Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Coding towards critical mass

It’s a rare thing to get a glimpse inside of a truly creative organization, to learn how it works and to identify lessons that can be applied elsewhere.

A recent New York Times article on the staggering history of innovation at Bell Labs offers a glimpse inside the mind of the man responsible for the “culture of creativity” there – Mervin Kelly.

Kelly had very specific thoughts about how to create an environment that fostered innovation and new ideas.

“His fundamental belief was that an ‘institute of creative technology’ like his own needed a ‘critical mass’ of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing.”

It’s striking how these same principles can be used to explain the success of coworking spaces (the good ones at any rate). Critical mass is everything – too few people and it’s like working at the library; too many and it’s like working at the corner coffee shop during morning rush.

The proper mix of talent and individuals is also critical to fostering a creative environment – homogeneity does not breed serendipity.

I think well organized hackathons operate under the same dynamic.

There are those that disagree with the philosophy that getting an optimal number of people to a hackathon is critical to its success. As long as you get some civicly minded people together to work on some projects, all is well (or so the argument goes).

I think this is flawed thinking – it’s not about getting more or less people to a hackathon. It’s about getting the right number of people, and the right mix of talents & backgrounds to a hackathon.

The success we see around us in coworking spaces, and the lessons we learn from Mervin Kelly of Bell Labs, tell us the getting an optimal number of participants together in close proximity is critical to the success of a creative endeavor.

Hackathon organizers assume the duty of first identifying the optimal number of participants for their event. This isn’t always easy, and it’s far from a scientific discipline. Knowing your community (and your community of hackers) is critical in determining the optimal number of participants and the right mix of talent.

Hackathon organizers then assume the duty of employing the proper tactics and strategies for attracting a critical mass of people to their event. Again, this isn’t always easy and it is far from science – we are still learning about the best ways to do this.

It’s comforting to think that any turnout at a civic hackathon is a good thing – and in many ways, it is. A sparsely attended hackathon is almost always better than no hackathon at all.

But having the optimal number of participants at an event is critical to it’s success.

Hackathon organizers have a job to do. Let’s do it right.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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