SXSW Eco: 10 hot topics @ Austin's 'sustainapalooza'

SXSW Eco: 10 hot topics @ Austin's 'sustainapalooza'


An eclectic mix of start-ups, investors, tree huggers and policy wonks, SXSW ECO isn’t a typical sustainability conference. Building sustainably is just a small part of what attracts this holistic gathering of perspectives. SXSW ECO creates a broad conversation and a marketplace for ideas across industries on topics such as water, ecology, food and fashion. ECO dares us to think about what’s happening next.

Held earlier this fall in Austin TX, this year’s ECO was inspiring, stimulating, sometimes overwhelming. I’ve managed to boil my experience there down to 10 key takeaways...

1. The BIG message
The major theme of the conference was communicating about the environmental crisis. It seems we’re due for a refocus, defining what’s next in raising the green bar. In the past, environmentalists highlighted how the planet is being impacted by humans—and that’s often meant announcing catastrophic news. At SXSW ECO, the message shifted to It’s about saving humans. Is this a bit self-centered? Maybe, but it also might be more effective. We are more likely to take action if we own this problem, and look at what we are doing to ourselves. Nature doesn’t need people, people need nature.

2. Fixable issues
A secondary message emerged: This is fixable. Studies have shown that the public stays more engaged and responsive regarding environmental issues when possible solutions are presented. For every problem we need to solve, we need to present at least one tangible solution. This way we are presenting solvable problems. It’s about accomplishing one thing at a time and not biting off more than we can chew.

3. The Grid
Our utility grid wasn’t originally designed with renewables in mind. Our traditional systems are not readily capable of instantly augmenting our power needs when the solar supply is low. How can we deploy technologies such as PV in the current grid?  One possible solution is battery pack technology, coming soon to a building near you!

4. Plastics
When it comes to materials, look for growth in alternatives to plastic. There are billions of dollars out there for entrepreneurs developing alternatives to plastic. Side note:  The “biodegradable” label isn’t always good when what’s left over is toxic. Not-so-fun-fact: Every bit of plastic that was ever produced is still here today down to the molecule. Plastic never goes away and most are bioaccumalative—they build up in our bodies.

5. Resiliency in designing for climate change
If we’re talking about design and the environment today, we need to talk about resiliency. At ECO, I heard the term precovery used in reference to designing for climate change. We must design our structures for the volatile climate conditions emerging as the new normal. It is about being proactive, not reactive.

6. Buildings as ecosystems
One panelist posed the question: If you had one outfit for the entire year, what would it be? A building’s design and its façade are one in the same. What if we thought of buildings as animals, organisms with a skin that must see them through a variety of conditions and seasons? Using biomimicry to inform our building designs is a hot topic right now in the industry. What other lessons can we take from nature to make our designs smarter?

7. Why beauty matters
Humans long for beauty. When something is beautiful we care more for it, we hold it in higher value. Without beauty, we simply aren’t as concerned. This is why beauty matters in today’s discussion of sustainability. If we make sustainability about beauty, then we will find it easier to justify its value in the mainstream.

8. Behavior and design
I approached this roundtable discussion expecting a group of designers talking about how design can influence human behavior. What I found was an eclectic group of individuals, each with his/her own idea of what design is, and worldview. There was a lawyer-turned-jewelry-designer, a graphic artist-turned-sustainable-designer, and three MBAs who help designers reach their potential, focusing on architects as artists. These diverse perspectives on design and behavior were stimulating, to say the least. Even though we had different backgrounds and worked in different industries, we all had a common passion around environmentalism and sustainability.

9. Sustainable seas
If there is no water, there is no life. If there is no blue, there is no green. Sustaining our seas is the next big wave.

10. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things
Often we hear about everyday people making a positive impact on the world around them. The conference asked us to consider ourselves. What are YOU doing in your everyday life that is extraordinary, that has a real positive impact on the world around you?

BONUS: Nature as a mentor
Research shows that our best design work is rooted in collective experience and our connection with the natural world. We can look at how nature solves problems and apply those techniques to the built environment. We already see this happening in industrial design, but it's catching on across the industry.

The author is vice president and sustainability leader at Chicago-based VOA Associates Inc. She can be reached via e-mail at


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