No matter if you are new to Geneva or have been here for years, you must have heard of hackathons. In case you have not, hackathons, in short, aim to pool and develop ideas that anyone might have by providing a workspace, a dedicated time slot, expert help, and manpower. A typical hackathon would usually have a theme with specific problems to solve. The “Smart City Hackathon,” for example, invited its participants to discuss the intersection of digital technology and urbanization.
If you have heard of hackathons, have you participated in one yet?
I was a hackathon virgin until Open Geneva happened last April 14th. I joined the Mobility Hackathon at CERN and it was exhilarating! It started with a presentation by the organizer who explained the theme and format of the hackathon, and the program for the day. Quickly after, people were called forward to pitch their ideas.
Some pitched their ideas as individuals, coming up to the front fearlessly to receive feedback afterwards. Others did so with teams already formed beforehand, trying to recruit fellow participants with specific skills to join their team. Meanwhile, others like me came without an idea to present but ready to be impressed and contribute to one of the projects.
And then we started “hacking”!
Hacking in this context is a trendy word that basically means brainstorming. After the pitches, participants slowly moved into groups based on what caught their interest. I initially joined a project that tries to develop a more robust car shade which will help cars not heat up in the summer when left outside for long. However, the guy with the idea decided that he did not want to go forward with it and joined a different group instead.
Strange as it may sounds, this craziness is so common at hackathons! At a hackathon in 2014 aimed to solve crucial humanitarian challenges, a team started out trying to build an inflatable fridge that may be used at refugee camps but walked out of the program with a prototype of a better body bag (for a dead body, that is). Red Cross even agreed to fund the mass production of the body bags.
A competitive hackathon usually lasts for days with industry experts coming in to offer advice to the participants. It ends with a final presentation by each team and then prizes are awarded to ideas which are scalable and sellable. But what next?
Demonstration of a smart car share app developed during the hackathon
I managed to speak to one of the organizers of Open Geneva who is also involved in numerous hackathons all over the world. He asserted that many organizers have difficulties to follow the development of projects that were awarded. Nevertheless, hackathons have been fairly successful especially in Geneva, and the culture is steadily picking up traction at least since 2010. He even mentioned that back then, people were not sure about the word “hackathon” because the word “hack” carried a negative connotation.
Despite all that, hackathons have witnessed many projects grow into startups, win fundings, and even get acquired by big companies. Open Geneva itself, which is a weekend where 28 hackathons happened at the same time at different locations around Geneva, is a testament that the city believes in the power of ideas and the potential of hackathons.
Award presentation at another hackathon at CERN. One of the winners built inexpensive lightweight medical equipment for areas that lack medical professionals, which can also record and analyze health data in seconds.
Joining a hackathon taught me that anyone today could have ideas, but what sets you apart is whether or not you are willing to act on them.
So, what is your idea? Do you have the guts to pitch it at a hackathon?
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