By Sarah Saska
Throughout my time as a fellow at MaRS Discovery District, Canada’s leading entrepreneurship and innovation hub, I was reminded often that in order to do meaningful work in the world, it is imperative to “fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” Too often, generative thinkers and self-proclaimed problem solvers, much like myself, are eager to find a “solution” when thinking about any number of the world’s most intractable problems. Whether it be resource scarcity, climate change, economic crisis, widening inequalities, growing global poverty, chronic disease, ageing populations, or the epidemic of violence against women, many of us tend towards finding solutions too quickly.
Evgeny Morozov’s book, To Save Everything, Click Here is of relevance here, particularly his critique of the rise of ‘solutionism,’ which he defines by quoting Michael Dobbins: “Solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problem it is trying to solve, reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” Nowhere, it seems to me, is solutionism in fuller force than at a hackathon. Too often, the contexts, causes, and effects of the social problems hackathons seek to remedy are ill-understood because they have not spent enough time falling in love with the problem.
The very nature of a hackathon lends itself to the solutionism trap, and to avoid this, organizations must be willing to put time and effort into understanding the problem, whatever it may be. In this way, it was a pleasure to work with my team at Diplohack because my team was willing to take the time to understand the problem.
Each of the six multidisciplinary teams was assigned a theme that focused on addressing either the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, or, emboldening select UN resolutions. Our team was tasked with finding an innovative way to leverage technology to empower citizens around UN resolution 1325 – Women, Peace & Security. We chose to focus on the epidemic of sexual violence against women and girls in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (“DRC”).
Given the breadth of knowledge and expertise within our team (The MATCH International Women’s Fund, Nobel Women’s Initiative, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, Conference of Defence Associations Institute, Doctoral Candidates, The SecDev Foundation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Netherlands, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies), we had a decent grasp of the problem and the wherewithal to deepen our understanding reasonably fast.
The organizers of Diplohack supported us in connecting with women on the ground in DRC, as well as with community organizers and grassroots organizations. In understanding the problem, it became clear that sexual violence survivors in eastern DRC lack emergency medical care, and this care is most critical within the first 72 hours. Our solution, Connect Her / Connectées, is a free SMS and phone call based service that links sexual violence survivors in eastern DRC to community-based first responders who provide emergency medical care and support within those crucial 72 hours.
Although our proposed solution is not particularly flashy, nor is it as technologically sophisticated as one might expect at a hackathon, our solution is contextually appropriate for the on-going problem that we sought to address. I am proud of our team for remaining true to our values, as well as to the process because too often, hackathons privilege “disruptive” innovations and tech-based solutions for the world’s intractable problems. These challenges are often referred to as “wicked” problems because they are, by their very nature, seemingly impossible to solve and the world’s existing structures and policies have been unable to resolve these challenges. While technological innovations are important – they are not a panacea – we need to figure out new ways of living, new ways of relating with one another in this rapidly moving, shifting and changing world, and above everything else, context matters. What is considered to be innovative in one context may not be considered so in another.
As we move forward, I challenge each of the teams to stay connected and to find ways to create some longevity with their projects. People say that hackathons are often prototypes, and that great things can later emerge from them. However, hackathon projects seldom survive beyond the duration of the hack. Too often, hackathons produce incomplete and short-lived projects, with little incentive for sustainable projects, long-term collaboration, or maintainable code.
With a deep understanding of the busyness of everyday life, and the many veritable hats that we all undoubtedly wear, continue to breathe life into your project. Whether this means linking your project to local, community-based organizations, or sharing your learning with liked-minded people who can elevate your project, please do. If you don’t feel that your team spent enough time understanding the problem you sought to address, be brave enough to pivot, change directions, or scrap your project and support one of the other teams with theirs. Let Diplohack be a spark, or a re-ignition of the things that matter to you in the world.