Sweden’s tourism and economic development agencies wanted a lively outdoor venue to promote themselves at South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive in Austin last week, above and beyond the Nordic Europe booth located on the trade show floor.

So the Swedish group, along with a small share of other Scandinavian organizations, took over the Waller Creek Boathouse next to Four Seasons Austin and converted it into the Nordic Lighthouse for the 5-day festival. Sweden then branded its specific programming as the Swedish Affair at SXSW 2016.

From a positioning standpoint, the boathouse aligned with Sweden’s active and outdoorsy destination brand image. Second, it provided a large customizable venue for Sweden’s economic agencies, tech startup companies, tourism officials, and trendy bands to engage with American investors, businesses and academic institutions.

This was the first year that Sweden opened an official offsite “SXSW House.” It joined numerous other destination event spaces including: Great Britain House, Japan House, German Haus, Washington DC (WeDC) HouseCasa Mexico and Oslo Lounge.

La French Tech, meanwhile, hosted an ongoing DJ lawn party next to the Austin Convention Center, and Hamburg opened a busy burger joint near the SouthBites food truck and trailer court.

A lot of the big tech companies do the same every year with venues like the Spotify House, Spark Haus by Cisco, and Samsung VR Lounge. The end result of all these houses is the most spontaneous and interdisciplinary range of experiential marketing platforms of any conference in America, if not the world.

In effect, the houses unpackage the SXSW user experience, and the city itself becomes one big interactive convention ecosystem.

The visiting countries pay considerable funds to rent out working restaurants, bars, yoga studios, art galleries, etc., to set up shop for a week in downtown Austin. Inside, they basically create their own mini-conference spaces with stages, A/V, and bars for a full slate of programming including tech presentations, panels, workshops, investor lunches and live concerts.

“Visit Sweden, in cooperation with the Swedish Agency for Economic & Regional Growth, Sweden Foreign Ministry, Swedish Institute, Business Sweden, and many other stakeholders are participating in the Nordic Lighthouse to reach opinion makers with a message that Sweden is innovative, open and creative,” said Lotta Thiringer, director of Visit Sweden. “We’re promoting exports by supporting our startup companies in the SXSW arena, but we’re also looking to attract talent to Sweden because talent is everything today.”

She also noted that the Stockholm Business Development organization reports that Sweden’s capital is home to more “unicorn” tech companies, including Skype and Spotify, than anywhere else after Silicon Valley.

For 2016, however, the Sweden group placed much greater emphasis promoting all of Swedish culture, by highlighting Nordic food, music, film, arts, fashion and gaming. Thiringer said that is equally as important today to attract foreign talent, just as much as Sweden’s homegrown tech economy.

Throughout SXSW Interactive, for example, 13 Swedish bands played on the Lighthouse Stage while the audience engaged with companies like Invest in Skåne and the Swedish Games Industry.

“With the Lighthouse, we are able to bring out the best of the Nordic region and what Swedish culture is all about,” Thiringer said. “It’s a very interactive conference so you need to play along with that and provide your own interactive component.”

Smart City Houses

While virtual reality and robotics were two big themes on the SXSW trade show floor, the destination houses provided extensive programming around smart cities and smart citizens to promote their knowledge industries and tech cultures.

Inside Austin’s popular Lucille honky tonk, German Haus dedicated an entire day to the future of smart cities with researchers from Google, Siemens, Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam, MIT and Daimler participating in a range of panels. One of the most interesting topics focused on how innovative German tech companies are working with Syrian refugees.

Likewise, Fraunhofer FOKUS researchers discussed how media can cover large events in highly connected cities with their HbbTV toolkit, which integrates live blogs and social media content directly into TV shows like “Without Borders – 25th Fall of the Wall.”

Taking over the Brass House bar, Oslo Lounge hung a one-eyed Minion pinata from the ceiling for blindfolded visitors to take a swing at, before participating in various smart city and EdTech discussions. During one, Sascha Haselmayer, CEO of Citymart, explained why Norway needs to invest more in civic tech to remain competitive due to falling oil prices and deindustrialization across Europe.

At Great Britain House, Rosie Haynes, international project officer at the University of Manchester, was helping promote Manchester as The Original Modern City based on its legacy as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. She said that Manchester is well respected in Europe, but it’s a bit of an unknown in the U.S. tech and academic sectors because many Americans still equate England primarily with London.

“We’re the second biggest tech city in Europe after London and we see a lot of growth ahead,” she said. “London prices are getting to the point where they’re stifling creativity, and that’s making it one of the most challenging startup environments in the world.”

We asked Haynes specifically who she was seeking to meet most at SXSW.

“I’m looking for everyone from other research and academic institutions who want to collaborate with our famous researchers, because a lot of international funding now needs international partners to access those funds,” Haynes said. “So this is a great opportunity for us to get in contact with University of Texas or Drexel, for example, or any startups who want to access that knowledge exchange with our universities.”

The Washington, D.C.-operated WeDC House was located inside the Revival Public House directly across the street from the Austin Convention Center. According to New Republic, D.C. spent $375,000 for the 5-day buyout at SXSW last year, which offers some context around the level of investment here in pop-up venues.

The Washington DC Economic Partnership brought nine ambassadors this year from its local tech, media and cultural arts sectors to SXSW, including people like Marissa Jennings, founder of SocialGrlz, who’s building an online publishing platform for young African American females.

Inside the house, there was an ongoing live broadcast booth manned by the Newseum. One panel discussion — “Future Government: Market Creator or Destroyer?” — featured Archana Vemulapalli, chief technology officer of D.C., and Krista Canellakis, deputy innovation officer of San Francisco.

“This is an activation of all things D.C., so we bring our economic partnership community with a focus on bringing businesses to the city,” said Gregory O’Dell, president and CEO of Events DC, which promotes the city to conference organizers. “It also allows us to promote sports and events and film and arts here as well. We want everyone to know that all things are possible in DC, and we’re using this as our official branding experience, and not just a traditional booth, so we can bring all of these activations together in one spot.”

SXSW UX Challenge

Due to the sheer volume of over 3,000 sessions and events just for SXSW Interactive, there’s an insane volume of content to digest just inside the convention center. So for all of the destination houses scattered around the city, each with their own comprehensive programming, there’s a challenge to source information for all of the outside venues.

Japan House, for example, scheduled a stage presentation of next generation robotics with speech recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) to converse with humans and each other. In collaboration with Osaka University and NTT Laboratories in Japan, professor Hiroshi Ishiguro presented: “Autonomous Android: Geminoid HI-4” and “Conversational Robot Group Capable of Highly Natural Conversation: CommU.”

There were only seven people in the seats watching the presentation.

This is high concept programming. Ishiguro’s fourth iteration of his Geminoid AI robot looks eerily like a human, suggesting that Ex Machina might be plausible. Then the CommU presentation showed the tech behind sentient robots that engage in simultaneous group conversation in real time, albeit rudimentarily, for now.

For 2017, SXSW and Eventbase, the developer of the SXSW GO app, should perhaps consider curating the house information in a more easily navigable and indepth user experience.

“All the houses do their own marketing, so we promoted the Nordic Lighthouse in our own channels,” Thiringer told Skift. “I am amazed at what South by Southwest has accomplished, but I think it would benefit the whole conference if they showed what all of the houses were about and what they were doing. I went around to the German and British houses, and there’s so much going on that it would be a nice addition to the conference if they provided a system where we could all upload our programs in one place.”

Photo Credit: Alexander Mankowsky, head of future studies & ideation at Daimler AG, discusses "The Self Driving Car of the Future" at the German Haus at SXSW 2016. Koelnmesse