Voru Social Hackathon

Voru (Estonia)


The Voru Social Hackathon, first launched in 2018, is an innovative initiative designed to address societal challenges by adapting the traditional hackathon model for rural community engagement and social innovationonceptual, process, product, or organisational change, which ultimately aim to improve the welfare and wellbeing of individuals and communities. Many initiatives undertaken by the social economy and by the civil society have proven to be innovative in dealing with socio-economic and environmental problems, while contributing to economic development. To fully tap the potential of social innovation, an enabling policy framework is needed to support public, non-profit and private actors to co-construct and implement socially innovative solutions and thereby contribute to address socio-economic issues, build stronger territorial resilience and better respond to future shocks.. Originating from a critical analysis of subpar social and welfare services in peripheral rural municipalities in Estonia, the initiative sought to empower marginalised and disadvantaged groups, as well as regular citizens, encouraging them to become agents of change within their communities. A key to its success has been its localised approach, leveraging the strong sense of community identity and cultural heritage found in areas like Voru County to foster a sense of belonging and collective agency. By focusing on building new networks and connections rather than just improving existing services, the Social Hackathon has facilitated inclusive and participatory community development processes. This model emphasises the importance of understanding local assets and contexts, utilising targeted communication strategiesCommunication strategies involve planning how to effectively deliver messages to target audiences, selecting suitable channels, crafting engaging content, and timing communications to meet specific objectives. These strategies aim to ensure message clarity, consistency, and impact, while also facilitating two-way interaction with the audience., and hosting events in community-centric venues to inspire innovative solutions to local challenges.

The inception of a unique hackathon model tailored to address community-level societal needs in rural areas of Voru County was inspired by a profound realisation of the shortcomings in local social services. The catalyst for action was an eye-opening analysis of social service delivery in these peripheral municipalities, revealing a stark lack of quality and vision for improvement in the town of Voru and neighbouring settlements. This discovery highlighted a systemic gap in service delivery and a disconnection between service providers and users, characterised by a passive consumer approach and a significant lack of co-creationCo-creation, co-planning or co-design refer to a participatory approach to designing solutions, in which community members are treated as equal collaborators in the design process. and deliberation within local policy making.

Motivated by this gap and the flourishing startup ecosystem in Estonia, collaboration with researchers from Tallinn University sparked the idea of applying innovative startup principles to the public sphere at the municipal level. The popularity and success of hackathons in the private sector presented a compelling model for fostering innovation in public service delivery, suggesting a potential pathway to bridge the divide between municipalities, the private sector, the community, and the public sector through co-creative processes.

This initiative was not directly born out of municipal or community initiatives but rather emerged from an expert perspective, aware of and living within these local conditions. While eventually institutionalised within the municipalities’ framework through the Development Centre of Voruma, an association of municipalities, the driving force for change remained rooted in an expert-led approach. This approach aimed to revolutionise the relationship between municipalities and their constituents by leveraging private sector innovation strategies, thereby enhancing the quality and efficacy of public services through increased community involvement and innovative problem-solving methodologies.

The transformation of public service delivery in rural municipalities through the innovative adaptation of the hackathon model reflects a significant shift towards engaging community involvement and leveraging local social capital. The initiative, born out of a critical analysis of the social services system in a peripheral rural area of Voru county, revealed a stark disparity in service quality and a lack of visionary planning at the local governance level. This realisation prompted the exploration of how municipalities interact with service users, identifying a gap in co-creation and deliberation that spurred the motivation to innovate in public service delivery.

Over the past five years, this approach has demonstrated a notable shift in the dynamics of community engagement, with traditional Town Hall meetingsTown hall meetings are a way for local and national politicians to meet with their constituents either to hear from them on topics of interest or to discuss specific upcoming legislation or regulation. evolving into more dynamic and interactive sessions that incorporate elements of gamificationGamification is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organisations, and activities by creating similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users. and lively conversation. This change reflects a broader transformation towards recognising and utilising the inherent social capital within small communities, where the lines between public institutions and the community are blurred due to the close-knit nature and small communities of these areas.

The success of the hackathon model in fostering a more collaborativeCollaborative refers to a process or activity involving joint effort among a group of people or organisations to achieve a common goal. It emphasises cooperation, teamwork, and shared decision-making, often leading to more inclusive and comprehensive outcomes by leveraging diverse perspectives and skills. and innovative atmosphere in public service deliberations signals a positive direction in the relationship between municipalities and their communities. It highlights the potential of expert-driven initiatives to catalyse change, leveraging local insights and participatory models to enhance public sector responsiveness and effectiveness in meeting societal and community needs.

The Development Center, functioning as an association of municipalities, illustrates a collaborative approach to addressing community needs. Funded through a mix of resources, including significant contributions from EU projects like Horizon2020, the centre’s initiatives represent a resource-intensive endeavor aimed at revitalising local governance through participatory models such as hackathons. The initial willingness of municipalities to engage with the project was largely due to the minimal financial burden placed on them, highlighting the importance of external funding in facilitating the adoption of innovative practices.

This external monetary support, coupled with the expertise and research backing from Horizon2020 and similar projects, was crucial in navigating the complexities of developing a new model for municipal engagement and service improvement. The mixed funding model, blending project funds with municipal budgets, underscores the collaborative financial strategy essential for sustaining these initiatives.

The investment in developing the hackathon model for public service was substantial, reflecting the extensive analysis, experimentation, and refinement required to tailor this approach to the specific needs and constraints of local governance. This process afforded the luxury of in-depth exploration and customisation, a privilege often unavailable within the resource-constrained environments of municipal operations. It also allowed to bring in experts and researchers of participation to study and further develop the model. The success of this development process, therefore, not only showcases the potential of external funding to catalyse innovation but also emphasizes the value of dedicated time and expertise in creating effective solutions for community engagement and service delivery.

This outreach went beyond traditional communication channels, leveraging personal networks and social capital to directly connect with community members. Such efforts were critical in building trust and enthusiasm for the hackathon model among those traditionally excluded from civic participation. The organisers invested significantly in preparing and educating the community about the importance of their involvement, ensuring that diverse voices could contribute to shaping public services.

Accessibility and comfort during the events were also prioritised, with careful consideration given to physical spaces to accommodate varying needs and ensure that everyone could participate fully and comfortably. This inclusive approach not only facilitated greater community involvement but also helped to build a self-sustaining cycle of participation. As more individuals experienced the hackathon process, they became advocates for it, helping to attract and engage new participants in subsequent events.

This evolving dynamic has led to a situation where communication and recruitment for hackathons are now significantly more straightforward, supported by a growing base of individuals familiar with the process. Approximately one-third of hackathon participants are returnees, which not only underscores the model’s appeal but also ensures a continuous influx of new participants, further enriching and diversifying the pool of ideas and perspectives brought to the table. This cycle of engagement and advocacy highlights the transformative potential of integrating marginalised voices into the deliberative process, fostering a more inclusive and responsive approach to public service design and delivery.

Incorporating marginalised groups into the participatory process was a foundational goal in the development of the hackathon model and design for public service improvement. Recognising that conventional City Hall meetings often fail to engage the broader community, special emphasis was placed on empowering disadvantaged populations, including the elderly and those affected by inadequate social and welfare services. The approach involved intensive face-to-face communication strategiesCommunication strategies involve planning how to effectively deliver messages to target audiences, selecting suitable channels, crafting engaging content, and timing communications to meet specific objectives. These strategies aim to ensure message clarity, consistency, and impact, while also facilitating two-way interaction with the audience., designed to demystify the hackathon process, educate potential participants about its value, and foster a sense of inclusion and empowerment.

Ensuring the diversity of participants is crucial for the success of events like hackathons, especially when the goal is to foster innovation and creative solutions for community challenges. Organisers must adopt a proactive approach in monitoring the composition of registrants to identify any imbalances or overrepresentations of certain groups. This vigilance allows for targeted outreach and communication efforts to engage underrepresented sectors, ensuring a wide array of perspectives and experiences are brought to the event. Such diversity is essential for sparking genuine innovation; homogeneous groups are less likely to generate novel ideas or challenge existing paradigms.

Furthermore, the method of team formation within the hackathon is deliberately designed to disrupt familiar? social networks and encourage the formation of new connections. By breaking down pre-existing structures, participants are pushed out of their comfort zones, developing an environment ripe for the emergence of innovative ideas and solutions. This dismantling of power hierarchies and familiar groupings is intended to be seamless from the participant’s perspective, occurring without their explicit awareness. However, it demands a keen and informed effort from organisers who must understand the nuanced dynamics of group interactions and the importance of diversity in driving innovation.

Through a series of three experimental hackathons conducted every six months, starting in 2018, there was a significant growth in understanding and refining the process. These hackathons were not just about arriving at a ready product but about evolving the format based on deepening insights into how community engagement and innovation could be facilitated more effectively.

Typically structured as a two-day event, these hackathons begin with a general session where problems, rather than predefined solutions, are presented, inviting participants from varied backgrounds to form teams and tackle the issues. This approach ensures a focus on problem-solving from multiple perspectives, enhancing the potential for innovative solutions. The team formation is critical, with an optimal size of 4 to 8 members to balance diversity and manageability.

Mentors play a vital role in guiding the teams through a structured deliberationThe deliberation phase is a critical stage in decision-making processes where participants discuss, debate, and reflect on various options or proposals. It involves thorough examination and consideration of all aspects of the issue at hand, aiming to reach a consensus or informed decision. This phase emphasises open dialogue, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving. and co-creation process, using worksheets and checkpoints to keep discussions focused and productive. These mechanisms encourage teams to explore different facets of the problems and conceptualise viable solutions. Inter-team interactions during checkpoint sessions fenable a cross-pollination of ideas, further enriching the collaborative environment.

The culmination of the hackathon is a plenary meetingA plenary session is a meeting attended by all members of a particular group or organisation, typically part of a larger conference or assembly. It’s a key session where major issues are discussed, decisions are made, or keynotes are presented to the entire audience. Plenary sessions are designed to address topics of common interest and importance, facilitating broad participation and collective decision-making. where outcomes are shared and celebrated, sometimes accompanied by awards. This celebration not only recognizes the efforts and creativity of the participants but also reinforces the community’s collective capacity for problem-solving.

Adapting the team formation and information sharing to pre-event online sessionsThe preparatory phase involves initial planning and organisation before launching a project or process. This stage includes setting goals, defining timelines, allocating resources, and establishing guidelines or procedures to ensure a smooth execution. It lays the foundational work necessary for success. has proven effective, allowing more time during the hackathon for deliberation. This adjustment reflects a continuous refinement of the hackathon model to better meet the specific needs of public service innovation, demonstrating a commitment to leveraging collective intelligence for community betterment.

The outcomes of hackathons, particularly those aimed at social innovation, extend far beyond the tangible solutions or concepts developed during the event. For organisers and implementers, the true value lies in the cultivation of new relationships, the establishment of trust among stakeholders, and the personal growth experienced by participants. These events serve as catalysts for increasing social capital, mobilising diverse stakeholders, and fostering a culture of collective action and mutual learning.

The enduring impact of a hackathon is not necessarily in the survival of the solutions as initially conceived but in whether the relationships, connections, and trust forged during the event persist. Recognising this, organisers should not merely aim for immediate service innovations but focus on enhancing the quality of relationships around specific topics, laying a groundwork for future collaborative efforts.

Post-hackathon planning is critical to sustain the momentum generated. Without a supportive ecosystem or infrastructure to nurture these nascent ideas and relationships, the potential for lasting change may be lost. Experiences from cities like Tartu, which have more opportunities for incubation and support, contrast with places lacking such infrastructure, highlighting the importance of preparing for what comes after the hackathon. Temporary measures, like providing six months of mentoring, can help maintain focus and continue the development process.

The key takeaway is that hackathons should be viewed not as standalone events but as the beginning of a longer journey of collaboration and innovation. They are starting points that require a clear vision for how to channel the energy, inspiration, and relationships they generate into sustained action. Without a plan for harnessing these outcomes in a structured way post-event, the efforts risk being ephemeral. Therefore, it’s crucial to approach hackathons with an understanding of their role within a broader strategy of community engagement and development, ensuring that the social capital and relationships built during these events translate into meaningful, long-term impacts.

In the initial stages of organising social hackathons, attempts were made to deliberately influence team formation, an approach that was quickly recognised as counterproductive. The key learning from this experience is the importance of trusting the organic group dynamics that emerge during the event. Interfering or attempting to steer these processes too forcefully can hinder the natural development of ideas and relationships. Hackathon organisers learned to step back and allow participants the space to navigate their own paths, allowing for a more authentic and self-directed form of collaboration.

Emotional intensity is an inherent aspect of social hackathons, where participants are motivated by personal concerns and a genuine desire to address societal issues. This emotional investment requires organisers and mentors to prepare for moments of heightened sensitivity, ensuring they can support participants through any challenges or crises that arise. Creating a safe and respectful environment is paramount, as it allows individuals to openly share and engage with deeply personal topics without fear of judgment or interference.

Another crucial insight is the importance of voluntary participation, especially for civil servants who might feel obligated to attend due to directives from superiors. Mandated attendance can lead to disengagement and dissatisfaction, undermining the hackathon’s objectives. Ensuring that all participants, including those from the public sector, are voluntarily present enhances the overall quality of engagement and the likelihood of meaningful outcomes. Voluntary participation fosters a sense of ownership and commitment to the process, crucial for the hackathon’s success and the implementation of its solutions.

The successful adaptation and dissemination of the hackathon model to rural regions and even internationally, as seen in the case of a small Erasmus project in Romania, highlights the importance of contextual sensitivity and community engagement. This approach emphasises the need to assess and leverage local assets, both within the community and governance structures, rather than simply replicating the model without considering the unique characteristics of each area. A critical factor in the model’s success has been its ability to resonate with the local values and sense of belonging, particularly potent in areas with a strong cultural heritage and identity.

In regions like Voru County, the hackathon initiative thrived partly because it tapped into the community’s deep-rooted sense of identity, leveraging this cultural connection to develop a sense of agency and capacity for change among participants. This sense of belonging, which may be more challenging to cultivate in urban settings as observed in Tartu, has been instrumental in mobilising rural communities towards social innovation and collaborative problem-solving.

Adapting communication strategies to fit the local narrative is also key; the term “hackathon” was eschewed in favor of language that resonated more closely with local experiences and understandings. Efforts to embed the events within the fabric of community life, such as utilising local school buildings for venues and serving local food, further reinforced the initiative’s relevance and accessibility to the community.

These adaptations highlight the necessity of a nuanced understanding of the specific context in which the hackathon model is applied. It’s not about identifying a singular “key” to success but recognising and mobilising the unique assets and values of each community. By doing so, organizers can awaken a collective realisation among participants that they have the power to effect change, transforming not only their surroundings but also their perceptions of what is possible within their communities.

The Voru Social Hackathon, initiated in 2018, stands as an innovative effort in Estonia to revitalise rural community engagement and social innovation through a modified hackathon model. Aimed at empowering marginalised groups and the broader citizenry, the initiative seeks to address the deficiencies in social and welfare services by forging a sense of collective agency and community identity. By focusing on the development of new networks and innovative solutions rather than merely enhancing existing services, the Social Hackathon has facilitated inclusive and participatory development processes in Voru County. The inception of this model was motivated by the urgent need to improve substandard social services, coupled with a desire to apply successful startup innovation strategies within the public sector. This citizen-driven initiative, institutionalised within the municipal framework through the Development Centre of Voruma, demonstrates a unique approach to revitalising public service delivery and local governance. Over the years, the initiative has evolved from traditional City Hall meetings to more dynamic and interactive sessions, leveraging the strong social capital inherent in rural communities. The hackathon model’s success in Voru County underscores the importance of understanding local contexts, utilising targeted communication strategies, and engaging community-centric venues to inspire innovative and locally relevant solutions. Despite challenges in the full integration of co-designed ideas and the need for strategic alignment across municipal departments, the Voru Social Hackathon model offers valuable insights into enhancing civic participation and developing a collaborative relationship between municipalities and their residents. This model provides a blueprint for other rural (or urban) areas seeking to harness the power of community engagement and innovation in addressing local challenges.

Based on an interview conducted with Kadri Kangro (kdrkngr@tlu.ee), Inventor of the Vunki Mano Social Hackathon model and Academic on 20 September 2023.

Website: https://vunkimano.ee/english/

This participatory practice has been analysed as a case study also within the EUARENAS project. Further information can be found here.