Making it good for the hackers

I recently suggested that democracy needs more hackers. I still think it does. But how do we encourage more hacking in our organisations, our communities and our events? How do we create an environment where the hackers can thrive?

These are big questions of course but I think events are good place to start. More specifically I want to talk about the recent Notwestminster events and how they support the hacker ethic. This is something that was shared with us at right at the strat of the two days of Notwestminster by the excellent Nick Taylor of Dundee University. He descibes the hacker ethic like this:

  • doing over talking
  • make things, break things
  • sharing what we do
  • collaboration and community

I think these four points provide a brilliant framework for thinking about how we encourge more hacking*. I think they also reflect the Notwestminster approach (even if we weren’t conscioulsy thinking about them before). I’m going to pick up each in turn but first a little about the event itself.


We’ve just had the the third Notwestminster event and it was the best one yet. If you don’t know (where have you been!), Notwestminster is a free local democracy get together held every year in Huddersfield, UK. As well as the main Saturday event, consisting of lighting talks and workshops, we have a democracy experiments hack day and a Pecha Kucha night both on the Friday.

You can see everything to do with the 2017 event here.

What I didn’t realise before was that what we were all doing at Notwestminster was hacking. But yes, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. And we want to get better at it.

Doing over talking

Yes, we definitley try and focus on doing. At our main Saturday event we ask all of our workshop hosts to come up with some practical suggestions for what can be done next. These are all shared at the Ideas Bazaar at the end of the day where we invite all of the event participants to sign up to getting involved with taking the ideas forward.

You can watch this year’s Ideas Bazaar here.

In this way, and unlike unconferences, I realise, we have our pitching at the end of the day, not the beginning. I think it’s a great way of doing things but maybe we can sharpen this up a little to make sure that these ‘action pitches’ lead in to more activity following the event?

In organisational terms I wonder what more foing over talking would like like? Maybe it’s about less planning and more pitching?

Make things, break things

Along with Nick Taylor and his colleague Loraine Clarke I facilitated the Exeperiments Day on the Friday.

Asking people to make things is wonderful process to watch. We had five teams on the day, all working on a ‘something to fix’ that had been pitched that morning. The point was to make a solution, as soon as possible, and not spend the time planning and discussing. It doesn’t matter if it’s far from perfect — you just need something that you can test and redesign. It’s the rapid cycle of prototype-test-redesign that gets you to something approaching a workable solution.

It was great to see the variety of things that people made on the day. There was an off-line budget simulator for a parish council. consultation cards for planning, a policy wheel for engaging the public in the policy process, a video report from a council and a joint project between two online platforms.

Personally I was delighted to see cardboard boxes being used in three of teams — there is something brilliant about getting stuck in with pens, sticky tape and coloured paper! We definitely need more of that in local government.

It was also great to see people testing their protypes in different ways. While everyone took time to get feedback from anyone they could find in the building, one group braced the cold streets of Huddersfield to speak to unsuspecting members of the public.

Could we do more of that in our organisations? Maybe for an hour on Friday everyone leaves the civic centre to ask anyone they can find about the thing they are working on? Of course you need to make something to show them first.

There is something very powerful about this ‘let just do it’ approach to testing. If you can get out and test things in public you can also get a wider interest from onlookers when you are talking to people. I heard the phrase ‘design provocation’ — I think what this means is that if you are provoking people when you re testing your prototypes then you are doing it right!

Anyhow, you can see more about the exeripments day in this storify here. (Gotta love that cardboard!)

Sharing what we do

Hacking thrives when people share. It helps with inspiration, feedback and, just the process of explaining what you are doing does help to focus your thoughts.

Notwestminster has a number of different formats for sharing built in. Aside from the workshops we have the seven minute lightning talks to the whole group from the main stage. We had a few in the morning and a few in the afternoon just to bring everyone together before and between the workshop sessions. The fact that they are short and the diversity of the topics helps keep the energy and interest up.

Another feature is the well established Pecha Kucha night that is held in partnership with the Media Centre who run similar nights even when are not in town. In a nutshell it’s 20 slides of 20 seconds each. It’s like a cross between a presentation and karaoke — it’s a great format if you haven’t seen it before.

All in all notwestminster is like a tombola of ideas — you just don’t know what you are going to get. More like a market place (or agora) there is no single keynote or one dominating idea. I like this. It’s serendipitous. You always come home with a list of new things to check out or unexpected ideas to develop.

I wonder what a sharing organisation designed oalong these lines would look like? Well, however it might work it sounds like fun!

Collaboration and community

For me, what makes notwestminster so valuable is the mixing together of a whole group of different people, who wouldn’t normally mix together, in a place they wouldn’t normally go doing things they wouldn’t normally do.

Democracy needs hackers but hackers come in all shapes and sizes and bring different things to the party.

We have civic hackers, councillors, public service professionals, policy wonks, community activists, youth councillors and citizens (who have I missed?). They all give up a Saturday in February and are united by a commitment to making local democracy better. As far as I know there isn’t a rich mix like it at any other democracy event -for me it’s what makes Notwestminster so special.

We also had a high proportion of people who hadn’t been to previous year’s events — for me this is a very healthy sign and very good for the day.

Even the venue takes people a little out of their comfort zone. Huddersfield is a town I really like. The odd thing about it is that it is right in the middle geographically but still feels slightly off the beaten track. Even the Media Centre ,were the event is held, is in part a professional and in part a community space.

If we are thinking agile (which I am, a bit) then we know that the unit of delivery is the team. Teams need the right people from a functional point of view but if we also want creativity (which we do) then a rich mix of people can produce something unexpected and new.

This was certainly the case at our democracy design experiments day. It’s a wonderful thing to watch people with very different occupations, most of whom have never met before, working on a project with energy and enthusiasm. It feels very different to the team working found in larger organisations, where local culture and familiarity can make life too comfortable and predictable.

When we work in teams with people who are unfamiliar and who have different perspectives it challenges us to listen more and to behave in less comfortable ways. We are, in effect, working in public if we are professionals and working professionally as members of the public.

Wouldn’t it be great to see organisations trying out ‘rich mix’ teams — not just teams designed to include the right skills? Of course facilitation would be important but and interesting experiment nevertheless. It would get us all a little bit disrupted. A little bit out of our comfort zone.

Turning to community I’d say that notwestminster certainly has that — it’s a rich mix of people, yes, but with something in common.

That something is a shared commitment to making local democracy better.

And hacking is how we do it.

See you next year.

*If we want to be hacktitioners, hacktivists, and hackademics. Working in hackney. Supporting Hackrington Stanley. Or Hamilton Hackademicals. I’ll stop now.