Hydrogen Hack: How Hackathons Change the Rules of Innovation

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on August 29, 2017
Traver Kennedy
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Every industry inherently knows that innovation is the only way to stay relevant. No matter how traditional your industry may seem, or whether you hold a monopoly, or even if you are protected by patents, you must bring new solutions to your customers based on what they need and demand. Over the past two decades, no industry has remained untouched by the disruptive effects of technology innovation, which can seemingly change the game overnight. Interestingly, innovation itself has been disrupted by technology, as sharing platforms, social media, and big data transform the way organizations come up with their next big idea.

The only antidote for obsolescence is innovation.

One of the new ways to innovate is through hackathons. Forward-thinking organizations are using this competitive collaboration tool to innovate across myriad areas with great success. Hackathons have evolved from their engineering and coding focused roots of the 90s to today’s laser-focused events used to ignite innovation in all kinds of fields. From technology and education to the environment, hackathons are one of today’s tools of choice to literally think outside the box to solve complex problems.

Hacking Innovation

The marketing team at now defunct server giant Sun Microsystems came up with the term “hackathon” in 1999 as a mash up of the words “hack” and “marathon.” These two words perfectly encapsulate what a hackathon is: a group of people competing to solve one issue in an “impossible” amount of time, usually a few days. Today, organizations of all sizes run hackathons to tackle problems their internal teams have not been able to crack within their normal work environments and timelines.

Despite the constraints of time and focus, it is a rare occasion when the “hack” problem is not successfully tackled—no matter what the hackathon is about. Earlier this year, Siemens ran a two-day hackathon in Denmark with their internal team of engineers to make wind turbines more efficient. Just last week, Maersk ran one with outside teams to source ideas for the future of tankers. At both, there was a winning team, which means the challenge was achieved.

Hackathons, like other emerging tools for innovation, such as crowdsourcing and incubating, are tools invented by the new generations that are entering the labor force. These young generations were educated in a world where technology made it possible to lower the barriers to collaboration. They collaborated in school and outside of it with unprecedented access to resources and people, enabled by technology.

Hacking in the Hydrogen Energy Market

Last week, fuel cell startup Arcola Energy in the UK ran a hydrogen hackathon among teams of 8 to 18-year-old kids to “hack gadgets, appliances, and toys to make them move faster, longer or to take first steps as an animate object,” using hydrogen.

While the Arcola Energy Hydrogen Hack was, in their own statements, “an extension of the firm’s long-running, not-for-profit STEM education program,” the hackathon was also sponsored by Toyota and Shell, two companies definitely interested in things that move and the stuff that powers them. To make it even more impactful, this “hydrogen hack” ran in parallel in several places across the UK such as Aberdeen, Bolton, Newcastle, Monmouth, and London. As the Energy Voice article about this hydrogen hack indicated, further inspiration was “provided by the world’s first production hydrogen fuel cell powered saloon car, the Toyota Mirai, which visited the teams of young engineers at each location.”

Energizing Innovation

It is extremely encouraging for us here at Joi Scientific to see the use of new innovation tools in our industry, especially when the effort also educates kids about the enormous potential of the universe’s most abundant energy source. When the next generation sees big players across industries supporting these kinds of efforts, we all win by recruiting open minds who will reach the market and the workforce before we know it.

From energy sustainability to education and health, the world needs transformative innovation. The new generations taking charge know that collaboration and sharing, magnified by technology as never before, is the way to get there. We cannot wait to see what these kids came up with in their hydrogen hack.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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