The ‘hackathon’ is a cultural phenomenon. It is an event in which over a focused and intense period of collaboration, usually a 24-hour period or a weekend, small teams from diverse backgrounds come together to explore ideas from concept to prototype.
A ‘hackathon’ is an event in which over a focused and intense period of collaboration, usually a 24-hour period or a weekend, small teams from diverse backgrounds come together to explore ideas and create projects from initial concept to prototype. Typically these events are known for software design projects, but they can be applied to almost any collaborative endeavor in any domain. New events have cropped up dealing with science, art, design, food, energy, sustainability, climate change, urban planning and civic and social services. Software development remains the core focus for many hackathons, because it provides an accessible framework and common set of tools for people to quickly coordinate around and it supports a wide array of possible solutions. Hackathons are held in many places around the world, but the popularity and diversity of these events tends to be high in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This is unsurprising as Silicon Valley is often synonymous with technology innovation, but one might argue that hackathons, because they assemble and recombine a diverse pool of talent and skills, are drivers of this innovation. Plenty of new, entrepreneurial start-ups emerge from these events, and Fred Turner, a journalism professor at Stanford, chronicled the relationship of hackathon-like-situations to innovation in his 2006 book ‘From Counterculture to Cyberculture’.
Hackathons create a platform for people to express their ideas and space for collaboration. They can also rekindle that sense of creativity and possibility that’s needed to build confidence. They provide a forum and a way for people who do not share the same discipline, skillset, goals or interests, to intermingle, work with each other and to create something new. Hackathons recreate one of the most significant opportunities in interdisciplinary work: finding new ways for diverse people to come together and cooperate to find solutions to imperfectly defined, yet focused, challenges. They may not solve a problem like climate change, but they can create a platform for gaining the experience with the skills that might be needed to solve it.
“Perfect is the enemy of good.”
The ethos of the event is, in some respects, to avoid perfection. The goal is not to deliver a fully formed product, but something that will demonstrate an idea, to pique interest and illustrate potential directions. Although there is a shared deadline and there may even be a prize involved, the experience isn’t a high stakes one, and everyone recognizes this. This contributes to a more inviting atmosphere where attendees can collaborate, exchange skills, find solutions and learn from one another.
Foundational to the appeal of hackathons is that it provides a safe place to fail. Even if the end result is unsuccessful, participants get exposed to new approaches for creative problem solving, new ways of working, and new opportunities to learn from one another. By working together in a very intensive setting in close proximity to one another, participants pick up ‘passive’ knowledge and develop skills that might be harder to learn on one’s own in other contexts.
In this way, hackathons provide an impressive space for informal applied learning which is helping to grow a new economy of skills. It fosters the ability to cross disciplines, to integrate with people with very different skills, and to ideate on common interests quickly.
While many hackathon outcomes don’t get developed beyond the event, the culture is something that can percolate beyond the experience. The tightly coupled, closely collaborating, and highly-focused teams helps create a sense of agility, something that is being adopted more and more in organizations and smaller startups.
This agility is supported both by new platforms for open and distributed collaboration. Code sharing platforms like Github and BitBucket enable a collaborative coding experience where individuals can share development effort, extend the work of someone else, or recombine projects to achieve something new. The City of San Francisco even uploaded its Municipal Code to make sharing its local laws and regulations more accessible, open, and (potentially) reconfigurable. Within these platforms, anyone can create or modify the basic content. It also means people’s roles on projects can change over time, dynamically to reflect interest and investment of the community. Project development is a then process of contribution and co-creation, making it far less linear.
This kind of community development is not just for open source projects. It is also integral to dynamic organizations like Mozilla, which produces the Firefox web browser. As a company and in advocating for open and standardized web technologies, they have deliberately decided to become highly permeable by creating free access for anyone to use or enhance the code of their products or even become a member of the organization. In doing this, they’ve created a dynamic structure for their organization where anyone can potentially become a valuable member and contribute to its success.
These new modes of collaborative, agile and recombinant work practices reflect the combinatorial creativity of the hackathon as a platform for building and making culture itself. It is reflected in the new ability to contribute meaningfully to project in very short spaces of time. It is reflected in the emerging permeability of participation found within big companies and in the tightly-knit teams of newer startups. The hackathon, when designed with inclusiveness and diversity as part of its core values, can create a broadening environment that fosters innovation and creativity but also new modes of collaborative participation.
Hackathon Meetups - http://www.meetup.com/find/events/?keywords=hackathon
Fred Turner (2006) From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006) - http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/F/bo3773600.html
Participant-Driven Events https://aspirationtech.org/files/AspirationCreatingParticipatoryEvents.pdf
Hack Day Manifesto (on Github) http://hackdaymanifesto.com/
Running an Inclusive Hackathon https://medium.com/hackers-and-hacking/630f3f2e5e71
Image and Meaning: an art-science series of workshop/hackathons http://www.imageandmeaning.org/regshop2007.htm
San Francisco’s Municipal Code on Github: https://github.com/SFMOCI/openlaw