UnHackathons Tackle Real-World Problems Through Design Thinking

UnHackathon 2 participants Denise Brosseau and Ben Rosenthal sweating the details. [Image courtesy of Hot Studio]

In April 2012, 80 designers, technologists, and business strategists convened for a hard-working 24 hours at CCA’s San Francisco campus. The occasion: the second Mix & Stir UnHackathon event. The goal: to devise innovative solutions that will create economic opportunities in underserved communities and neighborhoods.

As opposed to a typical hackathon, in which programmers focus on quickly hammering out code, the UnHackathon focuses on the user and the solution -- solving the customer’s need before the first line of “code” is ever written. With its combination of design, business, and technology, the UnHackathon under ideal circumstances can produce practical solutions with broad market appeal.

The April event started with a panel discussion in which representatives from the San Francisco city business development, the Equal Justice Institute, and the TED City 2.0 Platform described the struggles of the 57 million Americans who are living at or just above poverty level. It ended with the devising of numerous practical solutions to real-life problems.

Mix and Stir and CCA

San Francisco’s Mix and Stir Studios has been CCA’s partner in both UnHackathon events thus far. Two of the three cofounders, Mary Anne Masterson and Christopher Ireland, are CCA faculty members. It is a design-driven startup incubator based on deep user focus and design thinking; its funding comes from a mix of partnerships and private funders.

“We believe the best solutions come from close collaboration between design, business, and technology,” says Masterson. “Our goal is to build collaborative, customer-focused companies that can stand the test of time.”

By partnering with CCA for these events, Mix and Stir has also been able to ensure that the youth voice is heard. “One of the strengths of the Mix and Stir events is that they partner the fresh thinking of CCA students with professionals from throughout the design community. You can see this reflected in the winning teams from our events.”

The first UnHackathon at CCA was dedicated to finding viable technological solutions for the city’s problems related to taxi distribution and communication of public transit problems. The goal was to devise a system that would ensure a more effective dissemination of taxis throughout the city (solving the seemingly unsolvable “why is there never a taxi when you need one?” problem), and put into place effective, affordable, real-time communication of MUNI and BART information when delays and disasters strike.

At the event, after hearing from a panel of experts, the 80 participants convened for a cocktail party to mingle and discuss ideas. The next morning they split into 11 teams, worked through the day, and at 7 p.m. had visual representations of their concepts ready for presentation to the group.

The judges awarded cash prizes to the top two teams, although the event produced many more viable ideas than its organizers had expected. On March 26, the winning teams presented their concepts to city officials from SFMTA, the Department of Public Works, the Mayor’s Innovation Team, and city supervisor Scott Wiener. Though actual implementation will of course take time, city management has already expressed how impressed they are with the process and outcome of the UnHackathon’s design-oriented approach.

Innovation for Good

The second UnHackathon was inspired by an eye-opening TED talk by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer and founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson’s talk made two main points: First, we live in a world that is riddled with inequality and injustice. Second, we live in a world of boundless innovation and creativity.

Stevenson’s challenge was to innovate ideas “born from conviction of the heart,” creating opportunity for the less advantaged and helping lift people out of poverty. He implored his TED audience, a group hailing from the realms of technology, entertainment, and design, to consider the existing systems that contribute to these massive, but solvable, problems.

Ireland and Masterson of Mix and Stir, and also MBA in Design Strategy program chair Nathan Shedroff, were in attendance at that TED talk and took it as a strong call to action. They contacted the TED team with a proposal to host this second UnHackathon event. Attendees included CCA students and faculty, professionals from the Bay Area design community, and representatives from companies such as Google, Hot Studio, and Apple.

Participants viewed Stevenson’s inspiring talk, heard from a panel of city experts, and then set to work. Twenty-four hours later, the three winning teams were Team Ping, which articulated community leader organization and management; Pop-Up Skill Shop, whose idea revolved around revitalizing vacant properties while creating opportunities for low-income youth; and Mobile Services Mall, who designed a service to provide low-income communities with access to city, county, and federal services they might not know about.

Mix and Stir is now working with the winners to refine their presentations, which will be presented to the TED Prize City 2.0 team this month to vie for a $10,000 grant that will help make their ideas into reality. These grants are distributed as part of “The City 2.0,” TED Prize’s 2012 winner, which strives to reward bold, creative projects dedicated to improving our cities.

Incubator for the Next Step

And the UnHackathon are just beginning. One of the goals at Mix and Stir is to connect entrepreneurs with opportunity, and the upcoming CCA and Mix and Stir Studio Startup Summer Incubator is aimed at talented, collaborative startups who understand the value of design, believe in the power of deep customer knowledge, and truly want to build companies.

Shedroff says the purpose is twofold: “To foster the creation of solutions and companies (for-profits and nonprofits) that are enabled by technology but still focused on people, and to increase the connections between CCA and Bay Area communities of engineers, scientists, NGOs, et cetera.”

The 10-week incubator will begin on June 4, 2012, and will take place at CCA’s San Francisco campus. (More info and an application here) Masterson says that the selected teams will receive support, active mentorship, and access to resources throughout the summer. While an ideal team will have a mix of design, business, and development/programming skills and will have previously worked together, individuals with an idea or concept may be considered as well.

Design Mindset Across the Map

Mark Breitenberg, former CCA Provost, observes, “The field of design is expanding beyond objects into systems, applying the creative process to every aspect of human life. Human-centered, interdisciplinary, creative problem solving is an essential component of design thinking. At CCA, it is tough to find an event that is not infused with a sense of meaning and social responsibility. Community partnerships are embedded into our classes, studio, and curriculum, bringing the community to CCA as well as placing CCA in the community.”

Of course technology should not serve only to create inane smartphone apps; it should be leveraged to solve the deep social and economic problems of the world. The difficulty lies not in convincing people of this, but in showing people how they can leverage their own power and knowledge to participate in these solutions. It is much easier to design a nifty water bottle than to pipe water to African villages lacking civic infrastructure.

But Mix and Stir Studio hopes that more and more, the world is starting to realize the power of design thinking. “Designer-founders” are starting businesses, getting the attention of governments, and securing funding to implement their ideas.

Today, Singapore requires design studios as part of its mandatory K-12 curriculum. Mexico and Colombia have begun developing national design policies and plans. China has created a thousand new design schools in the past 15 years, exhibiting the desire not just to manufacture, but also to innovate.

And in San Francisco, promptly after taking office earlier this year, Mayor Ed Lee created the position of Chief Innovation Officer and appointed Jay Nath as its first officeholder. Lee’s call to action was direct: “The need for innovation in government has never been greater, and we must work with our greatest resource -- our human capital -- to find new solutions to old challenges.”