SXSW_Obama_DialogBlog

Obama @ SXSW 2016: the need for networks, now more than ever

I was lucky enough to attend last week’s chat with President Obama that kicked off 2016 SXSW, where he spoke on digital government and the ability of collective innovation to address longstanding issues of agency inefficiency and community inequality.

A minute into his talk, as he recounted an order of tacos placed earlier in the day with perfect diplomacy, it occurred to me that, with all credit to Heraclitus, a man can never visit the same city twice. He is never the same man, and it is never the same city.

Obama’s first visit as a candidate in 2007 saw a large rally that gave momentum to a sputtering campaign. He’s returned to Austin six times since, each time visiting a city working its way through monumental change while securing a reputation as a space for innovation and disruption across technology, culture, and business.

A violet crown in full bloom

Those tacos? In 2006, Torchy’s was one man and a food trailer – today it’s over 30 locations with a national reputation for “Damn Good” tacos. Austin has grown as well. Since that 2007 visit, the metro population is up over 2 million, and the city has emerged globally as a space for innovation and disruption for one reason – the power of its networks.

Since its founding, Austin has always thrived in the interstice, a place known for making things happen through collaboration across disparate disciplines and wide divides. It’s where old industries collide with new tech, where a green future lunches with the petroleum present, and diverse voices unite to create everything from powerful technology and cultural products to groundbreaking solutions to age-old challenges. Even in a city always growing, connections matter.

Obama’s remarks were tech-focused, but even in hypergrowth, Austin has always thrived on a sort of critical cosmic happenstance.

The guy who put the cheese on that taco? He plays bass with a drummer that’s also the CTO of the company that created a medical implant that will eventually save your best friend’s life. Their band played to a roaring crowd for a startup company that’s poised to revolutionize MWD efficiency, founded by a Venezuelan MBA and a rather redneck electrical engineer from just east of Waco.

The network does more than listen and gather – it reacts and moves

Setting serendipity aside, Austin is a city that thrives on collaboration through change. While traditional systems are built to reduce chaos, a network-centered view of the world embraces discord not as risk, but as potential. This “come as you are” attitude fits the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan, and it ensures a culture built around connecting and creating together, assembling disparate talents and tools into powerful new structures.

Facing challenges with collective possibility and purpose

At the end of his remarks, Obama took a question asking him how he balanced the Apple v. FBI cryptography case in his mind. He went on to mostly carefully tow a party line, but ended with a plea to both sides of the debate, essentially saying let us bring our best to the effort while we can, lest we’re forced to bring our worst to the effort when we must.  No matter your opinion on the issue, his directive is clear: We can only do our best when we collaborate and wait for greatness to emerge.

Designing for emergence: a move to the Network Age

We’re committed to that same sort of expansive problem solving with clients. From understanding markets to telling stories that resonate well beyond their words, the Dialog approach has always been cross-disciplinary, collaborative, and open to just a little chaos. That’s why the rise of network design has us intrigued and invested – we’re working to hone our subject matter expertise and better understand the possibility each and every day.

And that’s why we find design4emergence so darn intriguing. It’s a wild ride through the roaring architecture of networks in all their many forms. It’s a beautiful balance between science and poetry, helping us solve an eternal question: How do we escape from Kardashistan? It’s a fantastically complex look at how technology and our own desires are reacting in unexpected ways, with a wide diversity of opinion that Austin can be proud of.

See for yourself, and let us know what you think in the comments at design4emergence.com.