In October 2015 THE Port hosted its second humanitarian hackathon and mobilised technologists and entrepreneurs from the CERN and the Geneva region to develop solutions to pressing humanitarian challenges. In its first edition, in November 2014, one of the solutions identified was a new generation of body bags, which is now being developed into a prototype by Social Solutions Research Association (SSRA) and the ICRC.
ICRC will also be hosting its own hackathon in Bangalore this November, called the ‘Enable Makeathon’, focusing on the needs of people with disabilities in rural areas. We asked Steffen Raetzer from SSRA, and Andrina Beuggert from ICRC’s Innovation Initiative, their views on hackathons and how they can best be leveraged to develop solutions to humanitarian challenges.
Steffen, you have participated as a hacker and professionally work with driving innovation. Can you quickly run us through the hackathon process and explain the rationale behind cramming people of diverse disciplines into a confined space for a condensed period of time?
THE Port Hackathon was my first hackathon. I have been working with different approaches to innovation and was curious to experience this format. Essentially, a Hackathon brings together a diverse team for a very limited period of time to develop an improvement (“Hack”) to a problem. Given the limited period of time and the need for very practical solutions, the teams have to move fast. And given the diverse backgrounds of the participants, the stage is set for many unique approaches to solve the one challenge. It is a very energy-packed period with a lot of emotions as teams find their way to a solution and to working with each other. And at the end, you look in amazement at what can be achieved in three days.
While hackathons are recognized as a means of generating creative energy and new ideas, one of the common shortcomings is that ideas generated are rarely translated into actual products. What is your experience with this and what are some of the key steps to mitigate this risk?
Making the transition from a fun weekend to a commercial operation is tough. Many ideas and teams do not make it through this transition. In my experience there are two big topics that need to be addressed to maximize the chances of success.
Firstly, finding and maintaining a committed and engaged team. It is for me the number one success factor. It is these engaged and committed teams that will develop and nurture the ideas into actual products and services.
Today, Hackathons, in many ways, work as designed. They are meant as short creative bursts. So, for many participants, a Hackathon is a break in the routine. It is fun, it is different, it is lively and participants can make a positive contribution. However, most participants don’t look for an idea to start a business. The transition to a commercial operation is a challenge that many participants simply have not signed up for. This needs to be considered already when assembling the teams, if sustainable products and services are the objective. Or a professional team needs to be ready to take over the process.
Secondly, critical resources need to be made available quickly after the event to keep the momentum. The teams are usually not able to address the resource topic, as they often don’t even know each other before the event. As a result, outside support is imperative to provide funding and other required resources.
In the case of our Better Body Bags project, it turns out that we were able to manage both issues. Our team configuration worked and remained stable after the hackathon. Today, we are organised as an active association that supports humanitarian organisations to tackle technical challenges. In addition, we received immense support from so many sides, including the ICRC, THE Port and CERN. This enabled the team to move the project forward. Our reward is that we can see our idea come to life. Furthermore, we get work with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and their staff, which is definitely a bonus.
In your opinion, what have been some of the advantages and challenges of partnering with an organization such as ICRC for a hackathon?
For me personally, working with the ICRC is an amazing experience. The ICRC is recognized for making so many unique contributions to the world. I have great admiration for the complexity and challenges that the Red Cross faces and resolves every day. Every person I spoke to at the Red Cross is passionate about the work he or she is doing. I find it very motivating to work with such a highly dedicated group of people towards a common goal, creating real impact on the lives of so many.
As you can imagine, both sides had to learn how to work with each other to make the Better Body Bag happen. We are two very different organisations. On the one side a highly diversified, professional, international organization. On the other side a young association of committed individuals that have just come up with an outrageous idea that might just work. I understand that working with us is an experiment for the ICRC. I am happy that we are making it work.
Andrina, one gets the impression hackathons are being held in Bangalore every other day, how is the ICRC’s hackathon different? And why hold it in Bangalore?
We have expanded the hackathon to a 60-day programme which allows maker teams to immerse deeply in the challenges, engage with the users and get sustained support and mentoring on business, design and technology. Companies, manufacturers and investors will be part of the process to ensure that the prototypes meet their interests and can be further developed into market products.
India unites the ingenuity of frugal innovation with a brimming ecosystem of entrepreneurs, engineers and investors. And Bangalore, as the start-up capital of India, is one of the many ideal locations in the country. Participation in the Makeathon is however open to anyone anywhere in the world, particularly through our Online Track.
Why is the focus on developing market-based solutions important for a non-profit organization such as the ICRC?
The ICRC wants to ensure that there are appropriate, affordable and accessible products and services for people in conflict regions and other situations of violence. Whereas the ICRC will always provide support to those in need directly, creating a market where people can access these products themselves enables the outcomes to have a much bigger impact.
As such, the Enable Makeathon is an ambitious endeavour to spur the market of affordable assistive devices for the global south and conflict regions. Market-based means that the solutions are driven and sustained by a demand, which will in turn incentivise producers to make and distribute these products.
Individuals will not be the only customers of such new solutions. Not-for-profit organizations or governments may equally purchase, distribute or re-sell the new products.
We are only just exploring the potential of crowdsourcing and market-based solutions. While it remains an experiment we are convinced that the time is right: Individuals around the world are keen to contribute solutions to humanitarian challenges.