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Pure possibility: The promise and perils of ‘hackathons for good’

Not so long ago, it might have been surprising to see terms like 'global hunger' or 'gender inequality' in the same sentence as that favourite Californian neologism 'hackathon'.  Today it is increasingly common.

Organisations as diverse as MIT, the UNDP and USAID have all used hackathons to try to develop solutions to development challenges. I recently returned from a brief trip to Oure, Denmark, where I was assisting facilitation as a visiting ‘expert’ at the first ever edition of the UNLEASH Innovation Lab.

Supported by partners including Dahlberg, Deloitte, Microsoft and the Carlsberg Foundation, UNLEASH is a grand experiment in applying both a venture capital and a hackathon approach to the thorny problems of international development. The 2017 edition brought together 1000 'talents' from 129 countries to work on innovative solutions for a range of UN Sustainable Development Goals, from ending hunger to ensuring good health and quality education for all.  

Wherein, then, lies the power and appeal of the hackathon model? The short answer usually given will often be something about bringing 'the right people together' and 'letting the magic happen'

This kind of explanation is both highly insightful and incomplete. Highly insightful –  if unwittingly so – because there is indeed something 'magical', or at least transcendental, about the way that new ideas emerge from disparate groups of people at a hackathon. Incomplete, because perhaps this magic does not so much result from who is around the table, as from how they come around it.

If we want to understand the power of hackathons, we need to first appreciate that that they are more than rational gatherings of talented individuals entering into mutually beneficial collaboration. They are also highly symbolic, even ritual events, in which participants have the experience of becoming more than the sum of their parts. The hackathon represents an interesting example of what many social scientists and literary critics - influenced by the work of the great anthropologist Victor Turner - have described as a liminal space.

The concept of liminality, (from the latin limen, or threshold), was taken up by Turner to make sense of the coming-of-age initiation rituals he observed during his field-studies in 1950s Zambia. Such rituals often followed a three-part structure. In the first 'preliminal' phase, participants enact a ‘break’ with routine and leave their everyday world behind. In the second 'liminal phase', participants go through a process of transition and transformation. In the final 'postliminal' phase, participants are reincorporated into society and everyday life with their new identity.

An important place in Turner’s work is occupied by the analysis of the liminal phase. As he observes in a famous essay, the liminal phase frequently involves transgression, and a state of what Turner calls communitas, “an intense comradeship and egalitarianism…[where] secular distinctions of rank and status disappear or are homogenized.”  It is “a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise.”

While Turner initially applied the concept of liminality to ‘traditional’ rituals, he later grew interested in the moments of liminality which seem to be present and important in all societies. Other scholars have drawn on the concept to interpret a wide range of ‘ritual events’, from the Rio carnival to Glastonbury.

The average hackathon, while certainly playful, may not quite reach the levels of carefree abandon associated with Glastonbury or Rio

What hackathons do share with these great bacchanalian events, however, is liminality as a defining feature. The hackathon represents a break with routine, a retreat from either the luxurious well-trod corridors of power, or international diplomacy, or the gruelling frontline of development practice.

In contrast to the formal UN gatherings, which an international hackathon may superficially recall, the international development hackathon is decidedly a space of communitas. Participants wear casual clothes and alternate intense planning sessions with songs and games; status distinctions related to nationality, educational background and employment status momentarily disappear.  (And these distinctions can sometimes be considerable; at UNLEASH, ‘talents’ ranged from a confident, cosmopolitan New York-based film director to a young Burundian national currently living in a refugee camp).

Just as in the initiation ceremonies studied by Turner, the experience of communitas is a kind of collective effervescence, the experience of becoming part of a great whole. The participants of the hackathon become something greater than the sum of their parts when they come up with new ideas to problems, which hitherto appeared intractable. While the corridors of power and the frontline of development practice are spaces where repeated failures make everything seem impossible, the liminal space of the hackathon is, by contrast, a place where everything seems possible. Like Turner’s liminal phase, the hackathon is a “realm of pure possibility”.

And the power of the hackathon lies precisely in this sense of possibility. Of course, this great strength can also be a weakness. There is, afterall, the question of what happens when the liminal phase comes to an end? The state of pure possibility is dangerous if ideas are pursued without any sense of the constraints and imperfections of the imperfect real world that lies beyond.

However, a keen awareness of these dangers should not blind us to the genuine ritual power the hackathon embodies. To borrow Gramsci’s famous line, the aspiring development innovator needs to combine pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will

The promise of the hackathon - that agency can triumph over structure, possibility over inertia- is one that holds great appeal to a number of influential stakeholders. It seems likely that we will see this method applied to an ever-greater number of social challenges.

Given this, it would seem like a good idea to experiment with the formats and methods employed at such events, so as to incorporate a keener and more sophisticated awareness of the constraints – and also priorities – that exist and are held in the “world out there”.

Currently, this is often addressed through the methodological insistence on “starting with the problem” – often with mixed results, as participants are frequently rather more passionate and expert in the field of solutions. It is surely worth exploring other creative ways of incorporating a deeper understanding of problems, needs and priorities into the innovation process, without extinguishing the precious flame of possibility which promises - just possibly - to make the world a better place.


Isaac Stanley

Isaac Stanley

Isaac Stanley

Researcher, Inclusive Innovation

Isaac is a Researcher in the Inclusive Innovation team at Nesta

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