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Hack the Block

Hacking is everywhere these days. Pretty much everything gets "hacked". The concept of hacking conjures up images of negative and clandestine activity, designed to infiltrate or break something for some malicious purpose. Indeed, it still has that context when protest groups, criminals (and even governments!) launch cyber attacks on others. But most will have noticed that the principles of hacking are now widely used as a way to create positive things. Still disrupting or dismantling something, but rather than to destroy it, doing that in order to approach it from an alternative angle or use it in a different way to build something new and better. The recent and topical Flood Hack, the slightly more obscure Farm Hack(!) and the thoroughly awesome HackTrain are just three of a vast array of examples of hacking now being used for good - countless examples in almost every context and delivered in numerous different ways.

Tech Town Hack Day

But despite this variety in style and purpose, Hackathons, Hack Days, Co-creation Events, whatever you want to call them (and there are many flavours!) all have somecommon themes and practices which put them into the same broad category. They are all about bringing people together and exploring new things using disruptive methods. New ideas, new products, new solutions, new services... almost anything goes these days. Indeed, early tech-focussed hackathons were some of the the early inspiration behind the original Open Innovation model we developed as GeniUS! York, which essentially incorporates hacking principles as part of a process to tackle city/societal challenges.

At that time, there was much less around in terms of "social" or "service" hacks. Nowadays, "hacking" is becoming more and more part of the everyday parlance of policy makers, service designers and social entrepreneurs. This is a positive movement, and has unlocked a totally different (and often more engaging way) of developing solutions to societal problems. But good old-fashioned tech hacks are still going strong and (in many ways) are also much more accessible than they used to be.

A few weekends back I attended one such event - the "Tech Town" HackDay in Barnsley. This was run as part of the Tech Town project under URBACT, the EU cities collaboration & learning programme. The project brings together 11 city partners from across Europe to work on the challenge of increasing the value of the digital economy in small to medium sized cities, particularly looking at the effects of the digital clusters of nearby, large cities. They are in the early stages, but one of the things they are looking to develop and share is the use of Hack Days to support local digital economies.

What's the point?!

Having spent a lot of time designing an facilitating hack type events, it was great to go back to the other side and be a participant at the Tech Town event. It also led me to consider again the various benefits of Hack Days. In the context of much of my previous work, the tangible outputs from a hack-style event have always been a major focus and an area for challenge from detractors of such processes. What's the point? What use is that idea? That's been done before? What a waste of money on beer and pizza?

Whilst the overwhelming response is normally positive, these are some of the negative comments I've heard over the years in response to a hack day or hackathon.

But the benefits of a hack day are not just limited to what is created on the day and the type of hack day you run very much depends on what you are trying to achieve. The obvious assumption (particularly whenrunning a Hack in a policy or service context) is that thespecific ideas generated are the only purpose oronlything of value which results from the process. The products, ideas, proposals etc. which are created during a hack event are obviouslyimportant, and if they break new ground, solve atangibleproblem, oroffer the potential to create a new market then that is a great achievement. But they are not the only things of value.

Hack Days are very social activities by their nature - people need to interact in order to participate effectively. This is something that marks out positive hacks from traditional (destructive) hacking - the collaborative nature of the activity. They are great for building communities of interest and making connections with those with shared interests and complimentary skills. These connections often lead to future collaborations outside the context of the original hack day. They also create a group who regularly get involved in this type of process, making it slicker and more effective as people become more familiar with the approach and the relative skills and interests of the others. In some cases they can event lead to new start-up business developing an idea or product further and taking it to market.

A lot of people also simply like the process of hacking something with others. Partly because it's enjoyable but also because it allows them to find new skills and use new techniques. I'm always surprised at the amount of value that highly accomplished developers or designers get from the process (e.g. in terms of acquiring new skills or trying out new approaches during a hack). In that respect, the inherent value as a professional development activity is evident.

Hacking for Change

But whilst people enjoy the interaction and excitement within a hack, the process itself can only hold interest for a so long if it doesn't evolve or lead to useful outputs. Repeated participation diminishes the personal gains in this case and only a small number would continue to participate time after time ad infinitum if nothing of value is created as a result of their efforts. So for longer term impact in a particular context, Hacks need to have a wider purpose.

From a city, community or societal point of view, the real potential is in directing hacks towards solving defined and recognised social challenges. There is a real power in bringing a diverse set of people together in this way and can really unlock people's thinking and creativity. It builds strong communities around a particular challenge. This is now becoming more and more recognised, and the last 12 months in particular have seen a marked increase in the number and visibility if hack days and innovation events. The concept of hacking for positive change is now commonplace in many fields (literally, in the case of "Farm Hack"..!)

However, directing hacks towards defined social or business problems is the more challenging version of a hack and is where it becomes more difficult to design and facilitate the event effectively. A Hack Day with a totally open brief is relatively easy to organise and run and therefore a good way for people, organisations or cities to get into using the concept. But setting it up and running it to achieve specific outcomes is much more of a task and one that often can't be achieved in isolation as a one-off event. As an aspiration though, it's very worthwhile and shouldn't be discounted just because it's more challenging. My point here is that, whilst instant, game-changing solutions may be found (never say never - it may happen since surprising things can occur at a hackathon!) one should work up to it and not expect to get ground-breaking new things out of your first hack.

Unfortunately for cities, this type of outcome - a highly tangible, instantly applicable and massively scalable solution - is often the only value that critics of local authorities (and public innovation in general) tend to cite as worthwhile. The community and personal development benefits are often discounted, partly because those aspects are not evident from the outside and critics (in my experience at least) do not actually understand the process or have never actually engaged in a hack event. If significant public resources are to be allocated then value and return on that investment needs to be carefully assessed.

But the key point is that, to achieve lasting change, these type of events must be part of a process. So if anything, the criticism should be levied at those running them in isolation and expecting large and tangible change to result, not at people running a hack process as part of a defined strategy (or just for the personal and community benefits, as mentioned above). But a wider strategy is still the part that is missed all too often. Hacks can be run in isolation and add value, for sure. But a systematic approach and clear strategy is needed to use them to take valuable ideas through to implementation and success in any notable quantity.

Hack To The Future...

Tech Town are looking to create a blueprint for a hack day as part of their project - to enable others to try out and (hopefully) adopt the concept to do all some or all of the above. Creativity and new ways of operating are already crucial to the success of cities and towns and will continue to be so. Hack Days are a great way to help harness that power and use it on the things that matter. They are only one piece of the puzzle, but an important one. Running such events helps them to become better understood ways and provides a (more) robust evidence base for using them as a method for change. Those who wish to use them as part of their change journey need to do just that - use them, but as part of their approach. As part of a clear framework for innovating and aligned with their overall strategy. With that in place, great things are possible and the humble hack day will help unlock that potential.

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