Sarah Sharif: How Civic Hackathons Help Cities Focus on Humans

Cities are constantly developing and revising their Smart City Roadmaps in an effort to be more people-centered and human-focused.

In his Wall Street Journal article, “Rise of the Smart City,” Micheal Totty quotes Andrew Therriault, Boston’s Chief Data Officer, who shares how Smart Cities listen to the public, “to be as responsive as possible to the public’s needs, we need to listen to their input through whichever medium they choose to share it.”

The idea of how Smart Cities are responsive cities is echoed by Colin O’Donnell in his Tech Crunch article where he emphasizes how our current homes were “designed by people who died long before today’s inhabitants were even born.”

Cities that excel in this area of listening to their inhabitants, providing space to pilot redesigns, and actively responding to local needs are the leaders of the pack. Civic hackathons, which are high-energy design sprints on social good projects, have an important role to play.

Here are 3 ways that they lend voices and agency to our communities.

1 - Hackathons Present a New Way to Engage the Community


As a community organizer turned civic hacker, I’ve attended and hosted hundreds of public gatherings - everything from town hall meetings to listening hearings. These are usually structured, traditional formats that do little to expand the civic technology pedagogy by limiting how participants learn about problems and join in the building of solutions.

The format inhibits people to actually build their own product, adapt current deployed mechanisms like sensors, or share ideas of betterment of their homes. Empowerment of residents comes from not just informing them, but inviting them to be a part of the entire process of learning how their city operates and can be improved.

The way things are “typically done” is not enough.

Conversely, hackathons shake the system at its roots, providing participants with a platform to test new ideas and explore tools for change. Instead of outside ideas being communicated to attendees, all hackathon ideas are generated from the voices in the room, and solutions are proposed via unique collaborative projects.

Engagement looks quite different when community members are active change participants, and people become fired up about their passion, their city, and their opportunity to play an active role in making their community a better place.

Designing a smart city requires the input and engagement of the entire community. This demands engagement of a different order than in the past, and it necessitates the inclusion of individuals at all levels in the community.

2 - Hackathons Reveal Systemic Blind Spots

What I love about the hackathon model is how it provides a raw perspective on a community’s blind spots. Ideas shared and proposed for these events are realistic, personal, and organic in ways that other solicitation methods simply don’t foster. The community raises problems to the surface, which means that organizers never know exactly what will bubble to the top. This can be a vulnerable place to be as it exposes the community’s main pain point for participants.

Our cities are built on foundations of structures that have been in place for generations, even centuries, and it’s no surprise that many cities share some of the same common problems.  Each community also has a set of unique issues that often trump the more general issues in terms of importance to the community.

Living in Austin, Texas, we face levels of drought firsthand and I’ve frequently hacked projects for water conservation…but this might not pertain to Chicago, Illinois where snow and ice management require more critical focus. For this reason, building smart cities of the future will require cities to efficiently tackle widespread municipal challenges while also addressing their distinct character flaws.

3 - Let’s Reinvent the Wheel

No single city has the magic antidote to all the civic issues that need to be addressed in the evolution from a regular city to a smart one; however, the power of technology and creativity harnessed through civic hackathons can be game-changing.

We have ingrained tools that run the daily city business. It’s enough for our communities to survive, but does not push them to thrive – there’s the difference. Hackathons are our chance to merge different skills, polar perspectives, and emerging trends to attempt to solve problems in an entirely new fashion.

“There is an absence of an image for our future cities...too many of us are rooted in rural traditions, searching for security and conformity, unwilling to commit ourselves to the solution of the problems of the city in which we live and even more unwilling to pay for their solution”
- Elizabeth Geen, professor, USA 1966

Effective change requires that we not only dismantle established structures to gain understanding, but that we take the best aspects of the current system and fuse them with our vision for the future to build a new, viable, sustainable city. For this to happen, we must reinvent the wheel. It’s not enough to just band-aid the partially functional.

Civic hackathons are a critical ingredient as cities navigate their smart city roadmap. Smart cities are an opportunity to invite everyone – including individuals, advocates, students, public and private sector leaders - to be involved in building a better city.  The structure of the civic hackathon helps to create a record and keep all of us accountable to the progress we want to see.

Sarah Sharif, Founder & CEO of  Experimental Civics , Event Director for  ATX Hack for Change , and writer for  Hacker Noon , is a Pakistani-born, British-American, and Millennial. Social innovation, civic technology and human impact projects are the pillars of her lifelong career. Through Experimental Civics, her global work focuses on empowering communities through their engagement with technology.

Sarah Sharif, Founder & CEO of Experimental Civics, Event Director for ATX Hack for Change, and writer for Hacker Noon, is a Pakistani-born, British-American, and Millennial. Social innovation, civic technology and human impact projects are the pillars of her lifelong career. Through Experimental Civics, her global work focuses on empowering communities through their engagement with technology.