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Beyond the single act of creation

By Bas Baccarne on Feb 15, 2016


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"A critical reflection on the sustainability of hackathons"

Hackathons are emerging worldwide as a new, grassroots interaction model to innovate with end-users or citizens. Whether they are called hackathons, hack days, codefests or makathons, a wide variety of organizations organize such events to attract (highly) skilled volunteers to work with their data, technology or to solve specific issues by means of technological solutions. While the origins of this phenomenon are to be found in the open source community, this innovation strategy is now widely adopted by corporate organizations, public service organizations, NGOs and governments alike to tackle the often complicated challenges they are facing.

Today, ‘hacking’ and ‘making’ are increasingly inroads to a more diverse range of activities, industries, and groups. The emergence of the hackathon format has led to an evolution from an underground phenomenon, to a mainstream playground, with a high empowering potential. This way, individuals and groups gain control over the production of technological artifacts which influence and shape the way they interact with their environment. Hackathons also connect like-minded people and foster a sense of common creation for a greater good, or for creative and fun purposes. As such, hackathons can also be considered as creative barrels which create space for crazy and inspiring forms of art. Either way, hackathons provide opportunities to create and to shape technology, thus contributing to the co-creation of a common socio-technical future.

However, the convergence between a grassroots, distributed, community driven phenomenon and the organizational, procedural and goal-driven nature of innovation development processes faces several challenges. To start discussing these challenges, it is interesting to compare both domains from a theoretical background. A first line of research considers hackathons from a socio-technical viewpoint, similar to the study of free and open-source software (FOSS), focusing on their communal, democratic and cultural aspects. Such ‘civic hackathons’ are often instigated by governments or public institutions and foster synergies between (governmental) open data and actors that have the potential to use the data for developing new applications, services or products. Such “civic hackathons” are community-driven events which gather entrepreneurs, software developers, policy-makers, local journalists, educators, members of the arts community, or others representing certain areas of need or focus, working together to produce a material response to a social challenge faced in particular geographic communities. A second line of research, on the other hand, studies hackathons from an innovation management perspective. From this point of view, hackers and hacking (previously nominated as rebellious activities in the digital world) were initially considered harmful, threatening and villainous by technology developing organizations. However, these ‘electronic disobedient neo-tribes’ (Taylor, 2005) are increasingly considered as an interesting source for innovation. In line with open innovation strategies for new product development, this line of research frames hacking activities as a process to obtain knowledge that can be applied in the innovation development process of the organization. This organization-centric approach focusses on controlled openness, knowledge transfers and the managerial application of the hackathon format as a toolkit for user innovation.

While academic reflections can sometimes be rather theoretical, these insights nevertheless help to frame and understand several of the challenges which hackathons and related formats are facing. Open data and (civic) hackathons often promise the generation of creative, innovative, maybe even disruptive, collaborative solutions that enhance several interfaces in the (urban) environment, thereby solving small and large societal issues. In practice, however, the output often lacks sustainability. This is an intriguing area of discussion which can be approached from both an entrepreneurial and a structural point of view.

In assessing this problem, several dimensions need to be taken into account. First of all, it is important to understand and acknowledge differences between different kinds of hackathons. Some events are truly grassroots, some are firm-centric, some are working with students, some are not even involving actual coding, some are focused on incubation, others on ideation, etcetera. This is closely related to individual motivations of both participants and organizers. Very often problems with a (perceived) lack of sustainably are due to a misalignment of such personal gratifications and goals. A second reflection concerns the assessment of ‘added value’, which need to be made at different levels. Indeed, hackathons often produce merely ‘nice demo’s’ or cool ideas. Nevertheless, the added value must not only be discussed at this ‘micro’ level. By inviting a wide variety of stakeholders and collaborating on technological solutions, some higher level change and value production can occur (often long term). This involves ecosystem activation (enhancing social capital), reproducible artifact creation, learning through experimentation, knowledge transfers, cultural/societal changes, etcetera. However, in order to fully harness this potential it is important to not only assess this (probably less tangible) value of hackathons, but also to formalize this in a broader framework (more in line with innovation management thinking) to both retain knowledge, artifacts, social capital and enabling technology, as well as to incubate and potentially internalize some of the ‘seeds’ that are planted on a hackathon. Empowerment and collaboration does not end with a single act of creation. An isolated event does not provide you with the solutions you need. It is insufficient to harness the (too often overpromised) potential of open data, of the ecosystem of (city) stakeholders, of grassroots, civic entrepreneurship. If we truly want to co-create a common socio-technical future, both research and practice need to look beyond the individual hackathon event to frame, understand and manage the sustainability of the crazy, often quite awesome hackathon outcomes.

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written by Bas Baccarne
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