AUSTIN – “Here we are in the middle of South by Southwest, and we’re on a patio,” said Cyna Alderman, managing director of the New York Daily News’ innovation lab, as she examined the Choose San Antonio “booth.”
Sunday was the first official day of the SXSW Interactive trade show at the Austin Convention Center and the first time the City of San Antonio had an official presence at the annual festival – in or outside the convention center.
Choose San Antonio, the nonprofit leading San Antonio’s SXSW initiative, eschewed a traditional, formal booth at the trade show for a relaxed icehouse atmosphere, complete with metal chairs and astro turf.
Alderman was visiting the trade show space with veteran journalist Amy Vernon and Albert Choi, business development director for Bloomberg.com.
They said the unique look drew them in. They sat on the metal chairs briefly as Vernon enjoyed a free paleta from SA Pops, which had a whole cart of the cool treats there.
“I’m really enjoying this,” Alderman said. Vernon was the only one of the trio who have ever been to San Antonio, but she said that it was an overnight stop during a cross-country move. She glanced at Wendy Atwell’s book about the San Antonio River, “The River Spectacular,” copies of which were plentiful at the trade show space.
“We do hiking, my kids help to do clean up on the Delaware River,” Vernon said, thumbing through the book. “I think this is great.”
Throughout Sunday, trade show attendees strolled into San Antonio’s space, which was sandwiched between booths staffed by representatives from the cities of Fort Worth and Denton.
Volunteers with Choose San Antonio manned the “icehouse,” and explained San Antonio – its culture, business climate, purpose at SXSW – to the curious visitors. Omar Quimbaya, software developer from Def-Logix, was one of Choose San Antonio’s select “cultural ambassadors,” who helped to promote the city to visitors.
It was not until mid-afternoon Sunday when the San Antonio space got even busier with the arrival of a contingent of city officials, including City Manager Sheryl Sculley, City Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3) and Roberto Treviño (D1), and Rene Dominguez, economic development director.
They first went to the Old School Bar and Grill, which served as Casa San Antonio, Choose San Antonio’s cultural embassy, before hitting the convention center and trade show.
The City officials briefly talked with the San Antonio trade show volunteers before moving on. But they were thrilled with what they saw.
“It was very exciting to see Casa San Antonio. It’s in a prime location on Sixth Street. I saw lots of people mingling there,” Sculley said. “The expo is pretty phenomenal. Our city colors are out. It’s exciting with all the technology. There are lots of young people, but really people of all ages and from different countries. It’s truly international.”
Sculley said Choose San Antonio did well to distinguish itself at the trade show, especially with another company’s giant robot grabbing more people’s attention across from them.
“Ours is the most colorful, most attractive, so we have lots of people stopping by to see what is here. All in all, it’s very exciting for San Antonio to showcase its quality of life, its technology,” she said.
“It shows there’s more than the River Walk or the Alamo. It’s an exciting new time for San Antonio. It’s a more contemporary San Antonio that we’re showcasing and to have Choose San Antonio organize the event with other creative thinkers is fantastic.”
Treviño agreed with Sculley, adding that San Antonio’s presence at SXSW should reflect on innovation happening back home and in Austin.
“It’s a really great way to show how much the two cities have in common, how we can evaluate and collaborate on similar things that makes us special and help bring us together,” he added. “It’s also about how San Antonio fits into the big picture. We have our place at the table.”
Dominguez praised the collaborative effort between San Antonio’s private and public sector that resulted in the city’s biggest-yet SXSW activation.
“It’s proof of concept. It’s hard to sell otherwise. There is so much noise, so much activity. From here on in, it’s should get easier,” he said.
Dominguez added the city will look at metrics soon to gauge the level of success in San Antonio’s SXSW presence, and that he would likely ask the City Council to consider setting aside funding for next year’s SXSW edition.
The San Antonio delegation emphasized rising local industries such as cybersecurity. On Sunday, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) helped to promote San Antonio as a hub of cybersecurity and information technology.
Hurd took part in a panel discussion about the ongoing debate in Washington, D.C., over encryption and how best levels of government and law enforcement can work together with the private sector to stay atop cyber threats from online criminals and even rogue organizations and whole nations.
The current hot topic, Hurd and his fellow panelists acknowledged, is an escalating battle between Apple and the U.S. Department of Justice over how to crack the iPhone of San Bernardino, Calif. shooter Syed Rizwan Farook.
President Obama took part in a SXSW keynote on Friday, where he expressed support for law enforcement in the escalating debate involving the balance among encryption, personal privacy, personal liberties and national security.
On Saturday, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told technologists at Austin’s Capital Factory that they back the formation of a commission that would speak to defenders of privacy rights and law enforcement officials.
“Encryption means many things. It’s tied to the security of our private and public networks and the Internet of things,” Hurd said at the panel.
The local first-term Republican, headed for a November election rematch with his predecessor, Democrat Pete Gallego, has sided with Apple in the San Bernadino case. He said the fight against terrorism can be fought with both civil liberties and national security in mind.
Educators and end-users of technology must be brought into the cybersecurity debate, Hurd said. The federal government has spent $80 billion on mostly legacy technological systems over the last several years, he explained, and the government is still lagging behind on how to address many types of cyber threats.
The Congressman said this is where it’s especially vital to encourage and prepare the current and future generations of tech-minded people for cybersecurity hazards and solutions. He added the federal government must be careful of the next steps it takes.
“We want to be leaders in this world, but we could ruin an industry and our position in this world, in this industry,” Hurd said.
Following the panel, Hurd said San Antonio is in a good position to help bolster the overall ranks of cybersecurity innovators.
“San Antonio is doing a great job where we are right now in this industry,” Hurd said. “I was just on the West Coast and I had folks there telling me, you know San Antonio has the biggest number of cybersecurity professionals outside of the national capital region and I laughed and said, yes I do know.
“The fact that message is getting out to folks on the coasts is an important thing. Participating in (SXSW) is important. Parts of the startup culture like Geekdom and Tech Bloc, what they’re working to do, is great.”
Hurd commended personnel at the 24th Air Force, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, for working on cybersecurity and other information technology matters by leveraging related local talent and businesses.
“I think this is all exciting. There’s no reason why (U.S. Department of Homeland Security) can’t have some of their cybersecurity professionals in San Antonio,” Hurd said. “The city and (Bexar County) both have been great in making sure they have competitive incentive packages for (tech job seekers). Then you have Brooks City Base and what they’re doing there to attract businesses. It’s everybody working together.”
Hurd and city leaders left Austin by nightfall Sunday as Choose San Antonio closed down Casa San Antonio with one final party. Before that, San Antonio’s creative talent was on full display at SXSW, including a performance by Nina Diaz and her band during a party Saturday night at Old School.
Shokare Nakpodia of The Mighty Group also spent part of Saturday at Casa San Antonio explaining how creative agencies can be forces for social change.
He’s the co-founder of San Antonio’s DreamWeek, a successful organization of activities commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, broader social justice movements and the culture of San Antonio. Nakpodia said organizations aiming for social change cannot judge their progress by profits alone. Building long-lasting partnerships is also key.
“If you look at it from a financial standpoint, you won’t get far,” he said.
Cristal Glangchai at local entrepreneurial academy VentureLab had a solo presentation at SXSW on Saturday at Casa San Antonio. She talked about how vital it is to inspire children, especially girls, early on toward entrepreneurialism.
Glangchai added critical thinking can be applied toward traditionally serious subjects, such as math, science and engineering, in a fun way. This, she said, can have a profound, lasting impact.
“It’s important to rewire brains at an early age. Expose young girls to technology, get them hands on,” she added.
San Antonio’s presence at the SXSW trade show ends on Wednesday.
Top image: Visitors to the South by Southwest trade show toss bean bags at the Choose San Antonio space on Sunday, March 13, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz