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The Politics of SXSW

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Thirty years ago, local music festival SXSW was born in Austin, Texas. A few years later, film and tech were added to the bill and today the festival has an unmistakable political vibe to it. This year, President Obama opened the festival with a keynote discussion. Obama sat down with Evan Smith, CEO/Editor in Chief of The Texas Tribune to discuss the crossover between tech and politics and civic engagement in the 21st Century.

Obama’s goal was to explore technology and how it can be used to improve the role of the American government. The strengthening of the relationship between the tech industry and the government is key in solving some of the big problems America faces today. Take voting as an example; in the last election only 57% of Americans voted. Registering to vote in America is no easy feat – ordering a pizza or even booking a trip abroad is far more straightforward. Yet technology can easily encourage people to vote simply by making it possible to register to vote online.

Equally, Obama’s SXSW keynote was an appeal for the high tech entrepreneurs in the audience to trade in Silicon Valley for Washington. Obama argues that working on another app to share pictures of food or a social network for dogs is a waste of talent and the country has better use for these technologists. If digital creatives, entrepreneurs, founders and geeks in general were to turn their attention to rebuilding and improving the government, this would only lead to the birth of new platforms, ideas and approaches that could have a significant positive impact on society. While the culture may be very different from Silicon Valley, the U.S. government is offering an opportunity to work on real problems that impact whole populations, and the White House is ready to listen to the tech world.

However, in order to entice this talent, there are two key challenges the white house must address; changing the perceptions and processes of government work. Firstly, while all Americans rely on government – often moreso than they realise – they don’t seem to engage with it. Obama suggested if the boundaries between the private, nonprofit and government sectors were redrawn and technology and social media incorporated, then there is no problem that couldn’t be solved. In terms of processes, things like the botched healthcare.gov launch and increasingly severe and sophisticated cyberthreats against the US have demonstrated the need for experienced technologists in the White House. The outdated processes need to be overhauled and top engineers from the likes of Google and Facebook are essential to make such changes.

Startups are increasingly entering and disrupting industries traditionally dominated by government and overrun with regulation – industries like healthcare, transportation and aviation. Where these startups excel in launching consumer-facing technology products, the government continues to lack experience. Therefore, there is a real opportunity to form lasting partnerships where innovative solutions to tackle complicated problems can be created. We are at a point where tech and the economy is changing so fast, and there’s never been a better time than now to utilise these emerging technologies to tackle the challenges that government cannot successfully address alone.


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