South by South West (SXSW) is an annual interactive media conference in Austin, Texas. 70,000 professionals working across industries, joined 5000 speakers talking on diverse subjects from art to artificial intelligence.

SXSW is famed for being the place where tech companies and trend forecasters compete to be the first to spot “the next big thing”. This year however it felt less like the usual self-congratulatory carousel of technological advances, and more like a collective moment of reflection on whether the future we’re creating is really one we want to be a part of.

Three days into SXSW the organisers tweeted that the year’s theme was “Globally Connected”. However, the call out that “we’re all in this together”, was more of a rallying cry than a salute. A purposeful reaction against the polarising geo-political climate, and a reminder that there is no “Us vs Them”, the only way we can take advantage of future opportunities is if we work together.

“We are strongest when we stand together. We can find common ground on higher ground.”
– Roy Pence

For me, the theme of the conference was the “The Paradox of Digital Connection”. The paradox being that we are now more connected than we have ever been before, but we are more polarised and divided. The more connected and integrated technology becomes in our lives, the more isolated and lonely we become.

We’re in a loneliness epidemic, and in the midst of an employee engagement crisis. According to a Gallup study, only 13% of employees are engaged — meaning they are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. Millennials in particular are living in a world of hyper connection, where they are plagued by a sense of multidimensional perfectionism.

Where do we draw the line between using technology because it improves our lives in a meaningful way, and using it just because we can?

We need connection to thrive

“The quality of your relationships is what determines the quality of your life.”
– Esther Perel

In her Interactive Keynote, relationship expert Esther Perel spoke on how technology has caused a shift in how we relate to others and ourselves. We no longer ask the question. “Am I happy?” But “Am I happy enough?”.

The way to re-connect is to listen and to create open dialogues with the people we live with and the people we work with. We need to bring relationships back to the heart of everything.

“When we listen deeply to other people, we reach into their humanity”
– Esther Perel

Vulnerability is good for business

Kristen Przano held a session at the Capital One house which discussed the impact of vulnerability in the workplace. Researchers like Brene Brown (Keynote speaker at SXSW 2016) have spent years investigating the paradox of vulnerability. We need trust to be vulnerable, and vulnerability to develop trust. “It is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I want you to see in me”.

In a business, individuals need to feel like they can be open with their ideas; to be innovative, they need to trust in a culture that sees the opportunity in failure. Vulnerability allows people to be authentically themselves and share their ideas more freely, knowing that they won’t be judged. When vulnerability is not welcome in the workplace — ideas, growth and innovation all suffer.

Examples of vulnerability at work:

  • Requesting feedback when you don’t have to
  • Asking for help
  • Taking responsibility
  • Sharing insights and reflecting together as a team

Developing a Digital Mindset

These are not easy problems to solve, but a series of paradoxes we need to manage. Technology has reached a point where it is ubiquitous in almost every aspect of our lives, and has the potential to cause more harm than good. The only thing we can do to ensure success is to develop a mindset that sees these challenges as opportunities and puts people, and genuine connection, at the heart of everything we do.

The internet used to be an escape from reality, now reality is an escape from the internet. The one trend prediction that I can fully get behind is that in the not so distant future, digital will no longer be the focus, it will simply become an invisible enabler of physical experiences. Companies that invest in their people before investing in the latest “tech trends” will be the ones who create the most opportunities.