Austin is known worldwide for a lot of things.

One is the resolutely disparaging stance of top state officials in recent years toward the science underlying concerns about manmade climate change. Gov. Rick Perry, for instance, declared in 2010 that research findings endorsed by a vast majority of scientists are a “contrived, phony mess.” Attorney General Greg Abbott, widely considered the frontrunner to succeed Perry as governor, has voiced similarly skeptical thoughts and has sued the federal government in an attempt to block regulations to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Austin is not just the state capital, of course. Municipal and business boosters promote it as the “live music capital of the world.” One reason for that boast’s credibility is South by Southwest (or just SXSW, as it’s also known), an annual March event that was initiated as a small music festival/conference in 1987 and has grown to international fame and been augmented by the addition of SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive programming.

SXSW Inc. subsequently launched other events, including SXSW Eco, which has an environmental sustainability theme, in 2011. It’s clear from even a quick glance at the program for Eco’s third annual installment, Oct. 7-9, that the organizers’ attitude toward climate change is far removed from that of high-ranking state officials who don’t think human-caused climate change is anything to be concerned about. An array of talks and panels on climate change and related issues includes one discussion, for example, on “How to Futureproof Cities.” That panel’s summary cites increasing weather extremes as a key challenge for cities worldwide, adding: “Sea level rise, mega-storms, record temperatures and severe droughts are becoming the new normal.”

SXSW Eco’s website strikes a pragmatic chord, calling the 2013 conference “a significant connector for professionals working to solve the complex challenges facing civil society, the economy and the natural world. Hosting an international audience of thought leaders and decision makers, this three-day event serves as the platform to evolve these critical matters towards actionable and profitable solutions.”

The event has eight “program themes” – energy; business; climate change; design; food and agriculture; behavior, education and health, and policy and activism. More than 250 speakers are scheduled to participate in more than 100 sessions, designed to “encourage cross-sector collaboration between professionals from business, government, academia and non-profits.”

Chris Sonnier, program manager for Eco, spoke with TCN editor Bill Dawson about the event.


Q: The announcement finalizing the program said, “In the same way that the South by Southwest March event has influenced tech trends at Interactive, debuted Oscar-winning films at Film and launched globally successful musical artists at Music, Eco aims to lead the way to innovative business solutions around sustainability and climate change.” Could you just explain and elaborate a bit about that ambition?

A: We obviously are trying to set a really high goal here with this. To this point, I feel like there are a lot of people from various sectors, from business to government to academia and even within business, from non-profits and across the various industries, who are working toward sustainability. This being said, I think there are seldom areas where these groups are coming together as a whole to collaborate on how to make the most of all their efforts.

So what we’re trying to do is similar to what we’ve done with the March events. For example, in Music the original goal was to bring the underserved musicians – highly talented but underserved musicians – put them in the same room, performing for the executives for the indie labels and the independent music press, so thereby creating the ecosystem that’s necessary for these, if you will, these startup bands to achieve a level of success. So we’re trying to do the same thing where we’re building the same atmosphere and the same platform that brings all the necessary people into the same room and by doing that, we’re hoping it will catalyze new projects, new business partnerships, et cetera, that will start to transform into longer-term solutions for all the problems that we know that we’re facing.

Q: This is Eco’s second year, right?

A: This is actually our third year.

Q: Third year, OK. Forgive me for that. Did attendance grow the last couple of years and is it expected to be even higher this year?

A: Oh yes, definitely. In 2011, in our first year, we had a little over 1,200 registrants – or attendees, rather. We grew by a solid 100 percent in registrations from year one to year two so we were in the 2,400-, 2,500-attendees range. This year we’re still looking to grow the event but at a much more conservative pace and were expecting roughly 3,000 to 3,300 attendees this year.

Q: Just in general terms, how will this year’s event be different from the previous two. I mean, is there more on the agenda, for instance?

A: There is. A number of things are always changing, so first off we do have a lot to remain relevant to the current events, the current headlines, the current discoveries, et cetera. In our second year we added an event called the Startup Showcase, which brought together 15 startup companies and put them in front of a room of corporate and venture-backed investors. These were all in the clean tech space. This year we’re growing that element of it so we’ll have our green tech category as well as the clean Web category and the social impact category. So it’s a much broader grouping.

We’ve also been working hard to foster the art and design communities at the event. For example, this year besides all of the additional programming elements that we have for design and continuing education credits for architects and green builders, we’ve started a competition called Place by Design and this is about re-envisioning public spaces. For most of these, we’ve received applicants from six continents, which I think is really a testament to the global nature of this event.

Q: Climate change is one of your eight program themes. It’s mentioned in the passage from the announcement along with sustainability as two key areas of focus. Climate issues show up explicitly among sessions and talks categorized under other theme headings. And climate concerns are obviously related implicitly to other talks that don’t actually have climate in the name. It’s evident you assign a lot of importance to climate issues. Could you talk about that just a little bit – why that is. Is that different this year from previous years in any way?

A: No, absolutely not. This whole thing has been started off with the recognition of these challenges that we face, and climate change is definitely a major one. As you noted, a number of the topics that we have that are not categorized as climate change are very much correlated to it – energy or land use or what have you. Most things are. Another change is we’ve done a lot to try to draw these themes out of our programming, all the while knowing that most of them overlap, so you can’t remove energy from water from agriculture from climate. We did as much as could to make them as easily digestible as we could.

Q: There’s a lot of events and it may be difficult, but could you give me just a few examples that you think illustrate some of the variety in how you’re addressing climate change?

A: We have two of the world’s foremost climatologists, Dr. Alan Townsend and Dr. Jim White – they’re both based out of the University of Colorado at Boulder. They’re coming in and they’re fantastic speakers. They’re going to be delivering the latest and greatest talk on the science of climate change. This is something that a lot of people feel that they know a lot about but this will bring everybody up to speed.

Following that, we have a number of sessions from communicating what this actually means – what this many parts per million means – to how to make it visible, visual representations of it. And we also get into areas such as climate justice and a true social conversation on it and how it affects other communities in different ways than maybe the ones we both live in. And we also bring it back into extreme weather and tie it into policy with our Bloomberg Policy Series.

Q: After so many years of, I think its fair to say, often repetitious debate and discussion about climate change, some might say there’s not much new to add. How do you hope to advance the dialogue in innovative ways?

A: First and foremost, our event is about solutions. So I am keenly aware that this quote-unquote climate debate has been going on and it’s been […] framed as, is this real, is this not real. We’re going on the assumption that this is a very real issue and something that is very timely and needs immediate response. So starting it by saying we’re not worrying about that part of the debate and we’re only going to worry about what to do about it, finding innovative solutions as well as solutions that have shown themselves to work and could be replicated. That’s how I think we’re going to do our best at shaking up this conversation.

Q: Of course your event, like other South by Southwest events, is taking place in Austin. South by Southwest has become a big signature initiative for the city of Austin. It’s known worldwide. But your programming, the Eco programming, is not Texas-centric by any means. You have a lot of Texas folks on your board but nonetheless this is an event with attention being given far beyond the boundaries of Texas. Do you think or hope the event can help further activities toward solutions in Texas – either to address the way climate change is projected to roll out here or Texas’s role in contributing to climate change? We produce a lot of greenhouse gases here.

A: Yes, we definitely are of the mind that programming that we offer, the great minds that we’re bringing to Texas for the event, very much can have a very quick impact on what’s going on in Central Texas and across Texas as a whole. For example, by bringing in the venture capitalists for the Startup Showcase, we’re bringing in a lot of money that can be put toward these clean technologies. We’re working with groups here in Austin affiliated with the University of Texas, the city of Austin and beyond to help bolster the clean tech community here, the entrepreneur community here. So we’re trying to do our part by bringing in the experts, as well as the capital to back these great ideas, to this area, which we think will create jobs in this area as well as establish Texas and maybe specifically Austin as an area of thought leadership in this space.

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how your own background and your academic interest have prepared you for the role of program manager and how has it shaped the way you approach the job. Were you interested in environmental and sustainability issues for a long time?

A: Definitely. I’m a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. Much of my work there was in anthropology and business. I had a very social side as well as an economic side but I always had a draw to the natural world as well, so I did a number of internships here in town within the realm of restoration ecology. Since then, I’ve had a very variable background. Worked with the Nature Conservancy for a number of years, literally in the field. I worked with Americorps in the school system. I’ve worked in the legal system with indigenous peoples in Guatemala, for example, and just really became intimate with the need for actions to be taken.

Coming out of school, I became very quickly aware that there are not as many opportunities for a career in this space as there are people interested in it and definitely for the intensity of the need. There are not enough opportunities for people to make a good living doing this. I definitely suffered financially for a a number of years to pursue this ideal. I began with South by Southwest in 2011 and have been running with Eco ever since.

I’m also currently doing a master’s at Harvard University in sustainability and environmental management, which is really taking a bigger picture look at drawing all of the pieces together but also taking very deep dives into conversations wrapped around energy, forestry, oceans, corporations, et cetera. It’s a very diverse background, but this is also a very diverse conference. That means I need to know at least a lot about a lot of different things. Where my areas of expertise run short, we’ve done a lot to build a very strong team that is highly skilled and educated in most of these themes that we’re talking in.

Image credits: SXSW Eco