Just over a week ago I participated in my first hackathon. As an early career designer, I was equally excited about the opportunity to gain more experience and the prospect of participating in a design challenge with a team of other designers and engineers to solve a problem. As someone who has long been interested in impactful work, I was intrigued by both the name and the tagline of the event: Hacks for Humanity: Hacking for the Social Good.

The stated goal of the event is to “challenge participants to innovate solutions to local and global issues” and in order to achieve this, the organizers at Arizona State University place an emphasis in including participants of all ages, experiences and skill-sets. Instead of targeting just coders, the event invites “humanists” in addition to designers and coders to attend because they recognize that this approach, “Demonstrates the rewards of diverse perspectives.” Taking this goal a step further, no pre-made teams are allowed in order to assure that each team has a range of self-identified roles and skill-sets, and teams were revealed on the kickoff Zoom call.

From team reveal to final pitch, teams have around 42 hours to choose a track to focus on, ideate issues related to that topic, decide on a potential solution, write up their challenge statement and focus canvas model, design the landing page for the product being developed, create a pitch video for the product, create a prototype of the product (at minimum) and then pitch the product and the solution. In between those deliverables, team members were expected to attend various workshop and plenary sessions as well as mentor sessions to receive feedback on each step.

Suffice to say, it was a busy weekend and I didn’t get much sleep.

This year’s tracks were:

Aging

How can societal attitudes about and responses to aging acknowledge the humanity of every individual?

Safety

What are solutions that lead us toward personal, public, or emotional safety? How does safety contribute to the wellbeing of individuals, organizations, and communities?

Justice

What is justice, and how is justice achieved in a way that takes into account the humanity of every human? To what extent can thinking about and practicing justice–and its opposite, injustice– be challenged and realized through innovation and creative entrepreneurship?

In addition to the workload, my team also had to factor in four separate time zones. One of my teammates lives in Phoenix (the time zone for the event), I live in New York, another teammate lives in Nova Scotia, and the final team mate lives in Israel. But while the time difference added another layer of complexity to the challenge, it added a depth to our perspective, and it was interesting to hear where our cultural differences lay and where there was overlap as we discussed potential issues to focus on and then again as we worked on our product.

Ultimately, participating was a great experience for me. We faced a lot of challenges (time being the foremost challenge), but it was wonderful to meet so many other people from different backgrounds and considering the short turnaround time, my team meshed quickly and worked together well. As an added bonus, our design even ended up winning first place.

Now that I’m caught up on my sleep again, I’d do it again for sure. While I generally prefer a well-paced project schedule, there really is no substitute for the rush that comes with ideating and problem-solving on the fly.