Last Friday, Boston had its first food hackathon: Hack Urban Food. A lot of food folk don’t know the term hackathon, which comes from the tech world. At a typical hackathon, designers and developers gather for 48 hours or so to team up and build things. Prizes are dangled, and promising prototypes snapped up by deep pockets who want to take the idea further.
As far as this Examiner knows, there have been only a handful of food hackathons, led by Tim West in the Bay Area, Danielle Gould of Food + Tech Connect in New York, and MIT’s Food + Ag last spring. So the concept is quite new.
Food hacks are no picnic. They are a mash-up of two utterly different worlds. Bridgers, who understand both the food system and technology with competence, are few and far between. Lauren Abda of Branchfood and I gnawed on this cultural dilemma for months in advance. How do you effectively weave food people into a model that’s been designed by and for tech people?
As part of Friday’s kickoff, Jon Lopkin of Find and Form and I led a session called “How to Hack It,” which focused nearly entirely on the concept of intention.
“focus on intention over invention” Bill Warner, an angel with TechStars, told Cassandria Campbell and Jackson Renshaw of Fresh Food Generation. Warner pointed out that Fresh Food Generation was excited about launching a food truck as a means to get fresh, local, culturally-relevant foods to under-served Boston communities.
Campbell reflected on Warner’s advice: “He told us, ‘If you don’t have the truck, how else can you get food to people?'” The intention of Fresh Food Generation is to feed people. The invention is the truck. Warner told the team that too often he sees entrepreneurs fall too in love with their invention – and confuse the tool with the task.
So at Hack Urban Food, we underscored again and again to the attendees: get in touch with the problem you want to solve, get clear on why you are really here, why this matters to you, the hand print you want to leave. And when you get stuck, frustrated, when you’re whiteboard weary, return to your intention.
The results were spectacular. All over the walls of General Assembly we saw intentions. And for the most part, the final pitches reflected awareness of the food system and current stakeholder sets, as well as attuned assessment of the dynamics around how things currently work. All this before teams launched into descriptions of their hacks.
As Tiffani Faison of Sweet Cheeks Q and Top Chef: Season 1 told Food Sol Community Table at Babson this week: “To get to know something deeply, you have to be in it for a long time.” Food-systems experts are instrumental to effective food hacks. But if they are not intelligently designed into the process, their value gets left on the table.
In both food and technology worlds, too often, entrepreneurs confuse the tool with the task and build things that may, technically, work but will never be adopted. But when the entrepreneur intimately understands the problem by being “in it for long time,” comes to recognize the pain points of the relevant stakeholders and can reflect them back in the right language, then the path is cleared. Stakeholders see for themselves how the hack can ease their pain and adopt it. The invention drops in and embeds, and the whole system tips.