Experimental Civics

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Are civic hackathons impactful?

I’ve had this discussion many times with different folks that are getting used to the concept of civic hacking.

The first question is usually, “how are civic hackathons any different from rallies or public hearings?”

Followed by, “is there any actual community impact from these sprint-like events?”

So let’s talk about three topics:

  1. Format
  2. Problem-Solving
  3. Sustainability

We want change in our communities. Nothing is more powerful than living in an environment that you adore and consider home and having the ability to improve it for everyone.

I have spent some time working with nonprofits that focus on making change through organizing town halls and larger federal hearings. The format of these interventions was traditional, in which an agency tried to communicate a message or solicited public opinion on a specific issue.

While these actions were meant to initiate change, the format of the approach kept the center of power with the agency rather than the community. After sharing information or getting feedback, it was up to the organization to decide how to act.

This isn’t to say that positive action didn’t happen after each event, but the goals and structure were such that the possibility of becoming an active community participant was extremely limited. Often this approach left community members feeling powerless and unheard because they had other concerns that they had no organized forum to address.

What first drew me to with civic hackathons was the ability to flatten the hierarchy and to make the decision-making process inclusive and collaborative. At a hackathon event, multiple people from various backgrounds work on each project or challenge, and the ability to hack a community issue depends on everyone listening, communicating and working together. In my experience, this approach instantly changes team dynamics, increases buy-in from members and drives individual commitment to project success.

It’s a no-brainer — people love to be involved in shaping their community and working as a team…dare I say, a family.

The second piece that makes civic hackathons stand out is the fact they involve new approaches to problem-solving, with design thinking, rapid prototyping, bringing together diverse participants and crafting technical solutions to non-technical problems. Hackathon participants are challenged to think about community problems in an inclusive and innovative way.

Lastly, there’s the question of sustainability. I understand how that the format of a design sprint can appear to negate the fact that there can be lasting impact from just one event, but I would challenge us to elevate our thinking in this regard. Success does not occur in a vacuum, and we can’t sprint forever. Instead of assuming that a single sprint will foster sweeping changes, you need to think of it as a marathon of social change.

First we need one sprint. Then we need another. Then we need another.

Over the past 5 years, ATX Hack for Change has had an incredibly impact on the Austin community. This event has helped nonprofits learn about the power of technology in change-making, and it has fostered a unique crossover of communication between different communities in Austin. We’re starting that larger conversation with others locally, nationally, and now globally. For many community members, our event serves as the introduction into the technology realm and helps them understand how technology can be harnessed to solve problems.

ATX Hack for Change 2017 | Photo Credit: ATX Hack for Change Volunteer

Is our model perfect? Of course not. Could our model evolve in the future? Yes, and it should.

So here’s the breakdown. Are civic hackathons impactful?

1. The format allows all voices to be heard and to be included in the decision-making process on how to community members can shape their immediate environment for those around them and in the future.

2. The hackathon itself allows for a blend of different techniques and methods to be incorporated in order to help people solve their biggest challenges. From the nonprofit world to business thinking to incubator mindsets, hackathons allow for dynamic theories to play and bounce off one another.

3. Hackathons are impact pillars, community sprints, and checkpoints for progress with a lasting impact for when developed inside of a larger initiative or vision. Voices are heard, projects are deployed, ideas are tested and shared and conversations begin.

I’ve only touched the surface on the powerful impact civic hackathons can generate (stay tuned for more posts around this). I’m still personally exploring the long-term effects of hackathons and would love to hear from you on how civic hacking has impacted your life.

Share your story with me through experimentalcivics.io and let’s talk. Maybe we can make an impact together?

ATX Hack for Change 2017 | Photo Credit: ATX Hack for Change Volunteer

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