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[With Video] 3 surprising things I discovered from hacking 21st-century city challenges

August 08, 2019

By Brenda Webster Tweel

A mentor from Stantec’s Idea Hackathon shares her thoughts from a two-day forum on smart city solutions

I attended my first hackathon, and I’m addicted. Stantec recently worked with The Globe and Mail’s Globe Content Studio and Hackworks to host the inaugural Stantec Idea Hackathon in Toronto, gathering teams of industry professionals, students, and city residents over a two-day forum. I served as a mentor to the competing teams, and I haven’t stopped talking about the experience—as my coworkers and loved ones will attest.

Our goal was to assemble motivated, intelligent people from diverse backgrounds to take a fresh look at how smart city applications can shape our community. Teams were asked to address our challenge statement: How can we use technology to ensure Toronto is a thriving, livable, and resilient city for all?

I think most people have certain expectations of hackathons—that they will include a high level of energy, some very creative ideas, and a group of talented individuals competing for cash and glory. Our hackathon certainly had all of that—along with a few surprises. 

Our inaugural hackathon asked teams to solve our challenge statement: How can we use technology to ensure Toronto is a thriving, livable, and resilient city for all?

Through the highs and lows that come with too much caffeine and sugar, here are three things that surprised me:

1. Hacking is for everyone: professionals, students, professors, entrepreneurs

Hackathons conjure up images of young, ambitious thinkers pulling all-nighters to put their skills to the ultimate test. We certainly had those participants, the most hardcore of whom might have been a 16-year-old high school student who spent an entire day hacking with his team and then stayed up until midnight coding to help bring their idea to life.

But we also had college professors and trained librarians. We had an entire team from Western University’s Ivey School of Business. We had professionals in architecture and design, graduate students, and marketers. We also had a young woman who started her first company at 19.

The nature of the hackathon creates equity within groups of individuals. All these bright, talented people brought their unique perspectives to address our challenge statement. Each of them—many of whom showed up without knowing anyone in the room—had a keen interest in smart cities and were unafraid to jump into the pressure cooker, ready to solve some of the biggest challenges our cities face.

As a mentor to the teams, Brenda Webster Tweel says her role was “to act as a magnet, bringing their ideas together and helping them find direction and a path forward.”

We asked many of our industry partners to attend as well, acting either as a mentor (like myself), or to contribute as a speaker, where they could share their thoughts on smart cities. Speakers from Microsoft, Quest, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and Stantec set the tone for an inspired hacking session. A panel with speakers from the City of Toronto, Miovision, Alectra Utilities, CUTRIC, and Stantec further explored those ideas in a lively—and at times hilarious—interactive panel. No great ideas are created in a vacuum, and it was our intention to give participants as much brain food as possible.

We’re often siloed within our sector or industry—engineers talking to architects, professors to students, government representatives to citizens. The contribution of all these groups and the perspective they brought to the table made ideas from our teams that much better. They weren’t created through a singular lens but rather were inspired, incubated, and shaped by people who work in different circles of our community.

2. Hacking supports original, creative, feasible ideas

For two days ideas were flying fast and furious and from all different angles—I’ve likened it to flying shrapnel. As a mentor to the teams, my role was to act as a magnet, bringing their ideas together and helping them find direction and a path forward. The thoughtfulness and passion behind these ideas was nothing short of inspiring. Each team tackled the competition with hopeful optimism and a healthy competitive spirit.

Many of them started with a problem to solve—cities need more fresh air, more green space, more data to help guide decisions … so how can we accomplish that? The proposals that came out of the creative process all merited consideration, and some of them were highly developed and close to implementable. On the second day, my Urban Places colleague Jason Schrieber said: “These ideas are amazing—I can’t believe our industry hasn’t thought of them yet.” I had to agree.

The winning team, PowerWalk, used kinetic floor tiles to capture energy generated through footfall and collect much-needed pedestrian mobility data.

In the end, a team called PowerWalk won. Their idea was to use piezoelectric technology—kinetic floor tiles that capture energy generated through footfall—to better collect pedestrian mobility data. Pedestrian traffic is notoriously difficult to measure, and this plan could improve planning by quantifying footfalls. Government agencies could use the data to better quantify the economic impact of pilot projects, figure out fare evasion, and evaluate lighting needs for urban trails. I should also mention the concept’s added benefits of increased safety through lighting, its potential use for public art, and the automatic anonymization of the data—protecting privacy 100%.

This idea was just too implementable for the judges to pass on. The team had already thought of how to appeal to potential investors and integrating their target market into their presentation language.

Other excellent ideas focused on very real challenges being faced by Toronto and other cities like it:

  • Designing a digital platform to connect newcomers with immigration services—addressing a serious knowledge gap that holds many people back unnecessarily.
  • Integrating a micro-climate data network to help cities plan more efficiently and increase resilience.
  • Better connecting citizens to city services through technology.
  • Crowd-sourcing green infrastructure from citizens to increase a city’s storm resilience.
  • Digitally visualizing citizen engagement to better inform city regulations, policies, and development.
  • Improving transit fare collection and tracking by integrating payment processes.
  • Using data to alleviate traffic congestion and improve negative health effects of long commutes.
  • Providing more inclusive living solutions for senior citizens.
  • Improving data collection and mapping through low-cost residential weather kits.

You can see a summary of all the ideas in the Stantec Hackathon Idea Book.

Some amazing, creative ideas came from groups whose members didn’t know each other before the hackathon.

3. Strangers make good hackers

While observing the groups, I came to a realization: some amazing, creative ideas came from groups whose members didn’t know each other before the hackathon. The mutual respect between teammates that came from taking time out of their days and their lives to work together on a common problem was the trust that held them together. Without established pecking orders, preconceived notions, or existing relationships, these teams were free to explore their creativity to its fullest. There is something beautiful about that.

Of course, preparation is key, and those teams that did some upfront work and conceptualized their ideas ahead of time produced some amazing concepts as well. There are infinite approaches to every problem but sharing diverse perspectives in a common effort produces the ideas that truly push the envelope.

The nature of the hackathon creates equity within groups of individuals.

There is nothing like spending two days together in an electrically charged environment to challenge yourself, and forge relationships. For me, it underscored the fact that we are all designers, we all have ideas worth consideration, and we can all contribute. It was truly a microcosm of how we can engage people to improve our public realm and address challenges that affect us all.

The question that remains top of mind is how we can continue to “hack” our cities with all the amazing people we met. Rest assured—we’re working on that.

  • Brenda Webster Tweel

    Brenda partners closely with infrastructure, financial, and government teams, integrating technical foundations in landscape architecture, architecture and urban design to build resilient solutions.

    Contact Brenda
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