How Digital Inclusion Can Help Solve Grand Challenges

A global study uncovers best practices for designing virtual hackathons with high levels of engagement and collaboration.

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Hackathon events usually run over several days and involve hundreds or even thousands of people brainstorming and critiquing projects. Before the pandemic, most events were done in person or through a combination of in-person and remote efforts. But once the pandemic was underway, those models were no longer feasible.

When we conducted a global study of over 68 wholly digital hackathons that took place in 2020, we uncovered a common concern among organizers of these virtual events: How could they best ensure people’s effective participation?

Even in normal circumstances, hackathons require clear guidelines to facilitate effective ideation and collaboration. In trying to solve grand challenges in a pandemic-secure environment, the question of how to build successful experiences took on a novel permutation.

Our study looked at national and regional events designed to develop innovative solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. Typically organized over a 48-hour period, these events required individuals — usually complete strangers — to log on and organize themselves into teams of five to 10 people with diverse knowledge and skill sets. Each team had to quickly coalesce around a COVID-19-related issue — such as health care, mobility, education, or communication — to develop a working prototype for submission to an evaluating jury. Each team received mentoring and feedback during the process. These events were organized by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), public sector agencies, and local startups. Participants included employees of the organizing groups, students, retirees, and other interested volunteers.

However, designing for entirely online formats required organizers to look beyond which digital platforms to choose and which tools to adopt (although those are important steps). It called for an organizational and mindset shift for making the virtual collaboration work. And when collaborating with people who are not from a single organization, especially on grand challenge topics such as regional responses to the pandemic, it was important to recognize and address the often overlooked topic of digital inclusivity.

These particular hackathons offered valuable insights into how to make remote collaboration succeed with participants who have varied backgrounds, perspectives, and experience with technology. In addition, the design principles that emerged as crucial for ensuring digital inclusivity — choosing simple tools, paying attention to onboarding and support, focusing on learning and community, making sure the event is scalable, and bringing along the fun — are applicable in other collaborative situations beyond hackathons.

Understanding the Challenges

Hackathons offer new energy for initiatives related to wide-ranging societal challenges. The events addressing the pandemic that we looked at facilitated sprint-style conversations to broaden the scope of potential solutions that would otherwise be limited to the input of a few experts. They purposely were designed to harness the collective effort of large numbers of diverse individuals.

“Our target audience was anybody in the world who had an idea and who could participate,” explained Philippe Linster, CEO of House of Startups, an organization of the Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce, and the director of Hack the Crisis Luxembourg. The April 2020 event drew 200 online participants who reviewed 33 project ideas during the 48-hour session.

But people from all walks of life come with a wide level of digital skills and knowledge. Lisa Mallner, a manager with the economic development organization Copenhagen Capacity and a volunteer leader of Hack the Crisis Denmark, said that a lack of familiarity with certain online collaboration tools effectively marked a digital divide among individuals. “There was a lot of resistance around basic things, like learning Slack,” said Mallner. That resistance could have prevented collaboration and knowledge sharing from taking place at all. Organizers were forced to think differently to find solutions.

Diverse backgrounds also brought diverse personal routines. The virtual format increased the opportunity for parents of young children to participate, since they wouldn’t be spending 48 hours in a physical gathering space such as a warehouse, where hackathons often take place. But parents have obligations: Some participants had to step away to care for kids and prepare family meals. “The difficulty was dealing with the reality of our different backgrounds,” said Zhan Liu, a participant in Versus Virus in Switzerland. Acknowledging and accommodating participants’ various personal routines would be critical to ensuring a welcoming and effective virtual involvement.

Five Design Principles for Digital Inclusivity

To understand how to effectively respond to challenges in the virtual space, we interviewed a variety of organizers and participants from the global events, ranging from countries with poor technology infrastructures to those more widely digitally enabled. Our research revealed five best-practice guidelines for designing inclusive digital engagements for collaboration sprints. In a world that increasingly supports remote interactions, these practices help ensure that almost anyone can participate effectively, regardless of their technological access, digital skills, or professional background.

1. Prioritize digital tools that are easy and familiar over tools that are new. To enhance virtual team productivity and collaboration, organizers should help participants feel comfortable with the tools they’re being asked to use. Team members should be able to smoothly shift from how they interact in the physical world to how they communicate in a virtual forum.

Emre Erbirer, an events lead at Atölye, a creative services company that co-organized Hack the Crisis Turkey, explained that technologies were chosen based on “whether they were easy to use and whether they allowed teams to adapt their work in meaningful ways.” These included Zoom, Slack, and Google Slides.

For many events, communication occurred through instant messaging applications, files in shared databases, videoconferencing platforms, and project management platforms.

The landscape of collaborative tools has grown considerably, but introducing too many new options can be a mistake and lead to technology overload. Organizers were most successful when they focused on a small set of integrated products that enabled a smooth and intuitive user experience.

2. Dedicate time and resources for onboarding and support. The digital natives who make up much of the innovation community can unconsciously underestimate the challenges that people with limited digital skills may face. It is crucial to provide a level playing field so that collaboration can be truly inclusive and independent of technical background knowledge.

When Binta Moustapha, a STEM advocate and educator, began preparing for a virtual hackathon event in Nigeria, she knew she’d be guiding many participants through their first experience with online collaboration tools. She also knew she’d be introducing people with limited digital experience to how a virtual collaboration event works. “We had to train participants about every basic concept,” she told us. “Participants asked us to ‘explain everything like I’m a 5-year-old.’” She also faced the challenge of language diversity: “Nigeria has multiple languages, such as Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo, which we wanted to make sure were represented.”

Across the events, well-designed opportunities for training and support were key. By dedicating ample time for technology onboarding and support, event organizers were able to help participants understand how to use collaboration platforms and instant messaging tools.

These onboarding sessions were usually conducted online the day before each event. But training support did not stop there. Throughout many of the hackathons, teams of volunteers were assigned to facilitate participants’ ideation efforts, answer questions, and help troubleshoot technical problems. “It seemed like overkill, but having a dedicated team for real-time virtual support was critical for enabling everybody’s active participation,” explained one organizer.

3. Frame the project as a learning experience. Recognizing that everybody is a beginner is important when bringing people together with an array of backgrounds and skills. For some, using instant messaging will be a new experience; for others, building teams online will be unfamiliar. Reframing the virtual grand challenge process as not just a way to approach complex global challenges but a learning journey for everybody helped to create a common and immersive experience. “The aim should be to encourage community and a sense of belonging,” explained Mustafa Ozer, a director at imece, a Turkish social innovation platform and co-organizer of Hack the Crisis Turkey.

Building community can be achieved by setting up the virtual engagement as an exercise supported by dedicated community managers who are able to facilitate discussions and actively encourage participants to share with and learn from one another. With the help of community managers, Hack the Crisis Turkey developed online learning spaces that participants were free to join as they wished. Within these learning spaces, the managers invited speakers on various topics, created points of interaction, posted relevant articles, and raised questions for discussion. “When the participants start engaging with each other without the facilitation, you know that the community learning is starting to work,” said Ozer.

4. Ensure scalability. It’s important to consider scale when evaluating technology options. In contrast to physical events, virtual events can accommodate thousands of participants, increasing accessibility for nontraditional participants such as parents with children at home and financially restricted groups that cannot afford to travel.

But with the benefit of increased reach comes the necessity to scale accordingly. The #EUvsVirus hackathon, a regional event run by the European Commission, drew some 30,000 participants who communicated in over 5,000 communication channels. In Germany, over 40,000 people signed up to participate in the #WirVsVirus event. One volunteer organizer confided to us that events that big can feel chaotic: “Participants didn’t know with whom they should speak to start a team. Helping to match the right talents with the right ideas, and coordinating teams with overlapping project ideas, was a huge feat.”

Driven by these concerns, the organizers of Hack the Crisis Austria were careful to select online collaboration platforms and tools that could handle large crowds and complex workflows. “Consideration of scalability defined our technology choices,” Josine Bakkes, head of social impact for the nonprofit AustrianStartups and a project lead of Hack the Crisis Austria, told us. “We saw how other virtual collaborations expanded at dramatic rates and became unmanageable.” Her group opted for an instant communication tool that Bakkes believed could scale better than other options. The Austrian event went on to successfully engage with over 700 people who generated more than 50 project ideas.

5. Reproduce an atmosphere of fun. Don’t underestimate the importance of fun for collaborative innovation. When we talked to organizers and participants of in-person hackathons, they regularly emphasized the social atmosphere and how it kept participants engaged and motivated. “It’s about the Wi-Fi structure, how good the food is; it’s about having free massages, city tours, and cool games,” said Jonathan Isenring, who cofounded HackZurich in 2014 and oversaw the 72-hour online #CodeVsCOVID19 event in Switzerland. How can these qualities be re-created online?

Organizers in our study used a variety of tactics, such as livestreaming yoga and meditation sessions, virtual games, expert panels, and workshops on topics as varied as well-being, digital storytelling, and pitching ideas. One hackathon organized virtual tours of different locations and invited celebrity speakers.

The possibilities for virtual engagement are seemingly endless. However, it does require creative thinking beyond a simplistic replication of activities from the physical world.

Harnessing Results for Maximum Impact

Designing for digital inclusivity helps ensure that diverse voices are involved in solving grand challenges, but this is only the first step. The point is to build contributions that result in solutions. In looking to capitalize on the richness that emerges during virtual collaborations, it is important to demonstrate authenticity, with a clear focus on accountability and follow-up. Initial ideas and solutions that are generated must be nurtured into eventual products or services.

One way to ensure this is by embedding initiatives within larger systems of innovation to enable systematic follow-up that can be scaled and supported appropriately. In the case of the COVID-19 hackathons, we discovered that organizing intermediaries such as NGOs and government agencies were best suited for initiating and implementing such initiatives. The European Union also organized follow-up online marketplace mechanisms called matchathons to connect promising solutions and ideas with end users, investors, foundations, and other funding opportunities for continuous support. The EU followed up six months afterward with the EUvsVirus Launchathon to connect developed solutions with corporate partners, public procurers, and investors.

Organizers found that they set their events up for success when they placed purpose front and center. “We had a lot of pushback,” said Mallner of Hack the Crisis Denmark. “People thought we were doing it as a PR effort and that there was nothing behind it. But we persevered and ended up building the biggest virtual collaboration in Denmark, partnering with both the public and private sectors. About 40% of people were first-time participants.”

Intrinsic motivations, such as the desire to help, characterized individuals who were willing to invest their time in these events. Simon Hofer, a participant in the Swiss #CodevsCOVID19 event, told us, “I was brainstorming how I could help. Having an impact means people can benefit, in one way or another, from what you do.” Intermediaries were able to attract a broad crowd of participants when they also leveraged a public perception of neutrality and facilitated ideas and solutions that reflected both global and local needs.

Digitalization offers an unprecedented reach to an increasingly broad group of stakeholders, and the widespread use of digital solutions holds great potential for engaging those stakeholders in solving grand challenges. Harnessing this diversity, however, requires a working awareness of digital inclusivity. By designing collaborations with the lowest common denominator in mind — in terms of technology, accessibility, and ease of use — organizations can ensure that everyone is genuinely enabled to be a potential contributor.

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