Hacking for Change

In a recent trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent time seeing up close the country’s burgeoning technology and social innovation-driven ecosystem. During his visit to countries like Nigeria and Nairobi, Zuckerberg visited a coding camp for children, vibrant innovation hubs, and several tech companies. He also sought to learn more about what makes Kenya the world leader in mobile money. Zuckerberg met with a number of young tech entrepreneurs who are toiling away, striving to remake Africa’s economy, boost civic life, strengthen education, and raise public health standards. According to Zuckerberg, “Africa is where the future is being built.” His visit was certainly prompted by Facebook’s commercial interests in the continent, but it is also recognition that a new generation of Africans is poised to transform the continent.

A New Generation of Leaders

Zuckerberg’s visit reminds me of a group of young African entrepreneurs that our research team in Austin met as part of a White House initiative. In 2010, the White house launched the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). The primary goal of the effort is to spotlight Africa’s transformation and, importantly, the rise of a generation of civic, tech, and entrepreneurial talent that is spreading across the continent. Africa is one of the world’s youngest continents and an emerging market in the tech and social innovation space. Mobile phones are widely adopted and as education continues to spread, the demand for tech services, platforms, new innovations will also spread.

In the summer of 2014, several young African leaders were invited to the U.S. to participate in a White House summit. In addition to convening in D.C., these young men and women spent time visiting some of the most dynamic innovation ecosystems in the U.S. A group of 25 young African leaders visited Austin. During their visit, they participated in business development and entrepreneur workshops at the University of Texas and checked out some of the local tech companies as well as established tech companies like Google-Austin.

An Idea is Born

Our research team participated in one event that hosted the young African leaders at a local co-working space. That day, a modest but visionary local enterprise, Doing Development, coordinated an event to introduce the young African leaders to their counterparts in Austin, a disparate group of young social entrepreneurs striving to make their mark in the city’s innovation economy.

The event was an opportunity for the African and Austin-based entrepreneurs to share their start-up visions with each other, exchange ideas, and explore possible collaborations. One of the co-founders of Doing Development, Michael Henderson, saw an opportunity to partner with some of the young African entrepreneurs. A colleague of his, a young Nigerian now living in Austin, was visibly thrilled by the opportunities this meet-up catalyzed. He viewed the explorations with the young African leaders as an opportunity to do good work and also to inspire a new narrative about life on the African continent. He told us, “for me, as a designer, I can create a logo for somebody, or I can take photos, or, you know, I can go to South Africa and meet other creatives and tell that narrative and show that there’s more than just AIDS, Ebola, and starving kids.” (Several months later, this young man and Henderson took separate trips to Africa to reconnect with some of the young leaders they met and to follow-up on some of the ideas they discussed during that initial meet-up in Austin.)

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This collaboration between American and African designers illustrates how young social entrepreneurs are actively pursuing new models, methods, and spaces to continue expanding how they both think about and do innovation.

The young leaders from Africa were involved in a variety of social enterprises that focused on leveraging technology to launch start-ups in education, public health, and civic tech. The young designers and entrepreneurs were especially interested in leveraging their talents, ambitions, and networks to impact some of Africa’s most vulnerable populations, including children (i.e., education) and women (i.e., education, contraception). Their social enterprises reflect the new vision and leadership that is poised to empower a new wave of social entrepreneurship and innovation across the continent. As we spoke with them and listened to their stories, it was clear that many of these young entrepreneurs had decided that if life in their respective countries was going to improve, they would have to be part of the solution. Thus, many of their start-ups were designed to not only enhance the African economy, but African society, too.

After the meet-up, Henderson began brainstorming ways to collaborate with some of the young African talent that he met. One idea that he pursued was to organize a hackathon that linked young designers, developers, and civic leaders in Austin with some of the aspirations articulated by the young African leaders. One of the many things that Henderson learned from the young African leaders was the potential of mobile to drive innovation in education, health, and commerce. His idea was straightforward: organize a hackathon to prototype mobile solutions that might enhance the quality of life for Africans in some discernible way.

Doing Innovation: It Isn’t Easy

Hackathons have emerged as a vital aspect of the innovation economy and millennial innovators have adapted the model to catalyze their economic and civic aspirations. Doing Development leaders saw the hackathon as an opportunity to pursue their creative, civic, and entrepreneurial mission. However, in order to thrive, hackathons need more than a good idea or a noble cause. Like any new idea or product, hackathons need resources including talent (i.e., tech, design, and civic), technology (i.e., computers, sharpies, note pads), and physical space in order to realize their goals.

One of the things that we have discovered in our research is that some innovation ecosystems are more capital-rich than others. For example, while there may be a growing ecosystem around mobile entertainment in the local innovation scene in Austin there may not be as vibrant of an ecosystem focused on designing solutions for the developing world. This reality created a number of challenges for Doing Development as they made preparations for their event.

The hackathon took a lot of hard work, imagination, and grit. Hackathons are a way of professional socialization in the tech sector and university setting. But, when fledging start-ups or community leaders seek to organize their own version of a hackathon, the struggles are clearly apparent. Doing Development faced a number of obstacles in the organization of its hackathon, including publicizing the event, recruiting the right mix of talent, and, of course, financing the execution. Fortunately, as a result of their participation in a local co-working venue, Doing Development had access to at least one essential resource: a physical space that offered open working spaces and internet connectivity.

Among the many assets that young innovators need, none may be more important than the social relations that they cultivate. Doing Development tapped its connections to designers, coders, and media producers to find the human capital it needed. A meeting with the coordinator of SXSW Interactive secured four badges to offer as incentives for participating in the hackathon. The meeting with SXSW officials also provided Doing Development access to judges, who agreed to evaluate the ideas generated from the event. After a lot of hard work, door knocking, phone calls, and, favor asking, Doing Development was able to recruit a small group of designers, artists, and civic innovators to develop some ideas that might serve Africa’s growing population in some notable way.

Hacking for Change

The hackathon was a 48-hour affair, complete with the requisite elements — bright-eyed and ambitious techies and designers, powered-up laptops, whiteboards, post-it notes, and plenty of caffeine. Over the course of two days, the hackathon focused much of its activity around designing mobile solutions that could be useful across urban and rural parts of the African continent. The hackers were able to Skype in Vital Sounouvouh, one of the young African leaders who was part of the White House summit. Sounouvouh has established expertise in the growing spread of mobile across the African continent. During his visit to Austin, he spoke about the number of mobile phones in Africa. He noted that the vast majority of devices were not smartphones. He insisted that any solution generated by the hackers must keep in mind the population and the platforms it would be designing for. His presence was a vital source of information and inspiration.

Over the course of the two days, Doing Development received a crash course in organizing a hackathon by organizing a hackathon. This is one of the key principles in the world of innovation: a main source of learning/creating is through doing. Get an idea, find a way to try and bring it to life. In many ways, Doing Development was intentionally learning even as it was innovating. This is what the Stanford Design School calls “a bias toward action.

After several ideas and prototypes were explored, the designers were able to produce three feature phone applications, including an app for addressing public health crises like Ebola, a translator app, and an app for connecting users to Wikipedia via SMS technology.

The collaboration between American designers and African designers is certainly what the White House had in mind when it launched YALI. Drawing from our fieldwork, we believe that innovation is powered through the creation of spaces and opportunities for ideas to collide, diverse perspectives to be shared, and new solutions prototyped. This has emerged as a powerful context for collectively grappling with what social innovators like to call “wicked problems.” Throughout our fieldwork, we have observed how young designers, artists, and civic leaders are actively pursuing new models, new relationships, and new spaces to continue expanding how they both think about and do innovation.

NOTE: In this three-part video, you can see up close and behind the scenes the struggles DDD persisted through to bring their idea of a Hackathon for Change to fruition.

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