Social innovation

19/04/2021

Hackathon, the mental marathon to harness innovation

Alternative ideas and solutions to innovate the world

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Hackathon: a marathon of ideas

The need to revisit safety measures to counter the public health emergency triggered a shift of resources and activities from the physical to the digital, and this transition has significantly affected those companies that have always focused on the physical element. Despite this, the capacity to reinvent oneself and reinterpret the surrounding environment has led to important and high impact projects. Hackathons are a prime example as they are characterised by aggregation, participation and direct engagement with other persons. 

An event with follow-on contamination effects thanks to the different experiences and views of its participants

What does the term “hackathon” mean? It is a neologism formed by the merger of two terms: hacking and marathon. The first indicates the ability to find an alternative solution to a problem while the second stands for the short timeline. The word was first used in 1999 when OpenBSD asked ten professional software developers to implement the security standard for its operating system quickly. Since then, hackathons have become a structured event to brainstorm ideas and innovation with a variable time horizon of between one day to a week.

Tools at the service of large organisations

Initially conceived and organised by IT companies, hackathons are now much more transversal and not only involve developers but also specialists from diverse sectors such as marketing, business and design. Hackathons are now a mainstream event used by companies and large organisations to source new talents, stimuli and ideas. They are a valuable tool to vet hard and soft skills in a more in-depth manner than allowed by a traditional interview as well as being authentic innovation incubators. Which is of course particularly valuable to large institutional and non-institutional organisations and the reason why they invest in these events. An example is the Milano Digital Week 2021 promoted by Milan City which includes a hackathon on the circular economy sponsored by the financial company Agos. Ten teams of young innovators will try to reply to Agos’ question: how can Agos enter a circular economy system or contribute to creating one as a partner, using a subscription model?

The variety of the professionals who participate in a hackathon is an incredibly precious element

How is a hackathon organised?

A hackathon usually starts with presentation of the programme and possibly one or more of the issues on the event’s agenda. Once the theme has been presented, the participants pitch their ideas and projects. Depending on how these pitches are received, the participants split up spontaneously into teams which ideally include people with different expertise and backgrounds. The brainstorming session then starts to assemble data and strategies to be used for the interim presentation. The participants work throughout the event while the last few hours are usually dedicated to the presentations of their projects. Many hackathons also include an award ceremony as they are conceived as actual competitions. 

A diverse team is more effective as it combines different expertise.
 

Why is the number of professionals who participate in hackathons growing?

Hackathons are not only useful to companies but can also be a good way for professionals to gain visibility. There are numerous benefits to participating in these immersive events such as: 

-    Improving hard and soft skills. Participants can upskill thanks to the technologies, tools and workshops held by sector experts.
-    Learn without risks. Hackathons are events where people can take part in stimulating projects, try out new approaches and work methods that they would normally avoid due to the related risks. Hackathons are career-risk free and it is easier to be more daring.
-    Going from theory to practical. The participants are involved directly in each stage of the project from its design to completion.
-    Networking. A hackathon is an opportunity to meet and network with professionals from different sectors with differing ideas and viewpoints.
-    Obtain recognition. A hackathon can be a launching pad for participants with innovative projects and ideas whose validity is often acknowledged by awards and certifications. In addition, participation in a hackathon shows a participant’s willingness to get involved and their passion and desire to grow in their sector to future employers. 
 

Participation in a hackathon is a fast and effective way to gain spendable skills
 

Hackathon 4.0 to recover from the pandemic

The current global situation represents a paradoxical situation for hackathons. On the one hand, the limitations imposed by the public health emergency have eliminated the essential characteristics of a hackathon: aggregation, the sharing of ideas, space and viewpoints in a physical traditional teamwork exercise. On the other hand, this crisis has made it necessary to become innovative and discover alternative solutions. Accordingly, hackathons have become digital: over the last year, international hackathons have been held on topics that are of global impact.
In 2020, together with the EU member states, the European Innovation Council organised the EuropeanHackathon (#EuvsVirus) to brainstorm solutions to drive post-Covid-19 recovery. 40 countries participated giving rise to 2,235 partnerships and 120 projects were selected. The event was an extremely efficient tool to counter the unexpected and world-changing challenge that is Covid-19. The winning projects cover a vast range of sectors including health and life , remote work and learning and digital finance. 
 

Open innovation is the backbone of hackathons

The May 2020 event, #Scuolafutura, promoted by the Ministry of Education was the first online hackathon for Italian schools. It lasted 72 hours and involved 27 teams of 250 students who shared their ideas about how to design the physical spaces, relationships and educational programmes to innovate the Italian school system. The hackathon was held online via video conferences and streaming and proposed interesting ideas like Smapp, an app to identify and book public venues for alternative-style lessons or Speak-out, a psychological counselling platform to allow students to talk to experts and teachers.