Context news

Hacking for good

20 November 2020

Big Bloom launched its first New Zealand event last week. The Hackathon for Good was a perfect opportunity for our Design Principal Alasdair Hood to put hacking to the test and help a social enterprise solve a tricky challenge.

Sometimes I wonder what the world might look like if the collective force of its design industry could be harnessed for just one day. Imagine the intellectual horsepower. And what if that energy and ability were distributed to tackle the numerous problems our planet faces?

The reality of harnessing a unified global force is of course a pipe dream, but at an acute level, hackathons are a very real way to collaborate and problem-solve. As an advocate for collective thought and design thinking, hackathons might just be my daydream come true — so when the opportunity presented itself to join a growing global initiative kicking off in New Zealand, I jumped at the chance.

Founded by Yvan Gatignon at the end of 2018, Big Bloom is an international movement that harnesses ideas generation and critical thinking to accelerate real-world problem-solving. With a focus on social innovation, it works with not-for-profits and social enterprises to come up with solutions for issues that really matter.

A recent Big Bloom event developed a see-through mask to help deaf people cope through COVID — enabling them to safely lip-read without putting themselves at risk — while another developed a food truck initiative inside a prison, helping inmates develop catering skills to assist with their reintegration into the workforce.

Big Bloom uses the hackathon format. With its origins in tech, the concept has been around for a while, but it’s gradually evolved into a structure for all kinds of problem-solving across almost any industry. Its framework deploys diverse groups of people to understand, ideate, prototype, and pitch ideas over a period of just hours or a few days, depending on the complexity and level of detail sought.

Our hackathon was scheduled for several sessions over four days and, like most events in 2020 (and probably the foreseeable future), this collaborative undertaking was entirely online.

After more than a decade of working remotely, Big Bloom was next-level. Minutes after it began, I was pitched headlong into a virtual breakout room with five other team members scattered around Auckland, our coach — drinking his first coffee of the day in Singapore — and a graphic designer assigned to support us, just a few blocks away from me in Christchurch’s CBD.

Anything to do with hacking probably conjures mental images of darkened bedrooms and spotty teenagers waging misguided assaults on remote victims. This exercise couldn’t have been more different. Our team comprised an impressive array of professionals. Sales and logistics expertise, a retail and export manager, and a programmatic buying specialist — all skillsets I considered better-suited than mine to our client’s problem of scaling their business in an impossibly short time. But therein lies the truth.

“Problems” and “problem-solving” are interchangeable with “design” and “designing”. It’s estimated that a person makes about 35,000 decisions every day. The majority, of course, are automatic or subconscious, but many important decisions require a process of analysis to assess pros and cons and to arrive at a resolution.

What unfolded over the following four days was a timely reminder.

It reminded me that a problem shared is a problem halved. Our team’s broad perspectives and diverse insights exponentially increased the possibilities. It reminded me that thorny problems bring out the best in people and that quality outcomes can be achieved no matter the timeframe, as long as a team works together. It reminded me that placing some structure around creative processes can be as valuable as freewheeling. But most of all, it reminded me just how much fun it is to ideate, debate, and create solutions with other people.

At Context, we’re using a multidisciplinary approach to bring diverse thinking to all of our projects. Just as I was teamed with an export manager and a programmatic buying specialist, our architects and interior, urban, landscape, graphic, and digital designers all offer different perspectives and experiences that make for original, well-informed, relevant outcomes.

In an ideal world, the one where every designer is spending a day solving a problem that matters, I can well imagine Big Bloom facilitating the creative chaos into extraordinary outcomes. In the real world, Big Bloom is a superb alternative to my pipe dream — and one I’d enthusiastically participate in again.

Since December 2018, Big Bloom has organized 29 Hackathons for Good, made up of 13 face-to-face events in Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, and Singapore and 16 online events in both English and French. The recent Big Bloom hackathon was the first of its kind in New Zealand.