Urban Prototyping (UP) at Civil Service College

by May Tay

On 20 May 2015, the UP Singapore team designed and conducted a one-day hack, as part of a programme on “Innovation and Change Management in the Public Sector”. This was held at the Civil Service College for mid- to senior-level civil servants from over 30 countries, ranging from Pakistan to Laos to Kenya.

The objective was to create an interactive forum for these government officials to discuss issues they faced in modern policy development, and introduce the Open Innovation model as an approach for crowdsourcing ideas. To gain a hands-on experience with Open Innovation, participants also took part in a mini hackathon where they ideated solutions to encourage women’s participation in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) field.

The day kicked off with an introduction to the concepts of Open Innovation and Urban Prototyping (using examples from the UP Singapore community, of course!), as well as the process of organising hackathons. The audience was particularly interested in learning more about the factors that contribute to successful hackathons and about the tangible indicators of success.

Oliver Gilbert speaking about Next Billion Asia

To complement the discussion on Urban Prototyping, we invited the Project Director of Next Billion Asia, Oliver Gilbert, to talk about rural innovation through sharing his work on Mobile Movies and the Rural Innovation Lab. The participants were interested in this business model that does not rely on government or donor grants. Instead, both projects are funded by partner organisations, particularly from marketing budgets of private sector partners.

Mrinalini Venkatachalam speaking about Women in STEM

On to the hackathon itself! UP Singapore hackathons always begin with experts providing a background to the topic or industry. For this hackathon, Ms Mrinalini Venkatachalam, head of public awareness and youth initiatives at UN Women, took to the stage to introduce the issues involved in women’s participation in STEM education and fields of work. While STEM is at the core of many solutions to modern challenges, the proportion of women involved in the scene remains low in numerous countries around the world.

The challenge statements for the day were:

  • How can we encourage more young women to seek and benefit from more or better STEM education?
  • How can we create more opportunities or infrastructure to provide more young women quality STEM education?

As expected, the participants showed great passion in the topic. During the ideation process, several shared personal anecdotes and discussed the changes that needed to happen in order to arrive at a gender neutral outcome.

Several participants pitched their ideas, and what followed was an hour and a half of ‘hacking’ in teams. At this step, teams typically work on their ideas and try to build a working prototype (rapid prototyping). This being a hack of a smaller scale, participants focused on fleshing out the most promising of their ideas. The UP Singapore team and Oliver also facilitated the session as mentors.

The teams then presented their best ideas, including:

  1. A one-laptop-per-child programme that included distributing free open software-based laptops to children, and enabling the latter to benefit from free online courses from platforms like Coursera and EdX.
  2. A virtual STEM hub to promote STEM opportunities that involved industry representatives, the education sector, government agencies and public.
  3. An app to promote STEM to young children, especially young women, through educational materials targeted at both the children and their families.

All teams emphasised the importance of public-private partnerships and saw social media as a good way to spread positive messaging about STEM education and careers.

By the end of the session, participants were left with a good idea of how to innovate through the rapid prototyping model of a hackathon.

One participant asked if a hackathon can be used to generate better approaches to international issues, such as climate change. Indeed, a hackathon’s ground-up approach of crowdsourcing ideas and accelerating ideation within a short span of time is easily scalable and can be very productive, as the UP Singapore community itself has experienced. It is also our hope that hackathons can help aggregate and find new approaches to issues of all types and sizes, including the biggest ones we face in the 21st century!

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