5 ways to get real-world IMPACT from a Hackathon



Author: Will Needham Published on: October 7, 2019

I am writing this post in the hope that it leads to more real-word impact from your Hackathon. I’m passionate about the good that can come from hackathons so I want to share my thoughts on what makes an event impactful. Note: I’ve now attended more than six hackathons in three countries.

I think this is an important post because the number of hackathons is rising year-on-year. Each hackathon requires a lot of effort from both the organisers and the participants. So it’s in everyone’s best interests to make each event as impactful as possible.

Hackers making an impact during a hackathon in Brazil

Firstly, what is an Impactful hackathon?

I’m assuming you are familiar with the hackathon concept. If not, then read the Wikipedia overview here before we begin.

An impactful hackathon is one which can loosely be defined as:

  • Showcases a team’s innovation in the best possible way, to a room containing people that hold enough authority to progress the innovations, if good enough.
  • The participants are provided with enough context about the domain to develop solutions that can be genuinely impactful. This is typically achieved through the support of domain mentors.
  • Team members form meaningful connections that could lead to business relationships.
  • Facilitates an ‘after-care’ package for the teams that show promise to progress from ‘good idea’ to product development and company formation.

So these are some of the aspects that, for me, define an Impactful Hackathon… so how can we maximise our chances of delivering this?

1. Diverse hackathon participants can deliver more impact

Arguably the most important step is to attract a diverse group of problem-solvers that don’t work in the sector you are targeting in the hackathon.

For example, if your hackathon focuses on Built Environment challenges, it would be beneficial to attract participants that don’t work in this sector. Why? Because they will not be constrained by the way things have always been done. This gives you a higher probability of a more impactful solution.

To achieve this, think about using unconventional marketing channels to attract participants. Think outside the box. Don’t use the traditional trade press that people in your industry use.

Branch out to the marketing channels used by other sectors. For example, advertise your Built Environment hackathon on a Finance news website. General events channels such at MeetUp.com and EventBrite are also good for attracting international participants.

Also, design and communicate an inclusive hackathon environment if you want to attract a diverse crowd. For most people, the word ‘hackathon’ conjures up images of young, white programmers eating pizza in a smelly basement for 48 hours. You need to break this stereotype and remove these social barriers to ensure people that may not normally attend such events feel comfortable enough to do so.

STHLM Tech Fest HACKATHON for WOMEN, Source: Najeb Albakar/Invest Stockholm

As an example, think about the environment at this year’s STHLM Tech Fest (Stockholm) where over 800 participants attended an all-female hackathon. There were no ‘all-nighters’. No pizza. And participants were re-assured that no prior experience was necessary to attend. The result of which can be found here.

2. Hackathon mentors are there to guide and challenge towards ideas with the most impact

In my first point, I talked about the importance of attracting a diverse group of participants from different backgrounds. Just as important is having a team of mentors to guide your teams.

At the Garage48 hackathon I recently attended, there were 26 (…yes, 26!) mentors who were experts from academia, startups and industry. Their role was to ensure participants were tackling the right problems, but not dictating a solution. A way of doing this is to tell the participants what the destination (i.e. desired end state) looks like, but not the journey (how they should get there).

It’s also useful if these mentors have the authority to drag good ideas from the event up through an innovation pipeline, to ensure the good ideas don’t get left at the event. Have a think about which of your mentors can help teams achieve this?

3. Hackathons that last long enough to make an impact

A finer point is to ensure the event lasts long enough for the participants to make meaningful progress on a problem. I’ve experienced some hackathons that are simply too short. As an example, how do you expect for a group of talented individuals to solve a city’s biggest transport challenges in just 12 hours? They are not.

It’s takes participants longer than you might think to even understand the problem that you are describing, let alone to propose a solution to it!

Also, make sure you program the event to allow time for reflection. Time to think about the problem, away from team members and preferably away from the venue. This can be achieved by forcing participants to go home in the evening (as was the case with the HSL Hackathon). Or program side events to take the participants mind of the challenge for at least a couple of hours. At the latest InfraHack (organised by Hack Partners), for example, particpants stayed the night in Bletchley Park and were treated to a tour of the Museum of Computing. It was enough to take you mind of the challenge and come back with a fresh mind.

Day 3 of the Hackathon

At the same time, you don’t want your event to drag on. This is a delicate balance, but from experience I think between 40-48 hours is a good guideline.

4. Make teams practice their pitch

How many times have you seen teams develop a really awesome solution, only to be let down by a failure to communicate their idea clearly and effectively. I personally think short, sharp pitches of 3 to 5 minutes are best.

Pitching, pitching, pitching makes perfect

At the recent Garage48 hackathon, the person giving the pitch was agreed on day one (of three) of the event. Then, they were forced (in a nice way) to give the presentation about 4 times before the actual main presentation at the end of the event.

This meant that there was no awkward “oh… shall I do the live demo now…?”, or "do you want me to talk about this bit?". It benefits everyone. The teams give a better impression of their solution, the jury have a clear understanding of the solution and the audience feel more relaxed!

5. Hackathon prizes that make real-world impact a possibility

Some events give little thought into the prizes that are on offer (if any). Instead of consumerist gadgets, or generic ‘tech’ stuff, think about how your prizes could enable the teams to make the next step on their entrepreneurial journey.

You should think of ‘prizes’ as the stepping stone to greater things. An example of this would be ‘the chance to pitch your idea at an industry conference’. Or 'a place on at a recognised startup incubator program’.

Speak to innovation enablers BEFORE the event. Plan how you can best facilitate the process of getting good ideas from the event into real-world solutions.

Again, at the recent Garage48 event, the prizes were carefully selected:

  • A place on a coveted three-month ClimateLaunchpad accelerator program.
  • Tickets to next year’s World Digital Built Environment conference (Helsinki/ Tallinn) and the chance to pitch your idea to the international conference audience.
  • Tickets to VIP tickets to Latitude 59 conference and the chance to network with industry experts.

These are SO much more impactful prizes than a techy gadget that will just end up on a scrap heap someday.

Do you agree?

That’s my thoughts, but you might have different. Let me know if you know of any more ideas to create real-world impact from your hackathon, through the comments section or through LinkedIn.

Interesting in learning more about my mission with Future Distributed? You can read more about it here.

Future Distributed Newsletter

Get fresh insights from the leading minds in the Built Environment sector. Gathered from around the world, and delivered to your inbox.

Future Distributed is the global knowledge-sharing platform on a mission to transition the Built Environment sector, so that it supports thriving citizens and a thriving planet. Read more here.