Hackathons: research, idea development and prototyping grow together

Everything you need to know

Hackathons are becoming increasingly popular as a method and opportunity to develop innovative concepts in a short space of time. And in a wide variety of areas. The first major education hackathon, HackingEDU, took place in San Francisco in October 2015. Over 1,000 students from across the US came together to develop innovative, digital solutions in higher education to change and improve the way knowledge is delivered in higher education.

Hackathons are collaborative, often interdisciplinary programming events that aim to develop digital products and prototypes in a short space of time. The effectiveness and low risk associated with this development format mean that hackathons are establishing themselves just as quickly in the non-profit sector as in large companies. The term “hackathon” is a neologism made up of the two words “hacking” and “marathon”: The “hacking” represents the agile and creative use of technology; the “marathon” alludes to the effort that a hackathon demands, as the events usually go on for 24 to 48 or more hours without breaks. The goal is to arrive. Hackathons are often organized outside the companies or organizations that participate in them. The format is an open format that aims to promote the collaboration of heterogeneous skills – outside the restrictions that arise from the context of the company or organization. However, this does not mean that hackathons cannot also function as an internal development format. IBM, Microsoft, the Bosch Group and Eon are just some of the companies that regularly organize hackathons at companies, universities, conferences and other locations.

Even though hackathons tend to result in digital products in the true sense of the word, companies that are still in the early stages of digitalization can also use this approach as a development method to boost their digital business model. Whether for digital or analog products, whether organized externally or within the company, the decisive factor is the speed with which the participants in hackathons translate ideas into initial prototypes. The speed helps to quickly make completely new or already existing, diffuse ideas tangible. Both the Like button and the Facebook timeline, for example, are the result of hackathons. Rapid development makes it clear which ideas are feasible and which are not. Things become conceivable that would never have been on a company’s agenda outside of hackathons. This is because the approach and therefore the results stem more from the creative and emotional impulse than from rational thinking. The likelihood of success arises from heterogeneity and diversity, as well as from the fact that different teams work simultaneously and in a concentrated manner on solving the same problem or at least on a similar task. The competitive element also increases the involvement of the participants.

As an agile development method, hackathons can be an inexpensive and effective alternative or supplement to in-house R&D work because they accelerate the collective creative process and their results are initial, concrete prototypes that can then be further developed. This shortens the phase in which you deal with abstract concepts on paper. The art of implementing this development method is to create a meaningful and robust strategic framework that gives direction to this concentrated burst of creativity. For all its effectiveness, the hackathon cannot answer one question: Why should I implement what I have discovered for myself? The hackathon is a tool that opens up possibilities. However, it creates little meaning and direction on its own.