ABB HackSummit 2019 – Designed for Innovation

Hackathons are amazing and provide a tremendous opportunity to foster innovation. However, many managers are underestimating the potential of hackathons and see them as recruitment platforms, especially to find young talent. Nothing wrong about that, but if you intend fostering amazing ideas for your business, then an inhouse hackathon will be far more efficient, because you can design the hackathon for the innovations you need to be disruptive.

Innovation and technology are huge topic. Everybody in research and development talks about it. What is new? What might come next? What are the best and latest features? The topics are endless, and everybody is eager to find out about and work with the latest technologies. But how can we grasp what it takes to be successful in a rapidly changing technological environment?

For me, examples often help in making abstract ideas understandable. So just imagine a table covered with devices. Around the table are research and development folks like you and me who pick up an interesting device, create something new out of it, and then put an even more amazing device back on the table for the others to use. So, working with technology means materializing our ideas by selecting the right bits and pieces from the table and enhancing existing technologies by applying our knowledge and experiences to them.

Having been in research and development for more than thirty years, it is interesting for me to observe that disruptive developments are often not the result of fundamentally new technologies. Instead, very often what happens is that a given technology has been available for a long time, but either it or its supporting technologies are just not good or mature enough. That is why I say that it takes knowledge and long-term experience to combine the right technologies at the right time to be disruptive. In other words, for me technology is just a means to an end. Whatever is on the table is old and whatever we create is the latest technology. It can be something completely new or something that just tweaks a mature technology to make it better.

Of course, you might say that there are disruptive technologies that were not initially on the table. But are you sure? Let’s think about a brand-new technology everybody talks about in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as machine learning. I remember working with neural networks during my studies in the early 1990s. But back then computing power was so limited that such networks could not be applied to really complex challenges. Today, neural networks are experiencing a revival and have in fact become a core technology in terms of machine learning applications. Why? Because we have combined two pieces from the table – high-speed computing and neural networks. And what’s interesting about this is that both technologies developed independently. Nobody was pushing to increase computing power so that the capabilities of neural networks could be enhanced. Instead, it just so happened that there were a few clever people at the table who recognized that it was the right time to take the two technologies and unleash their combined potential.

With this in mind, what does it mean to design a hackathon for innovation? Actually, it is quite simple. You need to get your best talent onboard and you need to orchestrate the team building a bit to have a good mix of young and experienced developers as well as bringing domain and software expertise together. Today, hackathons are well accepted in many businesses because they are fun at work, improve the team building, create new intellectual property and fill the backlog of your product portfolio with disruptive ideas. To my experience, such teams have proven that they are able to deliver beyond expectations.

Thanks again to the brilliant teams who implemented more than fifty ideas during the two days and the amazing team that designed and organized the ABB HackSummit 2019!

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