The Evolution Of The Hackathon – Part II

What do you do when innovation is the goal, but the tool purported to achieve this goal – the hackathon – seems to be more successful at creating solutions in search of a problem?

As described in a previous post, hackathons have traditionally been the domain of computer science and software engineering students. Unfortunately, this combined with a lack of guidance, learning outcomes, and proper tools led, in my opinion, to the development of tech for the sake of tech solutions; shiny apps with little substance; solutions in search of a problem.

In some cases, students failed to consider whether or not their solutions were needed or if they would be used by their intended audience. In other cases, the solutions were created using assumptions made by the team that were almost never tested or investigated. The result was tech solutions for poorly described problems (or non-problems) where tech solutions weren’t necessarily required or needed.

To address these issues, we looked to increase the diversity of the disciplines involved in the hackathons that were organized at the University of Guelph. We also shifted the role of our community partners to more fully integrate them into the process.

Diversity Of Knowledge

Our first experiment with diversity began with the NetZero Hackathon. Recognizing that computer science and software engineering students needed to consider the marketability and feasibility of any given solution as well as pitch it to a panel of judges, it seemed natural to purposely recruit business students into the mix. To be honest, this was probably the easiest change to implement within the traditional hackathon structure as it required almost no additional resources (save for advertising to another group of students).

The resulting solutions from the NetZero Hackathon were more thoughtful, and better presented than those that came before it. Students had verified the need/demand for whatever it was they wanted to develop, and better convinced audiences and judges alike as to why their solution was better than the competition.

Team Cozy - winner of the grand prize at #FoodHack14
Team Cozy – winner of the grand prize at #FoodHack14

Following the success of the NetZero Hackathon, a decision was made to increase diversity even further. With the launch of the Feeding 9 Billion Challenge (initially called the Food Waste Hackathon), we opened up the event to all students on campus (any year level, any discipline), and required that teams had representation from at least two different colleges. This latter point was to ensure the mixing of, for example, philosophy students with software engineers, or visual arts students with environmental sciences students.

While this was a huge leap from simply adding one new discipline to the mix of students taking part in a hackathon, and a substantial departure from the traditional computer science/software engineering view of hackathons, it seemed like the obvious next step for us.

The results of this experiment have been (and continue to be) incredible. The depth and thought of solutions grew substantially as soon as we opened up the hackathons to disciplines that weren’t traditionally part of the space. Teams began to explore the problem they identified with more than a single disciplinary lens, and thus were creating solutions that were more robust, and I believe more feasible.

Solutions moved away from (for example) convenience apps to indicate when the next bus might arrive, to solutions aimed at reducing food waste by providing feedback to both cafeteria patrons and the managers responsible for purchase orders and menu design, to the creation of a highly successful on-campus marketing and customer loyalty program to reduce coffee cup waste (which is still used to this day).

The ICON Feeding 9 Billion Challenge Weekend
The ICON Feeding 9 Billion Challenge Weekend

That is, a diverse set of students allowed the narrow tech for tech sake solutions approach to grow to include a more diverse set of outcomes: educational programs and events, marketing campaigns, policy development, and more. And importantly, as silos were pulled apart, we saw students from very different disciplines beginning to see the power of other ways of understanding the world.

Today, each of the events we organize are open to all students. More than that, we actively work to recruit students from as many areas on campus as possible.

But we didn’t just consider the diversity of knowledge from the point of view of the students who were participating in the event. To address the case where students were developing solutions without fully understanding the problem, we looked to our community partners for help.

Community Partners

At the same time as the diversity of students participating in our hackathons grew, the hackathon themes began to shift to focus on broad social issues (e.g. sustainability, food waste, food security, etc.). With this came a realization and a responsibility to ensure students were developing solutions that mattered. And the only way to accomplish this was to increase the involvement of community partners.

For us, this meant looking beyond the traditional industry partner, and seeking out the expertise of government agencies, not-for-profits, and charitable organizations. It also meant experimenting with how the community partner would be involved.

Traditionally, community partners would provide event sponsorship for a hackathon. And often this funding would come with any number of reasonable conditions: the community partner would be given time to present a keynote to frame their challenge; they might provide expertise to chat with teams throughout the event; or they might judge the final pitches. But for the most part, the community partner was not an active participant in the development of a solution.

But this level of involvement wasn’t sufficient for us, because it was simply too shallow to address, in particular, the broad social challenges that our community partners had.

Take for example the GuelphHacks for Mental Health hackathon. Having a keynote speaker to frame the issue of mental health on campus, while important, would have been insufficient and negligent on its own. Mental health is too broad a topic, too nuanced to be described in any complete way in a single keynote presentation.

Students from across campus working with the Co-operators at the 2019 Improve Life Challenge

Instead, we opted to invite experts from the community – those with lived experience, practitioners from Student Health Services, experts from Student Life and the Canadian Mental Health Association, counsellors, and more – to take part in the event as domain experts. They met with teams to better understand and focus their problems, to explore and critique potential solutions, and to provide guidance and resources where necessary – all with a goal of developing stronger, more robust solutions.

But that too wasn’t enough. As our events evolved and students had more contact with the expertise of our community, it seemed to us that their solutions became that much better. What else could we do?

A few years ago we decided to experiment again. In this case, we decided to explore the case of fully integrated community partners. Specifically, we purposefully designed the Improve Life Challenge such that our community partners have become active members of the student teams; four or five students from different disciplines partnered up with one or two members from the community partner organizations. And every member of the teams go through the same process, the same activities that have been developed to foster and support an interdisciplinary innovation process.

In this way, each student and community partner team is armed with an array of disciplinary knowledge, lived experience, and domain expertise.

But we don’t just stop there. Where once the community partner might float between teams to offer guidance, to challenge ideas, and to provide resources or advice, we now include community geniuses and event facilitators to work with the student-community partner teams. To that end, our most recent Improve Life Challenge included upwards of 48 facilitators, geniuses, and community partners working with 44 students.

Yes, this means there are more resources required, and the organizational demands have gone up, but the outputs have been far more meaningful to the community partners because they are fully integrated in the same process that the students go through. The solutions that are proposed are better informed. They are also targeted in such a way as to provide the type and level of impact the community partner intends to achieve, while also being aligned with the community partner’s visions and resources.

The benefits to the students extend beyond an experiential learning experience. They are exposed to design thinking, and systems level approaches to challenges. They get to work with community – sometimes for the first times in their university experience. They get to experience other ways of understanding the world. And they get to develop and practice foundational, design thinking, and interdisciplinary skills.

But more on that in the next post.

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