This year, the event to which some refer affectionately as “Spring Break for nerds” is attracting a new brand of geek — the political kind.
Year after year, SXSW has become a sure draw for entertainers, as well as media and technology titans. In some ways, the Austin, Texas conference becomes the closest thing America has to Davos, where the World Economic Forum takes place annually.
Yet this time around, SXSW has come to resemble Davos in more ways than one. While technology has always co-mingled with politics, the 2016 SXSW conference kicked it up a notch.
On Friday, President Barack Obama kicked off the event with a keynote speech, a SXSW first for a sitting president, and his wife is also due to address the conference later this week (also a first). And alongside the president and first lady were a number of White House operatives who were fixtures in several of SXSW’s countless panel discussions.
In his speech, Obama called on the tech community to help solve government issues and increase civic engagement. “We are at a moment in history where technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast,” he said to a packed room at the Long Center in Austin, TX.
He acknowledged that his past political campaigns were known for, “having really cool technology, and social media,” and defended his work in the White House.
Obama gave a list of his accomplishments during his tenure that boosted the role of technology, including student aid, Social Security, and his controversial health care plan. The Affordable Care Act had afamously rocky roll out, and was plagued with technical difficulties for months.
With his time in office growing shorter, Obama asked the conferees “how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today?”
He also asked attendees to visit the White House website and its platforms to submit ideas.
Jag Bath, CEO of Austin-based online delivery app, Favor, was present during Obama’s SXSW speech. He told CNBC he was surprised when the President acknowledged his mistakes surrounding Healthcare.gov.
“He essentially had to hire a tech swat team that didn’t have to follow the rules and didn’t have much red tape, unlike the rest of the government,” Bath said. “It came across as very authentic. He wrapped up almost seeming like he was trying to recruit the audience.”
Amid the panel discussions and eye-grabbing exhibits, a number of White House officials were panelists, and were seen mixing and mingling with the tech geeks, musicians and actors.
Mark Walsh, appointed as Head of the Office of Investment & Innovation for the U.S. Small Business Association, participated at SXSW. Prior to joining the government, Walsh, who spent most of his career in the private sector and held positions for HBO, General Electric and AOL, said the government needed to do better in communicating its tech know-how to the public.
“This government isn’t a very good marketer of its services,” Walsh told CNBC. Most of the time, “people think of government as regulators but our role is about discovering, connecting and fueling ideas and startups,” he added.