Hack and Co-design Events

Harnessing the collective intelligence of crowds can take many forms, and a common version in the tech community is the gathering where people come together to put together potential solutions. This can take many forms, from ‘jams’ in the design community, to the co-design and hack events that we’ll talk about here.

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There is more to this than bringing the right people together. There are the goals of the event. What should the outcome be for the event? How should the event be facilitated? What’s the schedule for the event? The organisers also need to consider where and when the event will be held, as well as how the event should be funded, and if food and other refreshments are to be provided. Then there’s the recruiting participants, and then deciding at various times whether you have/don’t have enough people signed up and what you might do about that to recruit more attendees. Then even when the event has started the issues don’t stop as you need to manage contingencies on the go if people don’t turn up, or the heating disappears for your February event in a cold, snowy climate. Organising events is a non-stop rollercoaster of thrills and spills.

Hackathons, co-design events, what’s the difference?

If this is a collection of whoever comes, then this is a hackathon, or hack event. This generally leads to similar participants on the teams with little diversity. Sometimes these are run for computing students by other computing students with prizes provided by industry as a way to engage students. Sometimes it’s a group exploring what’s possible with the given tech.

If there is consideration given to ensuring a diverse balance between stakeholders (people from organisations involved, and the people who will use the system), who can help define and clarify the challenges, and the community of designers, developers, and tech folks, who are wanting to help prototype solutions, then this is a co-design event. At CodeTheCity we strive to ensure we organise and facilitate co-design events, as we’ll explain below, because these provide a better outcome for everyone.

At a hackathon ideas are proposed and solutions thrown together by the developers based on their assumptions, and interests. This often ignores the human element of the challenge, and the resulting hack remains unvalidated by the community, which is supposed to use this potential solution. Often this looks like ‘a database to gather all local events so you always know what’s going on’. The team then spend lots of time detailing the structure of the database, and the library to use for the interface. This ignores the main social challenges with this potential solution: How will people know it’s there? Who will put new things in, and update changes? Who will weed out incorrect, or duplicate information? More importantly perhaps, this ignores whether this is the challenge facing people trying to work out what to do this coming weekend. It might be a solution looking for a problem. It might be a solution to the wrong challenge as it hasn’t been validated by the people who are proposing the challenge.

Hack events can be fun and exciting, but doesn’t usually lead to solutions that live beyond the event. We have done these for fun as we sought to balance our serious events with more light-hearted ones at Christmas time where people brought their own challenges for the weekend, or we explored a new type of technology such as chatbots. The results have all sat there unused, unless it was a hack started by someone before the event.

A CTC Workshop
CTC Workshop

We use the phrase co-design to express the idea that it is a collective, or communal process to design a potential solution to a specific challenge offered by the stakeholders. We want to include most of the relevant stakeholders in seeking to develop a solution on how we might address their challenge. We want to validate our assumptions about the challenge posed by the stakeholders as we co-create a solution with our participants. We want to find out how people currently decide what to do at the weekend as a starting point, and build on these ideas to determine what a better solution would include, and then explore a number of different ways in which we might achieve this goal.

Then, and only then, do we start to develop a prototype. We seek to spend more time exploring the challenge space before diving into a potential solution. We give in to our curiosity to explore the challenge more, and to generate a number of possible options, which can be evaluated to see which one offers the ‘best’ potential given what we know at the time. I’ve described this process elsewhere if you want to know more about how to ‘diverge’ and ‘converge’ for creativity.

The goal in all of this is to build potentially workable solutions to challenges so that the stakeholders can see which of the potential options they had is the most viable. A co-design event helps to clarify the unknowns around potential solutions so that knowledge is advanced. Now the stakeholder knows that one idea needs further thought, another could work, and that what looked like it might be a great idea, was really an illusion. All of this for a weekend of food, drink and fun. Not a bad exchange really.

The participants come for other reasons. The have a chance to work on real challenges with new people. They have an opportunity to stretch their abilities and gain new skills. The food and drink are nice, but they’re not the real reason people come. They come to see friends, make new ones, and to help make the world a better place thanks to their hard work over a weekend.

As organisers we enjoy helping facilitate the finding of solutions to the challenges brought to our attendees by our stakeholders. We enjoy seeing the diverse group of people come together from developers, designers and our stakeholders. It’s especially pleasing when we see some of these apps and ideas making their way into the world. We also enjoy seeing repeat attendees developing their skills and friendships over time too.

If you think a co-design event would benefit your organisation, or if you are struggling with intractable problems and think that a fresh approach could help, then get in touch via an email to bruce@codethecity.org