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The White House gathered tech leaders to tackle society's biggest problems

·Contributing Editor
SOuth by SOuth lawn
SOuth by SOuth lawn

Last March, President Barack Obama issued a challenge to techies gathered in Austin for the South By Southwest festival: Stop ignoring Washington as uncool and put your talents to work on “new approaches to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today.” Tuesday, the president followed up on that invitation by bringing a bit of SXSW to the South Lawn of the White House.

The day-long “South By South Lawn,” much like Austin’s annual gathering, featured free tacos, musical performances, and art and tech demonstrations scattered around. (Most unsettling among the last: “6×9,” a nine-minute virtual-reality recreation of the experience of solitary confinement in prison.) It also included a lineup of panels meant to advance this tech-in-society conversation—not all of which succeeded in unearthing major new insights.

Real problems, vague solutions

Much like SXSW, SXSL required attendees to choose between competing panel tracks. I opted for the two most policy-focused talks, “Fixing Real Problems,” and “How We Make Change.”

The former was the obvious sequel to Obama’s SXSW challenge. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much to answer the question of its subtitle: “How can we harness technology to solve our biggest, most stubborn problems?”

It wasn’t that panelists Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, Coalition for Queens founder Jukay Hsu, Transmedia Capital managing partner Chris Redlitz; and EpiBone founder Nina Tandon didn’t have interesting stories to tell.

Redlitz had the most unusual story; his Last Mile project began by teaching San Quentin State Prison inmates to code and has since resulted in the launch of a tech incubator in that California jail. EpiBone grows bone transplants from human cells in labs. Butterfield recounted his efforts to break his group-chat firm out of Silicon Valley “like attracts like” hiring practices. Hsu’s organization works to train New Yorkers without college degrees in tech fields. yielding enormous improvements on their lifetime earnings.

But the conversation stayed vague about just what companies should do to become part of the solution for problems like a hiring monoculture in the tech industry. Steep housing costs earned a nod from multiple panelists but little discussion about tech firms’ responsibility for a problem they have helped create in places like the Bay Area and New York. The role that targeted advertising and marketing tools might play in making politics more divisive didn’t come up at all.

One unintentionally revealing moment came in the middle of a discussion about the relationship of tech firms and the government, when Butterfield said he was on his second trip to Washington ever. If tech wants to solve some of our biggest problems, it can’t stay a stranger to the capital.

Credit: Rob Pegoraro
Credit: Rob Pegoraro

Change takes patience

The second panel, “How We Make Change,” had the unfair advantage of an electrifying introduction from Rep. John Lewis (D.-Ga.). Lewis recounted his decades of civil-rights activism and urged attendees to follow his lead: “It is time for each of you as young leaders to get in trouble—good trouble. Get in the way!”

The conversation afterwards between Campaign Zero co-founder Brittany Packnett, Workers Lab CEO Carmen Rojas and Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson benefited from perspectives that varied with their time in the field.

At one end, Wolfson could “put myself out of a job,” as he said, when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year, a mere 32 years after he wrote his law-school thesis on that topic. At another end, Packnett’s work to lower police violence and Rojas’s workers-rights efforts have long roads ahead.

So while Wolfson could share some optimism about how things can work out—“you can lose forward,” he said of the years his group only claimed isolated victories—Packnett noted that her voice sounds hoarse “because I have a bruised lung from tear gas.”

Social media figured in the conversation less than you might have expected. For instance, the way Facebook (FB) can amplify or quiet some topics, intentionally or not, didn’t get unpacked. But Packnett did give surprising credit to the social network’s “On This Day”: While that feature has drawn criticism for dredging up unpleasant memories, she said it regularly inspired her by evoking her first meetings with people like the mother of Ferguson, Mo., police shooting victim Mike Brown.

A presidential finish

The day wrapped up with a discussion between Obama, Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and actor Leonardo DiCaprio about global warming. The president observed that as a problem with long-term consequences of inaction but short-term costs to avert them, “climate change is almost perversely designed to be really hard to solve politically.” Hayhoe noted that it’s making existing weather patterns more extreme in Texas—but that while people have been denying that trend, wind power has grown to provide 10% of all electricity in Texas, half of it on some windy nights.

The conversation turned to how to make the case for action on global warming. Hayhoe said throwing more data on the table doesn’t work in today’s splintered politics. Rather, she said, we should return to the basic principle of taking care of your home. She said you simply had to care about that unless you’d signed up for Elon Musk’s trip to Mars—something she called “crazy.”

DiCaprio quietly interjected: “I did.” Hayhoe apologized and the president made his own observation of the outspoken actor: “I think he’ll acknowledge he’s crazy.”

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.