Experimental Civics


Definitions, Cake, and Zombies | 3 Lessons Learnt from Hacking at TX McCombs 3-P Hackathon

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of hacking at the McCombs School of Business 3-P Hackathon which was focused on tackling 3 challenges: People, Profit (Sustainability), and Planet. We worked over the course of Friday and Saturday to come up with some creative solutions to these mammoth-sized problems.

With every hackathon, there is always something new to learn and I wanted to share 3 lessons that I took away from this experience:

1. Define everything

2. Problems = Layered cake

3. Zombies are welcome

Our keynote speaker on Saturday afternoon was Kristjan Jespersen, Ph.D. who is an Assistant Professor at the Copenhagen Business School. I loved his quote about how every business developed these days should be sustainable, but beyond that, he started his speech by showing a painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Painting” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and asking the audience what was happening.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

He highlighted how Icarus was attempting the “impossible” by trying to fly to the sun. Dr. Jespersen’s point was that we should strive to be better, and build a world that recognizes and values the willingness to try. And fail.

Every civic hacker knows that compounded effort is the path to change.

“Sustainability is the worse defined topic in our history…and it’s not an inspiring story line.” — Kristjan Jespersen
Hack. Hack. Hack.

Define Everything

So with that, I’m going to jump in to the first lesson I learned and this was based on definitions with hacking the “people” challenge.

We talked about “Diversity and Inclusion” on the University of Texas, Austin campus…now the group hit a few hurdles which became fun to navigate.

They spoke with UT faculty members and Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) staff…but even after understanding the landscape, they honed in to the basic issue of missing conversations.

This sparked their entire project which became focused on using intentional inquiry and data to support future conversations around this topic.

The major takeaway I had with this project was how important it was to have everyone share and define what “Diversity and Inclusion” means to them to get centered in a space with strangers from different cultures, backgrounds, values, and experience. The question is always if you can find that common ground?

So define it. Redefine it. It’s okay to spin on this a bit while hacking, it’s not going to be solved in one swing, but perhaps with multiple attempts, progress can be made.

That’s the hope, right? Even if you just walk away learning about another’s story and perspective, there’s a chance for greater understanding and acceptance.

Layered Problem Cake — Yum!

Now watching this “profit” team hack was utterly fascinating, their debates which I secretly overheard were so interesting with different perspectives clashing. I could feel the struggle with narrowing their scope in a multi-layered, complex, historically charged problem.

Cake. Cake. Cake.

They created a BADASS mobile and web application called “Hatch”: a countdown clock to how much time a single resident has to live in a given city was completely amazing with a really sleek UX design.

“It’s not the news that everyone wants to hear, but some folks have to hear it.” — Andrew Orr (Hacker)

But, the conversation and the application was just a start in understanding so many other layers to the problem: workforce development, training for residents, and accessibility through technology.

One thing that is ever apparent in these projects is that problems = cake.

This is not new or ground breaking science, but it’s important to realize that when we’re hacking larger, complex social challenges, we need to understand that our sprints can only tackle pieces of the larger puzzle. Duh.

So it’s fine that all layers aren’t addressed in one effort, but the fact that we got the icing right is good enough for me.

Zombies Are Welcome

The “planet” project tackled the Austin Green Building rating system and all the intricate details of raising community awareness and engagement on the initiative.

One of the hackers mentioned that QR codes were ahead of their time. I can’t agree more and I realize there was so much potential with AR in this realm too.

Sky is the limit and things do come back to life.


So while the project end up being a great blended QR Code / Mobile App / Website campaign, the major takeaway I had from this was that we should all embrace zombie projects and ideas.

Hackathons usually produce a ton of projects and I can’t stress enough that none of this work is a “wasted” effort.

Zombie projects are more than welcome.

And back to the top about always being able to try and to keep trying at ideas.

I want to take this moment to embrace two of the key event organizers on this project below, they’re determined to keep building spaces for people to try! Go team!

Alana Williams, MBA Candidate (L) and Debbie Carney (R), Senior Program Coordinator at McCombs School of Business

If you’re curious about this hackathon and the work that was done, feel free to reach out to me via experimentalcivics@gmail.com or experimentalcivics.io. Keep hacking! Keep doing awesome things for your community!

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