I made the pilgrimage to Austin, TX for this year’s SXSW with the intent of learning more about the future of food and following autonomous vehicle developments since my last experience there. Upon arrival, I was met with the usual tech bros extolling the merits of their startups, raucous spring breakers looking to score passes to the open bar party de jour, and motorized scooters. Lots and LOTS of scooters. The massive tech conference and art festival is an amalgam of techies, musicians, government officials, business leaders, and students where attendees are just as likely to rub shoulders with the next viral singing sensation as they are the next unicorn startup CEO. I felt less like a tech consultant and more like an aspiring artist hawking their mixtape as I handed out copies of my report on autonomous trucking. All that intermingling leads to the type of cross-pollination of ideas and insights that make open office planners salivate. Thinking through new ideas or considering old ones from the perspectives of fellow attendees certainly led to new insights in the work I’m doing. Those “aha” moments mostly came to me while walking between sessions. Just far enough to let my mind wander, but not far enough to break a sweat. The creative exercise sweet spot.
While my next epiphany was always just a step away, that didn’t stop me from trying out a new (to me) mode of transportation. The conference was ground zero for all manner of micro mobility options like scooters and bikes available on-demand via ride-hailing apps. The geographic footprint of SXSW related activities covers just over a square mile in downtown Austin. During the festival, several of the streets are blocked off, while others remain clogged with traffic the entire time. The situation presents an interesting case study in the use of micro-mobility services. After a few days of zipping around Downtown Austin on scooters I can see their merits as a component of the mobility ecosystem. However, much like any of the coming advancements in mobility, our infrastructure as currently constructed hinders their usefulness. There simply is not enough space for them between crowded, slow moving sidewalks and dangerous streets designed for cars. A future of work that features reduced commute times can’t quite take hold until space is allocated for innovative transportation options.
Beyond the physical infrastructure concerns, our digital infrastructure needs massive overhauls as well. I almost never even stepped foot onto a scooter due to the harried look on the face of a company rep introducing me to the service. I approached in the midst of a massive service outage caused by overloaded cellular networks. This makes sense given the surge of cellular devices brought on by a conference of this magnitude. We eventually got the matter resolved but the experience has lingered with me. Stakes were low. I could have simply walked. But what happens when similar situations befall us in a future of autonomous vehicles? Will transportation come to a halt due to cellular network overloads or worse, networks disrupted by hackers? Autonomous vehicle manufacturers are busy ensuring their products can recognize people and other vehicles, but their attention must eventually turn to building secure, robust networks that will enable the entire operation. As I wrote about in my report No Hands: The Autonomous Future of Trucking, securing these vehicles will be a matter of national security and must be prioritized as such by organizations and the politicians governing the roads. Governing bodies were much more active in the autonomous vehicle space this year than in the past. This is a welcome sign that the politicians are starting to take AVs more seriously and have desire to enact policies addressing them.
Politics ruled the roost of SXSW in 2019, and with good reason. Technology companies are increasingly more integrated into every nook and cranny of our lives and continue to put pressure on politicians to regulate their sometimes deleterious disruptions to stable industries or ways of life. Representation of the political spectrum at SXSW spanned from small town mayors discussing the rural impact of autonomous vehicles, to big city congresswomen calling for automation preparation in the workforce, to presidential hopefuls promising “The Freedom Dividend” (Universal Basic Income) for workers displaced by technology. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’ comments on automation struck me as particularly poignant.
Responding to an audience member question on the topic she replied: “We should be excited about automation, because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.” This is the crux of it all. The totality of ink spilled fretting over the future of work or extolling its virtues all come down to this dynamic. Her comments and the overall zeitgeist of greater conscientiousness surrounding technological advances and how they impact society was a welcome addition to the tech innovation dialogue.
That burgeoning enlightenment will grow in importance as tech intermingles further with the global food supply chain. Its far too important a matter for the Silicon Valley adage of “move fast and break things” to apply. Eating is not often a matter we think of through a technological lens. Its a social and essential human experience that predates even our most rudimentary of technologies. In my time at SXSW I visited a space age cafe, participated in a food startup challenge and interviewed an artificial intelligence innovator at one of the largest food co-ops in the country. The application of AI and other tech tools of The Fourth Industrial Revolution to the food and agriculture sectors represent some of the most compelling digital transformations happening today.
A common thread I noticed in Austin was that while farming jobs have been pushed to the brink of extinction, tech advancements in the industry may simplify things to an extent that employment in the industry roars back to life. Agriculture education program leaders are struggling to find job placements for students in their area of study, but tech opportunities have no end for them. The cross section of food & tech presents jobs like Vertical Farm Consultant, which will be paramount as new farming techniques cause urban agriculture to represent a larger portion of produce consumed. To get there, the vertical farm operators need to scale significantly. Such operations could learn a lot from the fast food chains that have done this so well.
In a turn of fortune that sums up our view on the future of work, the embedded knowledge of scale, speed, and efficiency in fast food workers will soon be available as robotics and self serve kiosks reduce their current job prospects. Those food service workers may have no trouble at all finding employment within the soon to be burgeoning localized farming industry. Just as tech seems to slam the door shut on one job, it unlocks the door on a whole host of other opportunities.