Why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation went to SXSW

I was invited to represent the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) on a panel at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year, so I made my first journey to the popular Austin, Texas, festival to talk about our Foundation’s vision of building a Culture of Health in America.

What does that mean? Well, that all policy and business decisions should include consideration of the impact on health. It means that everything we know about the art and science of influence be applied to making the healthy choice the easy choice. And it means that all Americans, no matter who they are or where they live, have an equal opportunity to lead healthier lives. It’s a bold goal, and it follows that we need bold new approaches to reach this goal.

So how does a music, film, and interactive conference help us get there?  We recognize that, in order to build a Culture of Health for everyone, we must anticipate the future, and be willing to experiment with unconventional ideas. We need fresh eyes and perspectives on challenges we have been studying for a long time. We need help identifying emerging trends that we don’t always see.

To this end, RWJF is always exploring—and sharing—innovative ideas. We share what our grantees are learning (not just at the end of projects but in early stages, too) through our Culture of Health blog, and through podcasts. On social media, we curate news and insights that point to potential solutions to some of the most entrenched problems in health and health care. We invite cutting-edge thinkers from a range of fields to visit us in our Princeton, NJ offices for salon-style discussions that challenge assumptions and stretch our imaginations. And often we get out of our offices, out from behind our phones and screens, and attend events like SXSW.

SXSW was the perfect place to expose myself to cutting-edge ideas that could be applied to improve health. I saw presentations by so many smart, creative people doing mind-blowing work in fields like virtual reality and brain-boosting neuroceuticals. Some of the richest learning occurred outside of the sessions, through conversations I had in line for breakfast tacos and shuttle rides and with attendees who reached out to me via social media. These serendipitous discussions with next wave thinkers exposed me to unconventional ideas and perspectives with rich applications for building a Culture of Health. They also gave me the opportunity to get some passionate, diverse innovators excited about the RWJF mission.

As our president, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, wrote in her annual president’s letter, the Foundation’s staff must learn what a Culture of Health means to others – because true culture change will emerge only from the input and innovation of many. Fundamentally, events like SXSW are a huge opportunity to listen.