SXSW 2018: Mayors Focus on the Future

As city leaders from around the country meet at South by Southwest in Austin, they'll discuss the forces that will shape urbanism for decades to come.
by | March 9, 2018
Part of the expo floor at SXSW 2017. (David Kidd)

The annual South by Southwest mega-conference kicks off today in Austin. And for the second year, the event will include a special focus on mayors and civic innovation.

When mayors met last year for SXSW's inaugural “government and policy track,” the gathering already had a futuristic vibe. Mayors donned virtual reality goggles, checked out automated delivery bots and discussed the ways blockchain could revolutionize government contracting.

This year, the focus will move beyond the future of technology to include the broader issues that communities will face in coming decades. Professional futurists will share insights about how they plan for long-term risks and opportunities. Mayors will also participate in an exercise where they produce art reflecting how they envision their cities in 2030.

Calling it a "phenomenon experience," Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, Cailf., arrived early to see local innovations for himself with a view to bringing it back to apply to his work in the California capital.

Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Ind., said she sees the festival as an "opportunity to open up my thinking" to help her see beyond the daily issues that mayors' offices typically handle.

The futurist bent at this year’s government track is just one sign of how the event has evolved since Austin Mayor Steve Adler dreamed it up in 2016. Nearly 40 mayors, including some from outside the U.S., plan to attend this year, almost double the size of last year's group. The conference is still a place for technologists to interact with city leaders, but it’s also become a space for mayors to find inspiration from their peers and from the private sector. The scheduled panel topics include climate change, immigration, social justice, gun violence and artificial intelligence.

"As the federal government seems to be not be able to move forward with so much gridlock,” Adler says, “I think people are looking to cities to be the incubators of innovation and the drivers of economies.”

This year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors is not only a partner in the government and policy program, but it is also holding its annual leadership meeting in Austin on Monday. C40 Cities, an international network of large cities dedicated to fighting climate change, is also sending a delegation and hosting a panel discussion about how public officials can work with their tech communities to improve the environment.

Once again, mayors will judge a "Shark Tank"-style competition in which startups pitch ideas on how to use technology to solve common problems facing local government. Last year, the winner was RideAlong, a company that facilitates safer interactions between police and people with mental illness. This year’s finalists seek to address a diverse set of public problems, such as getting better data on opioids, making the immigration process easier to navigate and streamlining government paperwork.

A team of Governing reporters and editors will be live-blogging from Austin throughout the mayors' track, which runs through March 12.

Mayors Freeman-Wilson and Steinberg also spoke on a special SXSW preview episode of Governing's newest podcast, Go Public.  They respond to a keynoter's challenge to look beyond innovation to embrace experimentation - a tricky proposition in a poitical environment.  Listen below or subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts.

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