We’re a week away from the deadline for the Smart Oxford Challenge and I was asked if this was a hackathon. That expression and the format it has come to represent gives me the heeby-jeebies so I wanted to share why, and what makes the Challenge different. This is coming from ten years of organising events around the internet of things (up to 60 attendees on average) as well as being a producer for the Mozilla Festival during it’s first 2 years in London (600-800 attendees).
What is a hackathon?
Generally speaking this is the format of a “classic” hackathon (obviously there are variations):
- A company sets a theme
- Developers are invited to take a day or two (often on a weekend) of their time to address that theme and build prototypes
- Pizza is dished out
- A judging panel arrives at the end of the event and teams pitch
- There may be a prize at the end of it for the “winner”
What’s good about this?
- This might give developers some dedicated time to work on something they’ve been interested in and not had the time to work on because of other work commitments.
- This acts as an easy networking opportunity for developers.
- On a good day, they may take the work they’ve done during the hackathon and quit their day job and work the idea into a company.
What’s wrong with this?
- The theme is there because the business has a problem it could probably address by hiring a small number of the right experts.
- If the problem is artificial, then it’s a marketing exercise. As long as its clear to attendees and the business that’s fine, but it’s rarely clear.
- Developers are highly paid professionals who care about the work they do. Asking them to spend unpaid time on someone else’s problem is hard especially if the event is on the weekend and they have a family. This may work if they are young and looking for freelance work but the good freelance developers I know would run a mile.
- There isn’t usually a clear IP situation. Who owns the work done? If this isn’t clear you can be sure that the best idea will not be developed on the day and will be squirrelled away by the developer to work on independently.
- The food is terrible, and usually doesn’t cater to allergies and intolerances. This puts everyone in a bad mood. Productivity and happiness will always be affected by food, unless you’re on Soylent (barf).
- Offering a prize is tacky and problematic if it’s a low cash prize or an iPad. It’s a weak symbol of your appreciation. If anything, something more interesting (box tickets for a sports event or a trip somewhere) would go a long way.
So how do you do this differently?
There are in my experience two routes to the development of good ideas by smart people: pay smart people to look at what you’re doing and tell you what they think / build alternatives or support smart people in developing their existing ideas.
1. Pay smart people to look at what you’re doing and tell you what they think
No this isn’t about getting a management consultant in. This is about exposing a small but diverse group of people (less than 15 ideally) to what you’re doing as a business and work in teams (2-3 no more) to work out better ways of doing it. The duration of the exercise depends what kinds of results you want. The higher the resolution of the response (functional prototypes etc), the more time and materials you’ll need. I wouldn’t push beyond a week though. They’ll have other things to do with their time :) But everyone is paid and happy to be there and they meet and work with people they’ve not worked with before. This group of people can come outside the business or all over your business. As long as they are all coming at the problem from different spaces this will work. I’ve worked like this with clients like EDF, American Express and the British Standards Institute.
2. Support smart people in developing their existing ideas
There are so many startups who need help at various levels especially when it comes to #iot. I started thinking about how to really help them as I was encountering all sorts of problems with Good Night Lamp and finding it difficult to get expert advice for little money. I started by organising a showcase for British Gas two years ago where over 60 startups were able to show their products to the British Gas venture team and management. There were some cash prizes for the top 3 but that wasn’t really the point. The startups were able to meet others like them who shared similar challenges in the tricky business of energy-based #iot solutions. Last year, I helped the Digital Catapult scope the best ways to help #iot startups and ended up running a pilot event called Boost. Ten experts were invited to offer 30 minute clinics to startups and discuss their problems. We ended the day with nibbles and a showcase. This was a great event but I thought I’d missed a trick.
The Smart Oxford Challenge borrows heavily from that model and will see selected smart cities teams and individuals come and spend time with experts on topics which they have identified and at the end of the day, they will get to meet city officials and pitch their idea. This is really to not only support and help but help champion and open doors for startups. Building a community around what a business does has to be about opening doors over a short period of time (the event is one day) with no strings attached (the event is free and no equity or IP is at play). Only then can it start to understand what are the challenges of startups and how they can help best. And for clients with R&D departments interested in new areas like the internet of things, this is useful model to gauge where your research should lead you if you try to productise it.
This article was first published in the designswarm blog in July 2015.