It’s not normally how I spend my Thursday nights – except for the pizza and beer perhaps – but there I was, sat in an office at 10pm, listening to 12 groups enthusiastically pitch their smart transportation ideas to an expert panel of judges: InMotion’s Jonathan Carrier, Jaguar Land Rover’s Carl Pickering and Black Swan’s Mark Bainbridge.
Less than five hours earlier, none of these rough but ready concepts even existed, and it was amazing to see first hand how quickly people could come up with an idea for a viable business.
This is the power of a hackathon. Put together a group of talented individuals from different disciplines and backgrounds, keep them fed and watered, chuck in swathes of data and a superb wifi connection, and you have all the ingredients needed to create a game-changing idea.
InMotion’s inaugural event, which challenged attendees to improve the London commute, was a huge success. And, moreover, as a hack of a hackathon – it was held over one evening – a great indicator of the potential it has to deliver solutions to some of the most pressing urban mobility problems we face today.
Here are five key takeaways.
1. Collaboration is everything
Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships
As Michael Jordan famously said: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” What I saw at the hackathon were groups that not only collectively came together to solve a common issue, but also, in addition, contributed their own particular experiences and skills to add further value and dynamism. This, I noticed, was particularly the case with those working out the market potential of their business – numbers matter.
2. You can hack a hackathon
Part of the success and appeal of the hackathons is the constraints of the event – fighting against the clock is challenging, creates a sense of urgency and, importantly, forces you to go above and beyond.
If we consider the varied and brilliant output of InMotion’s five-hour event, then, as InMotion’s Giorgia Sterza explained: “A bitesize hackathon offers businesses plenty of opportunities to tap into and find raw talent”. That it doesn’t take up too much time, yet allows you to see things differently, is also advantageous to time-sensitive businesses. The approaches to problem-solving, the kind of thinking that is evident at these events, can be eye-opening.
It’s important to note however, that to produce something substantial more than rapidly-coded concepts, you need to think more in terms of days than hours when it comes to hackathon length.
3. Data is a hugely transformative asset
In 2013, Wired asked Is Big Data the New Black Gold?, drawing attention to “one of the top challenges facing organisations” – a decided lack of business insights. Enter big data, or as Mark Bainbridge, marketing director at Black Swan, prefers to call it, “connected data”.
He explained that the ability to interpret this ever-expanding space of information is hugely valuable to brands, and disruptive enough to change the way we do things in so many fundamental ways.
4. We can all transform transport
36 people took part in the hackathon, from a diverse range of backgrounds (even if the majority were male). We had students, software engineers, directors, innovation managers, founders and PhD candidates, to name but a few.
None of them, as Carl Pickering, head of research and technology strategy at Jaguar Land Rover observed, had a background in transport or the automotive industry. But, he continued, the ‘outsider’ has an important role in innovation: providing new perspectives and ways of thinking. This event demonstrated how valuable that can be.
5. The future of transport is bright
The winners of the event, Team 4 pitched a brilliant idea to make e-bikes cheaper than a bus pass. The runners up, Saunter, made a case for optimising the experience of the commute.
Others advanced concepts as wide-ranging and relevant as redirecting you to less congested tube stations using data from your oyster card; offering cyclists a better, safer and faster riding experience; and linking up your travel and deliveries so you arrive just as your parcel is being delivered to your front door.
That’s just a small sample of what was dreamt up, and in such an impressively short space of time. It’s encouraging to see the number of potential solutions to mobility problems that are enabled by embracing technology. The possibilities are really endless.