Rethinking hackathons

Hackathons are special moments of short yet intense activity (i.e., over a weekend). They usually gather technical people, such as software and hardware engineers, who intensely work to find concrete solutions to practical technical problems.

At Open Geneva, we believe that hackathons can serve much more than the resolution of technical problems. They are indeed a perfect place to gather people of different cultural and expertise backgrounds to first identify problems, and then design and develop solutions, which can serve greater social or environmental needs.

While hackathons are often organized by private companies, public administrations or international organizations, as a form of public relation or recruitment event to generate new ideas for future innovations, rethinking hackathons requires to primarily take the perspective of participants: “What’s in it for people?” 

With the University of Geneva, we have studied why people commit to spend unpaid time on projects and what they get out of the hackathon experience. We have found that participants contribute and learn in a very informal knowledge exchange marketplace. Yet, not only do they seamlessly broker intelligence, they also  come with an intrinsic motivation in doing so. In other words, they have pleasure in mobilizing collective intelligence with the expectation of a reward. And participants seem to be encouraged by symbolic awards and recognition, as well as a sense of achievement of a greater good, possibly in relation with a set of local or global challenges, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Although participants are motivated by the greater good, symbolic awards and the pleasure of doing stuff with others, it appears that participants can derive very concrete benefits for their personal and professional life. 

Indeed, participants report how they make concrete use of hackathons down the road. It starts with broadening their scope on problems of special interest to them and building a sense of belonging in a community who share similar preoccupations. Then, some participants have a chance to unleash and expose themselves. As such, they are able to find new professional opportunities by finding a job or even creating a startup with others. Collaborators at large organizations (e.g., private companies and public organizations) also use hackathons as a “no-judgment space” far from their managers, in which they can rethink how their organization should work, often having in mind a better alignment of daily business duties with long-term values that they care about, and which may warrant them an additional sense of purpose at their workplace, and possibly increase productivity.

The world is changing fast. Ensuring the well-being of people through fostering a better sense of purpose has become a key dimension of productivity and attractiveness for organizations. Open Geneva has set rethinking hackathons, as special moments for people to start reclaiming a sustainable future, not only for themselves, but for the organizations they belong to, and for a world facing unprecedented social and environmental challenges.

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