What I learned “hacking” for humanity

Manuel Meneses
May 31, 2016 · 5 min read

Last week I participated in my first hackathon! I was very interested in getting into the heart of this world to understand what it is all about, and above all, to learn how it can help solve complex problems. Much of that enthusiasm is explained very well by this article in The Guardian that states that the world needs more entrepreneurs able to:

“… hack the hell out of the current system, destroy it and create new systems.”

So I bought my ticket to Istanbul to participate in #Hack4Humanity, which gathered 130 hackers during the first United Nations World Humanitarian Summit. The goal was to work for 24 hours in multidisciplinary teams to create technological solutions to help solve some of the many problems arising from the current refugee crisis.

Various organizations joined the #Hack4Humanity effort

The hackathon model was interesting because it integrated five UN agencies with experience in the field (OCHA, UNDP, UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP) along with the Global Citizen organization, to define and present each of the challenges to four tech companies (Ericsson, Google, IBM, Microsoft) that contributed their knowledge and platforms, as well as expert business mentors (BCG y 500 Startups) who helped strengthen the participants’ proposals. There was only one small detail that caught my attention: the challenge was to design for the refugees and someone forgot to make sure that at least one of them participated in each team.

The clock is ticking!

I decided to join the education challenge — sponsored by UNICEF, Global Citizen and Ericsson — , and the process was that there was no process: there was no time to understand the context of such a complex issue or get to know the people for whom we were designing and their reality, or investigate what solutions already existed to avoid duplicating efforts, etc. This was a hackathon, and we only had 24 hours, we had to start programming and have something to show the day after; the rest background noise.

I might have been the one who didn’t fit into this hackathon subculture, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from the innovation projects that we’ve carried out with Cirklo, one cannot design relevant solutions — let alone think about transforming a system — if one doesn’t follow a process, and the most important part of that process involves understanding the problem and needs very well. So we met four “rebels” and, in the absence of access to refugees, we tried to understand the problem from the perspective of those who have worked with them. Sekander Matin tried to put us in the shoes of people with whom he lives in refugee camps in Germany and Samuel Odawo was with us on Skype to help us better understand the problems of refugees who — additionally — have a disability.

Emapthy Map of Riam

Using tools such as creation of people, scenarios and empathy maps, we were able to decipher what Riam — a 30-year-old woman, mother and wife who had to flee Syria because of the war — observes, hears, thinks, does and feels in the refugee camp she’s been living in for eight months. This exercise was very valuable to detect her needs, limitations and understand the motivations around which we could design a solution.

In the end, our proposal — a learning and integration platform through a game that builds aspirations and empowers children in refugee camps — came in third out of the 10 that were presented, and we are following up with Ericsson and Global Citizen to find the best way to bring some of these ideas to action.

. The #CropCart team worked with WFP and IBM and was the winning project. Check out their proposal.

The next step of this effort will be the launch of a Global Solution Hub on June 20, World Refugee Day, but first, you can support the campaign here or by using the hashtag #RefugeesNOW.

24 hours to learn

Undoubtedly, #Hack4Humanity has been one of the experiences that has taught me most in such a short span of time. I’d like to share three thoughts:

1. A hackathon cannot be presented as the platform to solve any problem, especially if it’s something as complex as the refugee crisis. However, it can be a valuable alternative to integrate different perspectives and identify new ideas or findings to solve these problems, provided that there is a team that documents the latter, shares it with the key actors operating in situ, and ensures coordinated efforts to integrate it into the solutions that are being implemented.

2. Understanding the problem requires time and a lot of energy, but in the end, this makes the difference between a relevant solution based on real needs and one based on what we assume or believe we understand. The greatest experts in a problem are usually those who endure it, so it is necessary to integrate them into the design of any solution. Who could be better qualified to know if what we propose is feasible or desirable, than them?

3. It is time to rethink hackathons and other platforms, such as innovation labs, evaluate what their real impact has been and how to ensure that they add more value to help solve the great challenges that humanity faces. An interesting model that I came across during the Summit is The Port, which has designed a very rigorous process, from the selection of participants to the culmination of the challenge, in the course of more than six weeks. I leave you with this TEDtalk to get to know its founder, the details of the model and to start thinking about new possibilities.

At Cirklo, we’re interested in exploring and developing different models and platforms of open innovation. If you’re interested in the subject, know one, or just want to share your opinion, leave a comment and start a conversation.

Originally published at medium.com on May 31, 2016.

Manuel Meneses

Written by

Co-founder & social innovation agent @Cirklomx #socent | Innovation for Sustainable International Development @SPRU #inno4dev | Empathy my #superpower