This past Saturday Joe and I spent our morning at Collegethinktank Boston, an intriguing initiative between Boston’s Office of Business Development and Wentworth Institute of Technology’s Accelerate program. The two institutions came together to host a civic hackathon, a series of intense workshops condensed into a daylong event, with the goal of solving real urban problems.
The event took place at the MassChallenge space in the Innovation District, packed with over 100 students from schools including Wentworth, Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Northeastern, Boston College, Boston Architectural College, UMass, Babson, Emmanuel, Berklee School of Music, Wellesley College, Bunker Hill Community College, MassArt, Brandeis, Middlebury College, New England School of Art and Design, Suffolk, and Hult. Together they represented an impressive group of interdisciplinary thinkers, combining the majors of architecture, engineering, business, healthcare, mathematics, social sciences, art, and social services. Helping the students was a group of “facilitators”; professors, designers and consultants from places such as IDEO, Continuum, the IXL Center, ePowerhouse, MassInno and the Design Museum Boston. It was impressive to see such a diverse group of people gathered in one place to tackle Boston’s challenges.
After Zorica Pantic, the president of Wentworth, introduced the day’s agenda, Mayor Menino spoke about the quality of Boston’s neighborhoods and how they depend on livelihood and vibrancy to flourish. The city challenged the participants to consider Boston’s unoccupied commercial storefronts and how these underutilized spaces can be filled. The most promising ideas would reduce vacancy and turnover in commercial spaces while balancing the needs of landlords, businesses, and the community.
The hackathon was an innovative opportunity for both the students and the city to create and evaluate new ideas. The event was dependent upon workshops, which were interrupted by brief status reports. The advantage of this format is not only rapid-fire idea creation but also its ability to turn all disciplines into designers for a day, meaning it forces everyone to think creatively within their area of expertise and communicate this to their group. Ideas that were generated in the first workshop were refined and developed until a final pitch at the end of the event.
These ideas not only reduced risk and upfront costs for businesses to try out space but also helped the community understand what type of program worked within their neighborhood and created a continuous revenue stream for property owners.
A common theme through the final presentation was the creation of an online platform (the word heard in every pitch) that would promote transparency and communication between the three stakeholders: property owners, local businesses, and the community. However, from our perspective the most promising ideas embraced the rising popularity of the shared-use economy. The students who proposed these projects made the argument that commercial entities could benefit from shorter leases or even shared commercial space. These ideas not only reduced risk and upfront costs for businesses to try out space but also helped the community understand what type of program worked within their neighborhood and created a continuous revenue stream for property owners.
The next step is for the city of Boston to release a public RFP for the issue and launch a formal challenge. The selected team would be awarded seed funding, but more importantly be connected to mentorship that can help navigate the complex road of zoning, regulation, and paperwork that accompanies urban problems. Talking to Brian Goodman of the Boston Office of Business Development it became apparent that the city is positioning itself to invest long term in the teams and the hackathon methodology to tackle larger social and civic issues. When we spoke to Monique Fuchs, the Associate Vice President for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Wentworth and founder of Accelerate, she mentioned that there are already plans to host another event targeting a new problem this fall.
Joe and I really enjoyed the event and hope to follow the development of the teams as they progress beyond the idea stage. We are excited by the emergence of the student hackathon as a new methodology for change within the city, especially when the government is positioning itself to be fully invested, such as in the case of the city of Boston.