Third in a series
IT WAS a cloudy, drippy night early last March, but the Google Village was easy to spot from a block away. To show off to participants in the South by Southwest Interactive festival, the Internet giant took over several bars along a block and a half of Rainey Street, a strip of small bungalows just to the southeast of the Austin Convention Center. Marking the entrance to the area was a towering red inverted teardrop, that familiar symbol from Google Maps. Each bungalow was lit up in a different candy color, and inside, little wonders awaited: Lego competitions, a Google Maps-themed pinball machine, and pedal-powered margarita makers. Attendees of South by Southwest, also known as SXSW, flocked to the village, all lured in by the buzz and the promise of free food and drinks.
Seeing all this, a visitor from Massachusetts naturally wonders: Would Boston ever let a major tech company — or anybody else — put up such a glitzy attraction in the heart of the city? And if so, what about something much larger? Popular as it was, the Google Village was just a sideshow at SXSW, a much larger collection of events that takes over downtown Austin every March. The festival has helped to transform the Texas capital, once known primarily for its live music, into a showcase for innovation and tech entrepreneurship.
While the Boston area has different set of assets, one of the key economic challenges it faces — a reputation as a buttoned-down place where it’s often difficult to get things done — would be dramatically countered if it played host to an event like South by Southwest. So the obvious question is: Why not?
Launched in 1987 by staffers at The Austin Chronicle, an alternative newsweekly, South by Southwest began as a showcase for the rock scene in Texas’ state capital, which at the time was a college town with a slacker vibe. A film and multimedia festival followed in 1994; it later split into two events, one of which — SXSW Interactive — soon became one of the world’s most important showcases for emerging technologies. The messaging network Twitter and geolocation app Foursquare first attracted widespread attention there.
Last year, the interactive festival alone attracted 25,000 registered attendees; tech workers, aspiring entrepreneurs, advertising executives, media bigwigs, and others paid $600 and up per badge. Call it Lollapalooza with lanyards; the Austin Convention Center and a number of nearby hotels play host to trade exhibits; to “lounges” sponsored by companies and nonprofits; and to hundreds of panels with titles ranging from “Crowdsourcing Science” to “The Great Library Swindle: Your Rights Are at Risk” to “Y Rappers R Better Marketers than U.” Thousands more come for the semi-official and unofficial events that have sprung up around the conference over the years. In all of this, high-profile Boston-area institutions are highly visible; the MIT Media Lab, the start-up competition Mass Challenge, and Harvard Business School were all represented at last year’s conference.
Austin’s chilled-out attitude, as evidenced by its accommodation of a multi-headed mega-festival, creates something important: an easy setting in which locals and visitors from around the world can meet each other, bounce ideas around, and make business contacts. There is a vast amount of pent-up energy in the worlds of technology, media, advertising, and the arts. And when a city tries to channel that energy, the result looks a lot like South by Southwest Interactive.
For its part, the Boston area doesn’t need to insist on its own importance as a producer of bright college graduates. What it does need to prove to the world, and to itself, is that it’s a place where technology, business, and culture are free to combine in creative, unpredictable ways. As it stands, there’s little interaction between tech wizards in Kendall Square and the more traditional civic, arts, and business institutions in the region. A large-scale Boston culture-and-technology event would bring them all together, and prove that the qualities that seem so forbidding to visitors — the wariness about disruptions, the skepticism about commercial endeavors, the instinct toward imposing order on things from above — can be suspended, at least for a week.
To be sure, the growth of South by Southwest is the source of some annoyance to Austinites, who fret about traffic delays and the difficulty of snagging a badge at an affordable price. But it also demonstrates an appetite for technology-and-arts events — and an obvious market opportunity for Boston and other cities that hopes to capture the same energy.
There are reasons to think Boston would be more successful: The local higher-ed community provides a wealth of tech brainpower; the ever-growing Boston Book Festival and the now-gigantic PAX East video-game expo bespeak some experience with major events. What’s been lacking is the drive to knit such events together. Doing so would open up a realm of other possibilities. The influx of eyeballs into Austin for South by Southwest has spawned activities not strictly related to it — everything from a fashion conference to a pop-up manicure lounge to electronic-music parties.
Unfortunately, big events in Boston sometimes fall victim to petty disputes and parochial questions: Who’ll handle the permitting for all the free food and drinks? Who’ll pay for the police details? But if the City of Boston can’t make a sprawling conference work, perhaps the more free-wheeling Cambridge and Somerville can.
Indeed, it’s easy to think of communities and institutions that would benefit from raising or reinforcing their profile in the tech world. Harvard and MIT, which are under ever-increasing pressure to out-innovate their rival institutions in California and New York, might be willing to serve as the bookends for a Boston-area conference. The restaurants and clubs along Massachusetts Avenue could provide entertainment venues. An event in late May or June, when Boston’s weather is blossoming and dozens of colleges and universities have space to spare, could present the region at its best.
Austin has grown up around South by Southwest. When the festival started, Austin wasn’t much bigger — either statistically or in its national cultural footprint — than sleepy Sun Belt cities like Birmingham or Baton Rouge. But as Austin boomed in the 1990s, its ability to handle ever larger crowds grew as well.
The logistics may be trickier in a city that first came to prominence more than three centuries earlier. But to keep thriving, Greater Boston has to conceive of itself as young, dynamic, and enterprising. A city that often takes its own advantages for granted can bring itself to tout them; and if the city can do this, it can do a lot of other things that might seem impossible.