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SXSW: AI, powerful pitches, and new connections

20 years ago, I first attended South by Southwest (SXSW). Back in 2004, holding a bag of CD demos, I ventured into Austin, Texas, to immerse myself in what was then predominantly a music festival, a place where emerging bands and industry professionals converged to discover new talent.


Fast forward to SXSW 2024 and I was back – minus the CD demos – to a festival that has morphed into a global beacon for technology, film, and interactive media. If you’ve not recently been the sheer scale is overwhelming. The entire city of Austin is transformed into a sprawling venue that plays home to tech trade shows, digital and tech speaker and panel sessions, pitch competitions, networking events, interactive installations, immersive VR and AR experiences, policy discussions – as well as gigs and industry parties.

AI – not just a trend

Unsurprisingly AI stood out as the overarching theme. It was on everyone’s lips. Not a panel, pitch, keynote, or discussion went by without a mention. The focus on AI brought with it an intense debate, one that I had seen articulated well at the Creative UK Summit earlier in the month – the balance between Artificial Intelligence and Artistic Integrity.

Where does human creativity intersect with AI’s capabilities?

For every enthusiast extolling the virtues and advancements of AI, there were voices urging caution and prompting reflection on the broader implications for society, creativity, and the ethical dilemmas that such rapid development brings. It is a concern that’s rooted in the very real experience of artists, creators, and industry professionals witnessing the impact of AI on the creative sectors.

The future is here – just not evenly distributed

Stand out sessions included Amy Webb’s talk on future trends that plotted the trajectory of AI – it was nothing short of a masterclass in which she suggested that the future holds both immense promise and formidable challenges. Unlike past revolutions like the industrial or internet age, that had one defining breakthrough, now we’re seeing three powerful forces merging: the connected ecosystem of things, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence.

This combination is leading us into what she calls a “Technology Super Cycle.” A super cycle that will reshape our economy and society in unprecedented ways, similar to the Industrial Revolution and the internet era. You can catch Amy’s session here.

Here and now

It was fascinating to hear from Peter Deng, OpenAI’s consumer lead. Deng’s optimistic vision for AI and exploration of the present and imminent impact highlighted the potential to revolutionise the way we think about creativity, efficiency, and problem solving.

One message was clear, to avoid being left in the wake of progress, our mindset towards AI needs to change. He implored us to shift perspectives on AI from that of a looming threat to a formidable ally. Urging people to adapt, innovate, and think differently. How can AI bring about new and engaging brand experiences? What innovative business models could emerge?

Deng’s comment that ‘AI fundamentally makes us more human’ didn’t sit well with some in the audience whose livelihoods and integrity are threatened by the ever increasing development of AI technologies. Hear Deng’s session for yourself here.

Don’t follow your passion…

Mark Cuban and Co-founder of Facebook Andrew McCollum shared an engaging conversation on growth, entrepreneurship, and startups. Cuban, challenged conventional wisdom by emphasising the importance of aligning our efforts with aptitudes rather than blindly following passions:

“Follow where you spend most of your time. If you love spending time doing something you are good at, that’s where you are likely to be most successful”.

Both agreed on the challenges of scaling a business, but suggested entrepreneurs need to get comfortable with the anxieties of running a company, and that these anxieties don’t go away. Because all startups have huge ups and downs (even Facebook):

“You’ve got to be able to understand that nothing is a straight line in business. You’re going to have zigs and zags that you don’t expect, but you just have to know that’s just part of the deal when you’re running a company.”

Cuban also offered his take the future of business and AI, suggesting:

“There are going to be two types of companies in this world, those who are great at AI, and everybody else”.

What was Cuban’s advice to entrepreneurs looking to embrace AI?  Seek to understand and know enough to inform your choices, rather than losing yourself in the technicalities.

You can listen to full audio of their conversation here.

Aiki Inc

I was lucky enough to attend the Enterprise and Smart Data pitch competition and in a festival teeming with similar competitions, one pitch here really stood out. Why did it make an impact? First it was the content. Unlike most pitches I see, this one presented life-saving technology that could play a critical role in school safety during attacks. Second, the pitch itself, by Co-founder Damian McKeon was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Presented with poise and clarity, he demonstrated the power of a clear, focused message tied to a meaningful cause.

Ventures that address unmet needs often stand out, and Aiki Inc’s pitch is a prime example. Damian, a firefighter, used his firsthand experience to identify a critical gap in school safety protocols. This authentic understanding of the specific dangers that schools face helped Damian to develop communication and response measures that could make the difference during emergencies. It’s clear that this is not just a business venture, it’s a mission, driven by unique insights and experiences, aimed at solving a problem that’s all too real.

For me, this showcases the real power of startups when they are deeply rooted in addressing the needs of a community, bringing together technical innovation with a commitment to a deeply human cause.


Reflecting on SXSW 2024, it’s not just the groundbreaking tech or the visionary insight that I’m taking back to Form, but the connections, relationships, and new friendships.

At Form, we’re committed to helping digital, creative, and tech businesses to imagine and build a better future. SXSW has been a great opportunity to nurture this mission, offering a space to engage with like-minded innovators, thinkers, and doers.

As we look ahead, we’re more committed than ever to help leaders and their teams become the best versions of themselves, inspired by the lessons and collaborative spirit of SXSW.