SXSW Eco: The Future of Food, Energy and Transportation

Story Gentry Railsback
Illustrations by Elizabeth Kim

SXSW’s forward-thinking branch on environmental sustainability held its fifth annual SXSW Eco conference in downtown Austin Oct. 5-7 where international company leaders, investors, start-up innovators and architectural designers from around the world gathered to discuss and advance solutions that drive economic, environmental and social change. From guest speakers to topic-themed social happy hours at Austin’s staple restaurants, innovative ideas were presented to improve food industry transparency, apply biomimicry in engineering, promote cause-related brands and more.

Early on in the week, Isha Datar, keynote speaker and executive director of molecular and cell research organization New Harvest, explained the future of food-production through the development of animal products made without animals, and why the next revolution in agriculture is cellular agriculture: “Growing food from the cell up rather than the organism down — in the face of climate change and a growing population, it may be crucial to creating a secure, safe, and sustainable food system,” Datar says.

Her innovative ideas were met with bewilderment. “It’s crazy to think where technology in the food industry is taking us,” Nic Lauten, a SXSW Eco attendee from Southern California, says. “It seems unnatural to grow animal meat in a lab to be eaten, but the science and process is fascinating.”

On the second day of the conference, Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, discussed the company’s latest advances in transportation of goods and humans, from supersonic trains to automated drones and next-generation planes. “At Hyperloop we build incredible pieces of advanced machinery,” Ahlborn says. “We are inventing the technology of the future of transportation. Whether it is state of the art wind tunnels, levitation rigs or electromagnetic test stands, our world-class engineering team has built them in record time. We’re building the fifth mode of transportation right here, right now.”

His claims on the benefits of this futuristic level of technology resonated excitedly across the room of listeners. “The reality of the Hyperloop [supersonic city-loop train] could benefit city-planning, public transportation and the environment more than we could even imagine,” attendee Adam Thompson says. “It cuts gas emissions, improves time efficiency, and helps take care of everyone’s worst nightmare — rush-hour traffic.”

In a smaller, more intimate gathering, SteamaCo CEO Harrison Leaf and Project developer Lauren Kickham told stories of the opportunities and pitfalls of investing for impact in Africa. According to Leaf, SteamaCo has impacted rural communities of Nairobi and Kenya by installing and making solar microgrids commercially viable in rural Africa where the power grid doesn't reach. “What an interesting way to revitalize the developing world,” Grace Mueller, a senior in UT's social entrepreneurship bridging disciplines program, says. “It not only highlights the rise of clean solar energy, but also raises the bar for organizations to create avenues for social change in developing countries.”

To top off the week with a fun twist, Patagonia, an apparel brand that outwardly promotes environmental-protectionism and eco-sustainability, hosted a happy hour at the Patagonia storefront in downtown Austin with free drinks and food to promote Patagonia Provisions, the company’s new branch of organic food lines. With samples of their organic fruit and nut bars, bison jerky and booklets of recipes, attendees were able to speak with Patagonia representatives and ask questions about how the Patagonia Provisions branch got started and how they source the foods they sell.

As conversations unfold throughout the week, the opportunities to learn at SXSW Eco are endless. Every topic, from transportation to food to revitalization of developing countries, urged listeners to consider the future, the earth and how to solve problems we face today.