Why hackathons are crucial in promoting creativity and innovation

It’s no surprise that the world is witnessing more and more hackathons around the globe in different fields. Whether it involves a group of entrepreneurs, engineers, developers or groups in any other industry, hackathons are the go to event for innovative ideas and problem solving. What exactly is the significance in holding hackathons? How do they play a role in promoting creativity and innovation in an organization or across fields?

When hackathons were first introduced to the scene, they were mainly intended for computer programmers and engineers to get together to find faster solutions to problems; hence, the word “hackathon”, which is a combination of "hack" and "marathon". In fact, the world’s first hackathon was held on June 4, 1999 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada where 10 developers from OpenBSD came together to hold a cryptographic development event. This event was organized in order to avoid legal problems caused by export regulations of cryptographic software from the US. However, with time, the term hackathon evolved to include individuals from different backgrounds, and not just programmers, to come up with innovative solutions to existing problems.

Over time, hackathons, when properly conducted, have proven to be very efficient and time-effective when it comes to finding innovative solutions. That is because they mostly occur during a short period of time where the participants are introduced to the problem and are provided with the tools and the settings that are needed to come up with a creative response. Individuals from different backgrounds are grouped together so that each one would contribute their knowledge and experience to come up with a solution that otherwise, as individuals, would not have been possible.

The flexibility to be creative is what makes the hackathon model successful. Participants are free from traditional restrictions, such as employing a certain approach or adhering to organizational policies. Despite the time constraint, hackathon organizers typically don't impose a rigid structure; thus, creating an extremely productive environment. In addition to problem-solving, hackathon participants have the chance to learn, share their ideas, engage in fruitful networking, and take advantage of the accommodating environment.

Hackathons are not only integral for the participants but they’re also important for the organizations that are holding or running the event. This is a chance for them to find cost and time effective solutions to either problems that they are trying to address as a company, or a social challenge that the world is facing in general, such as poverty, environmental issues, etc. A company can benefit from holding a hackathon by:

  • Generating brand new ideas; separating them from their competitors
  • Enabling customer focused innovation
  • Accelerating the speed of creativity and problem solving due to the hackathon’s very limited time frame
  • Improving workforce engagement and skills
  • Allowing a healthy and productive collaboration among their employees
  • Allowing for cost savings through R&D, since hackathons encourage experts to create innovative products within a short period of time
  • Creating a highly diverse pool of participants, both cultural and demographic, thus generating unique innovation
  • Building a community, as well as creating leadership and ownership
  • Finding excellent talent and thus creating recruitment opportunities
  • Creating brand awareness, since these events often generate a lot of buzz

Hackathons are divided into two types: internal and external. An internal hackathon is organized by a company solely for its employees. Whether it is conducted by the company itself or an external entity is hired to run the hackathon, its main purpose would be to tackle a problem that is specific for that company or to come up with new products or services. Take Facebook for example; since 2007, the company has been holding internal hackathons every few months, where they bring in employees from different locations and teams to brainstorm and create something they believe will add to Facebook's user experience.

An external hackathon, on the other hand, is on a larger scale and includes individuals from different companies and educational institutions who come together with the main purpose of creating something new. A good example of this is Carousell, an app that simplifies the process of selling unwanted household clutter. This idea won first place in the Startup Weekend hackathon that was held in Singapore in 2012. The company has to date raised over $372M.

Regardless of the type of hackathon that is being held, the importance lies in its highly interactive nature and creative liberty and that’s why we see more and more companies leaning towards holding hackathons to improve their businesses and operations. What separates a good hackathon from a bad one are some integral points that need to be considered. First and foremost, a hackathon needs to have a theme or tackles a specific problem which is aligned with the objectives of the organizing party. A successful hackathon should also be carried out by the right organizers who are able to provide the participants with the tools, knowledge, and setting that would allow for the creativity to flow. We at MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab, believe that having the right structure along with the right trainers, who are able to guide the participants in the right direction, would increase the chances of coming up with the required innovative solutions.

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