sonnier says the ideas generated can be applied at the local level. "We have a lot of sessions that are directly applicable to Austin and Texas in general," he says. "For example, we have three full days of energy programming, spanning from wind farm and nuclear development to natural gas extraction. Additionally, you will see a lot of programming related to drought, and how various parts of the world are approaching this challenge."

However, the programming isn't solely geared toward providing inspiration. The conference is aiming for real-world innovation. The new digs have allowed organizers to expand the Eco Exhibition – now free and open to the public. The Startup Showcase has grown from one category to three, and a new Hackathon has been introduced. A pervasive theme is tying green initiatives to profitability. Towards that goal, the organizers have devoted blocks of programming aimed at helping start-ups and investors do business at the event.

To Sonnier, the mix makes Eco a natural extension of the SXSW brand, even if the conference replaces rock stars with wonks. "Our speakers are brilliant and truly inspiring," he gushes, "A prime example would be the Climate Wise Women who are leading their communities' migrations as sea level rise causes their ancestral lands to sink, literally. That's cool to me. Around the conference you will find leaders in their fields who are doing amazing things. And this is SXSW, so expect great parties, beautiful art and design, and lots of business taking place."

SXSW Eco Program Highlights

Mon.-Wed., Oct. 7-9, Austin Convention Center.

Monday, 3:15pm: The Last Exorcism: Energy Finally a Tech Industry (Arun Banskota)

Monday, 4:30pm: City as Living Laboratory: Sustainability Made Tangible Through the Arts (Mary Miss)

Tuesday, 9:30am: Potential: The Council for 16,000 (Daniel Katz)

Tuesday, 10:45am: Climate Wise Women: Global Leadership From the Grassroots (Constance Okollet, Ngozika Onuzo, Thilmeeza Hussain, Vicky Markham)

Tuesday, 2pm: Keynote: Art – The Link Between Hearts and Minds (Shepard Fairey)

Wednesday, 9:30am: Five Barriers to Engagement (Cara Pike)

Wednesday, 9:50am: Harnessing Culture to Save the Planet (Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr.)


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