When You Win a Hackathon: an Ethnographic Odyssee…
Frequent readers of this blog will remember that I do research on hackathons as (uprising) socio-economic institutions and time-spaces of social creativity and inventiveness. You might also remember that my team and I actually had won an IoT and public transport themed hackathon.
As a result, we have been invited to present our project concept and ideas at the local public transport corporation. This was very exciting, appreciating and, most of all, a great opportunity to shed some light on an issue I mostly had to speculate about: the transition from hackathonian invention to full-scale innovation projects within established organizational contexts. This is, indeed, a specific problem for founding (tentative) start-ups in subsequence to a hackathon event is rather common (however, not obligatory). There are two thresholds which can be already identified at a first glance: a) hosting or funding a hackathon is, for corporations, often a common communicative address which sums up and/or disguises their manifold (other) interests. b) there is resistance grounded in the established organizational order; since corporations have their own stability and resilience they also feature inflexibility contained with their ability to (formally) include members and exclude non-members. So much on this sociology of organizations.
At my visit I experienced something that might correspond best with organizational, systemic closedness. Contrary to my hackathon experiences with openness, we had a chance to present our ideas at a management meeting and got, at first, commending responses. But our former hackathon mentor already doubted this situation. Eventually, our ideas were not that different from the internal proposals and projects discussed at this management meeting. However, it seemed like the problem of connectivity was that we had no internal role and thus a threshold concerning the actual integration of our project in terms of organization. Hence, this whole event eventually could only unfold PR effects – depending on in how far this could have been anticipated, one might even recognize some méconnaissance at work. No doubts: we learned a lot about public transport, technologies, and their infrastructures! I even had the chance to drive a trolley simulator once (and I am significantly good at it!) which, technologically, was interesting and also fun. However, we never heard of them again and I cannot interfere for I am waiting for a ‘natural’ response before I reveal my researcher role to them.
Intriguingly, our once rather large group of eight people was reduced by half. This happened due to self-selection. Some wanted to carry on our ideas and drafts. Others did just not respond to the invitation or our requests. Even though we were now a group which entirely was interested in joining a long-term innovation project, there was no management interest to include our idea. However, as have been on the outside of the organization. the very obstacle of cooperation had been that we were unable to commensurably communicate our interest or know and find possibilities for our inclusion.
Also, the organizational diversity of differentiated teams at the hosting corporation appeared to play a significant role for this failure or project integration. From the point of view of their ICT department, we were, at least, a fair chance of producing new ideas, projects and thus gaining organizational weight by integrating us and our idea. Still, they were particularly interested in getting our attention in terms of their technical and digital infrastructures and capacities. However, the public transport company, a public corporation, also tried to do some prestige work concerning their precarious market situation (being underfunded by design, serving public interests before economic, shortage of workers, etc.).
There were other departments that were interested in our visit, or at least were commissioned to be interested. Accordingly, we had visited the mechanical engineering department and the education and training center. Those visits were similar to my experiences with hackathons, I, once again, encountered tight entanglement of multi-functionality and overdetermination of social meaning. PR, advertisement, scouting, and somehow internal shifts. Concluding, the failing integration of inventive hackathonteams in innovation projects and structures is a particular feature of the hackathon strategy in advance: are the objectives of hackathon sponsoring integrated on a corporate level or a rather tolerated, fuzzy outcome of diverse and entangled interests.
Eventually, this taught me two things in particular: On the one hand, I experienced, deeply, the time-bounded-event-team vs established organization, invention vs innovation lessen I described. On the other hand I learned that you can’t neither control such hackathonian aspirations nor what you are about to learn. I had been looking for an understanding of organizations, their interest in hackathons, and how they are (co-)shaping them. What I learned was actually a lot about trolleys, infrastructures, and how German public transport corporations work. But I also got a surprising insight into the media technology and socio-technical assemblages around VR and AR simulations and simulators. The identity of accelerated movement and inclination. Visuality, and the cybernetic reproduction between steering interfaces, reality and virtual reality. Also how social situations and incidents are resembled and identified as a (public transport) cultural significance by the simulated passengers and the operator’s instructions and comments. However, there might, thus, be a third thing to learn with this very act of blogging about my experiences: The media-technological infrastructures of blog posting can reorganize such shifts and leave a different and distinct impression. So this is, somehow, probably a post rather on postmodernity – after all – and that’s why post-modernity is a neat play on words – avant le lettre, without knowing… Because, you know, the culture and praxis of posting resembles the very essence of postmodernity, decentralized production of narratives and intensive like extensive reference and quotation chains. And self referentiality, occasionally represented by the prefix “post” itself. How funny.