Hackathons as a Mode of Production

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This past Saturday the READ Alliance team from CKS was at the Google offices in Bangalore, hosting a Hackathon on building apps to develop reading skills for Indian children. We met a group of about 40 developers and some 4 children’s publishers to see how new partnerships and collaborations might be forged between them. It occurred to me then, that this was now a far cry from the kind of work CKS was often doing just four years ago.

CKS was set up as a design and innovation consultancy, which primarily worked in the tech sector, but for social and developmental outcomes. In most cases our clients were technology houses and service companies with lower income and rural consumers. Creative work was about discovering insights through fieldwork and passing these along to product and technical teams. Later on we might come back and see how they had interpreted our schema and take it to users to see what might need to be changed before the product went forward to market.

In a Hackathon all of these venerable modes of product innovation are either collapsed and flattened down into a single day or else short circuited altogether. Knowledge of the field comes directly through experts such as ourselves. Idea generation arises through a local competitive market in the interactions between two communities, in this case developers and publishers. Propositions are rapidly generated and evaluated in an open network, which will succeed or fail in an open market — the Google Android or Chrome App Store. Our expertise no longer has to do with a kind of comprehensive understanding, but rather organizing, curating and making possible this kind of temporary community and energizing it so that some spark happens.

How well will such an approach work for solving the intractable challenges of our times? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps this approach works beat to fold one known and recognized template or pattern of doing things upon another. In this the analogue upon to the digital. Perhaps there are further ways for this approach to be deepened and married with the deep contextual insight that used to be our prerequisite for creative solutioneering. For the moment it appears we are still coming to terms with this new modality of postindustrial production.

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