Connecting state and local government leaders

Why Mayors Are Flocking to SXSW

The intersection of 6th Street and Congress Avenue is in the heart of Austin.

The intersection of 6th Street and Congress Avenue is in the heart of Austin. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

In a guest article, Austin Mayor Steve Adler details why for innovators and municipal leaders alike, tech touches everything cities do.

AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW started as an entertainment festival, first with music and then expanding to include film. When it evolved further to cover interactive and education, SXSW became the world’s fair of the future.  Today, people from all over come to SXSW to imagine possibilities and to help great ideas become real. That’s why it made perfect sense for SXSW and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to create Civic I/O, the Mayors’ Summit at SXSW.

Think of it like space camp, but with mayors geeking out on the intersections of innovation and public policy instead of interstellar travel. This year we’ve got more than 20 mayors coming from all over the United States to tackle the biggest civic and municipal challenges. In all, mayors are appearing on 13 panels at SXSW this year. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is on a panel about wireless network innovation with top executives from Intel and Verizon.
  • Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney will discuss the impacts of federal immigration policies on cities with an expert from the New American Economy, a bipartisan immigration think tank.
  • Buddy Dyer, the Mayor of Orlando during the recent Pulse nightclub shooting, will talk with Sam Sanders of National Public Radio about resiliency in the face of terrorism.
  • The mayors of Cambridge, Denver, and Milwaukee (Denise Simmons, Michael Hancock, and Tom Barrett, respectively) will have a wide-ranging panel on the American Housing Crisis.
  • Also, I’m on a panel about addressing inequality and institutional racism with Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, the president of Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black college in Austin.

There are more panels with yet more mayors, but perhaps the crown jewel of Civic I/O is the tech innovation pitch competition. Modeled after the TV show “Shark Tank,” seven finalist, emerging companies will get to pitch their ideas to address challenges facing cities to a panel of mayors and industry experts. It’s a lot of fun, but it has real-world impacts. The winners share a $20,000 prize, and the entrepreneurs have access to mayors who can put their ideas to quick use at home.

Civic I/O is the latest evolution of the SXSW Interactive Festival as it moves from unveiling shiny new toys to focusing on the challenges to which those toys might apply. SXSW, after all, is where Twitter, the president’s preferred communications tool, made its worldwide splash a decade ago.

It is becoming increasingly obvious over recent years to innovators and mayors alike that tech touches everything cities do. Last year this process of realization culminated in U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx using SXSW as a platform to announce the seven finalists in the Smart City Challenge. At last year’s SXSW, President Barack Obama called on the tech community “to be part of the broader civic community in tackling some of our biggest challenges.”

In convening at Civic I/O (SXSW), America’s mayors are embracing imagining possibilities and finding next generation solutions. By seeking collaborations with the tech community, these mayors are bringing innovation to the front lines of public policy implementation. We don’t yet know what will be the next game-changing advance to come out of Civic I/O—just like we don’t know what band playing at SXSW will be the Next Big Thing—but with America’s mayors involved, that next big idea may become real in America’s cities.

Steve Adler is the Mayor of Austin, Texas.

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