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SXSW: Collaboration, hope, urgency and cultural change

March 23, 2017

It can feel like the world is changing at lightning speed and at the same time it can feel like nothing has changed.

While attending talks on healthcare at South by Southwest (SXSW) it was easy to get excited about all the future possibilities that technology can offer us and the difficulties we are having working within our current bureaucracies.

I heard pitches for tricorder-like health diagnostic and monitoring devices that offered diagnostics at home. I saw 3D-printed shoes. I heard many people talk about difficulties getting the information they need because of a lack of collaboration and shared infrastructure and the powerful results of collaboration when NASA and radiation therapy experts worked together. I listened to a debate between big healthcare/pharma companies insisting they hold the keys to the future of healthcare via the infrastructure only they can build and startups who insisted that they could go it alone.

The event was highlighted, for me, by listening to Joe Biden send out a call to action as he passionately told the crowd that to cure cancer we need to proceed with a sense of collaboration, urgency, hope and full-scale culture change. In the end, I walked away feeling excited about the future but aware of the work that needs to be done to get there quickly and efficiently. Below are some key themes that emerged for me. They apply to healthcare but to other industries as well that struggle to move into the promise of the future.

You can’t do it alone

Academic institutions, government and corporations have survived and thrived on the basic notion of competition and protectionism. It is at their cultural core. To continue to survive and thrive, we must all move beyond this paradigm and understand what collaboration means in our industries and what it means to solving the problems we’re working on.

Joe Biden’s talk on the Cancer Moonshot highlighted this point through a recounting of the Task Force he built, the initiatives they are working on, and how the success they’re seeing is through the breaking down of silos in government. It's like the Department of Energy’s ability to work with big data though collaborating with the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a repository of health records.

It was refreshing to be in a place of such optimism, excitement and possibility.

A panel on “Connect to End Cancer” discussed how academic journals and institutions discourage information sharing, making it difficult for those working on curing cancer to learn from what is already known. Even a representative from IBM Watson stated that “Watson requires partnerships” to be a success. Culture change is big and difficult, but keeping an eye firmly on the problems we’re trying to solve will help ease some of the initial pains it takes getting there.

Context matters

In the world of both big data and personalized medicine living together, I heard clearly from several speakers about the importance of deeply understanding the context in which you are operating. In the “HackPharma” talk they discussed the importance of pharma, payers, physicians and hospitals working together to define and deliver outcomes, value and aligning incentives. How we treat disease in the future will need to fine-tune drugs to populations, realizing the importance of working locally, going to where people are at, and understanding how their environment (cultural, social and physical) affects their health. The panel discussed how clinical trials will be more successful if we find ways to engage people close to home and the need to address disparity in healthcare by “connecting with people where they are at.” While very different examples, what they have in common is taking the point of view of those with which they will collaborate and/or serve and creating opportunities there.


While technology rules SXSW, a common theme was the importance of pure science. A speaker suggested that we all befriend a scientist and learn about how they solve problems. One event was a great reminder of the joy and importance of science was a documentary about the life and work of Bill Nye the Science Guy. The documentary followed his life work from being a TV celebrity, teacher, global-warming activist, space exploration advocate/champion and leader. It was a lovely reminder of the power, excitement and joy of science.

I was inspired by the speakers and the overall environment and vibe of SXSW. It was refreshing to be in a place of such optimism, excitement and possibility. I walked away feeling excited and ready to work closely with my clients to help them navigate a future landscape that – while confusing, sometimes daunting and seemingly intractable – is also full of hope and opportunity.

P.S. If you ever need to feel fully inspired, to see humility, expertise and leadership in action, find a Joe Biden speech and watch it. I recommend his talk from SXSW. Or just watch an old episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Either should do it!

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