Extended Play is a conversation with Swiss innovators and entrepreneurs at all stages of the development cycle. Today Didier Faure, project manager for Smart City Day Geneva, discusses the vital role of open-data and co-creation ahead of the Smart City Hack on 12-13 May in Meyrin.

GG: The Smart City Hack is a 24-hour hackathon taking place alongside the Open Geneva Hackathons this month. This appears to be something new for the City of Geneva.

DF: It’s starting to take shape. Open Geneva Hackathons had similar events running for the past two-years. For us it’s the first edition and we’re all taking it to the next level. We’ve had a great expression of interest from partners like Hewlett-Packard and SIG as well as participants like TPG, STIG, ESRI and others who are bringing knowledge tools and intelligence into the hack itself.

GG: How is it that all of these hackathons are happening at the same time? At present there are 14 hackathons running the same weekend, ranging from bio-fabbing, urban planning, gender equality and blockchain.

DF: All the different projects started independently but have now converged under the Open Geneva Hackathons by the Campus Biotech Innovation Park. What happened is we were many entities seeking to launch a hackathon who decided to run them all together. So from the 12-14 May everyone is invited to present projects. This ‘collective intelligence’ type of approach is really a grassroots effort. Each initiative ramped up gradually and now we have this shared vision, that for an entire weekend we’re going to hack Geneva. It’s nice to have these events happening within the different buildings, for instance HUG, Universite de Genève, and Hewlett Packard, to capture the local dynamic of each environment.

GG: The partners you mention are dispersed over a variety of industries, medical services, consumer technology, academia. At what point do their interests converge, what are the thematics which align these actors toward common cause?

DF: All of the partner themes are unique but also complimentary. Health on one side, urban planning on the other, or even more sophisticated topics like blockchain, emerged independently from the organizers. For instance, our specific theme for Hewlett Packard addresses urban citizenship. Two things that bring all of this together

“We’ll get some good cooking, some less good cooking, and maybe one or two Top Chefs.”  – Didier Faure

GG: Co-creation also appears to be a shared value, which does not always lead to tangible results. What is the return when the main product is the brainstorming?  

DF: We’re bringing together a diverse, interesting group of people and partners, which is great. Then we put everyone into a participative laboratory, and now we’re going to see what comes out. From some labs we may get more, and others less, but either way it’s a helpful learning activity. For this reason it’s very interesting for universities. But it’s also a brainstorming where we can find solutions. There’s no imperative to find a stable viable product. It’s a lot like Top Chef. We put all the ingredients on the table, all the cookbooks, everything we can to make things work smoothly. We’ll get some good cooking, some less good cooking, and maybe one or two Top Chefs, who knows!

GG: So the idea of the hackathon is to develop prototypes around urban life which can be used in the public interest.

DF: What’s driving the Smart City Day initiative is the hackathon process and commitment to open-innovation, co-creation and free expression. On the creative side this is our core identity. We all have a shared vision of the ‘smart city’, of being able to digitize the basic services of the city. To this end hospitals will aim to find digital solutions to make life easier for patients, while public transit services will use data tools to improve efficiencies in urban transport.

GG: What are the takeaways for the partners then? Are these hacking events useful for R&D where good ideas might transfer into project development?

DF: One is the networking. With each lab spending 24 hours together and working toward a specific objective you really get to know people. Second, there’s always something that comes out of the labs, something that can be adapted to each of the partners’ research interests. Being able to learn from others, with such a range of credentials, is probably the most valuable aspect. Then there’s the very practical matter of headhunting, of being able to scout for talent and see how these people work together. It can mean meeting a professor, or a developer, or entrepreneurs, real talent in terms of people, or good ideas, or to back a fuller concept.

GG: There’s also a burgeoning ecosystem around innovation in Geneva which is keyed into this event.

DF: Open Geneva Hackathons is really plugged into the local support structures for driving innovation: the City of Geneva, the Canton, the Fongit, the GCC and other organisations focusing on innovation. The previous editions were well received, and now there’s a much larger scope, and even if this year we don’t give birth to a new start-up I’m sure we’ll get there for 2018. We’re not re-inventing the wheel as Smart Cities exist already in California, in the UK and other European cities. What we know is it’s a programme that works.

GG: While the hackathon format is based on openness and co-creation there must be some minimum requirements for joining the teams. What kind of skills are you shopping for?

DF: Well some people like to spend their weekends playing football, others golf, or others still who want to watch television. Others will do hackathons. On our side developers are useful because of the IT component of the hackathon, as they are the architects. Designers and communication specialists are also needed, as it’s not always easy for developers to pitch their work, and the comms team needs to fully understand the problematics of the developers. Finally there’s the entrepreneur, who has an idea to put forward but would need to collaborate with an architect and strong communicators in order to advance. And of course anyone who has the spark to make and build with others is welcome, from 18 to 90 years old.

“Anyone who has the spark to make and build with others is welcome, from 18 to 90 years old.”
– Didier Faure

GG: So when the hackers show up, how does it work? Do you allocate the teams upon arrival, or is there a study of each dossier to determine best fits for each of the teams? Is there a formula for getting people to work?

DF: I’m fairly sure that with 14 hackathons, there are 14 different formulas. Our approach to the Smart City Hack, the recipe if you will, is open innovation. You have to give it some parameters, but also leaving sufficient space to create. Within our communication plan, the call for participation is this openness. Some will come on their own, with no expectations but to join the weekend and share their expertise. Some will come with a specific idea and are looking for collaboration. Some will show up in teams but with no fixed proposal, while other teams will bring a specific project.

GG: And the entire hackathon format is attracting a range of talent, from places we might not exactly expect.

DF: Yes, there’s a construction company sending a team to develop a concept around eco-quartiers. These are professionals with 10 years experience. Another team is a bunch of friends who normally do server parties and want to check out the scene. One participant had just finished a hackathon three-weeks ago, left with an idea and is bringing his colleagues to continue to develop the concept. You might say they’re ‘hackathonists’, who bounce from one event to the next to advance their work.

GG: So there is an important role to play in channelling all of this positive effort. Co-creation must require some level of moderation?

DF: Each participant can do as they please, so each concept can run its own way. Our role is to prepare the ingredients, such as data-sets and utilities, all of which are hosted within a collaborative platform and will be available to the public following the event. We have a small screening process to ensure the integrity of the work and general flow of the labs. But it’s really open except that we are limited to 50 participants.

GG: And what kind of data-sets will we find at the Sparkboard? Are these coming from City of Geneva or oriented towards specific types of public services?

DF: If we consider the GeoFab project, this is 700 layers of information correlated to crossborder geo-data of ‘Grand Genève’ which covers the territories of Switzerland and France. This data is related to commerce, agriculture, environment, mobility, and leisure, where SMEs and entrepreneurs have open-access to develop new applications to improve the quality of services in these sectors. Also there is SIG who is providing data, there is ESRI providing topographic data. TPG is providing open-data and will give us a formation, for instance, on the influence of weather on travel behaviours for public transport. We can then pair weather data with traffic usage, to gain a visualization of what happens when it rains. Does it mean we walk less and take the bus more? Or is this the time we get in our cars, causing more traffic congestion?

“TPG is providing open-data on the influence of weather on travel behaviours for public transport.” – Didier Faure

GG: From this there must be a return for each partner if you’re generating derivative knowledge from the public data-sets. How do you take stock of the outputs, such that the partners can integrate the lessons-learned?

DF: The data-sets are all available via Sparkboard, with a space for participants to present their ideas. But it may happen that nobody wants to use the data from TPG, or everyone does. We’re going to present the maximum of information. With the opening of the hackathon on Friday, 12 May there’s the digital workshop where we present the data-sets and projects. Then on Saturday morning, 13 May there is the coaching workshops, focusing on how to present your ideas, how to draft a business canvas, and the Kawasaki method for making your pitch.

GG: Within this co-creation space there must be some leads who provide guidance, or ground-rules for collaboration. Can we expect a few design-thinking gurus to usher the proceedings?

DF: Well again it’s about open access. There are specific guidelines for the seven members of the jury, a presentation on the open-innovation approach and an ethical chart. However if someone shows up and wants to work independently then no problem. This is the open approach. However the work must be relevant, it must be feasible, and the teams must work well together. A good idea won’t go very far without a good team. We want to create a relaxed atmosphere for innovation.

GG: And given this is the Smart City Hack, and being that you’re new to Geneva, what would you say needs hacking about this town?

DF: There’s several things I like about this city. I’ve had a great reception from our partners and collaborators for the event. Everything has been extremely fluid in terms of administration. It’s a small village and everyone knows each other. Things that could use hacking? I would say the biggest issue is mobility, which is not easy to manage. Another issue might be the way people communicate, or if there is a way to unify all of the citizens of the city. Or how to communicate all that is happening here, in terms of politics, the NGOs, the CERN, universities, the entrepreneurs, the bankers, how to bring all of these elements together for the benefit of the city. I don’t have the answers but I think we’ll get some from the Smart City Hack.

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