Sketching with Code

How and what are cultural organisations learning from hacker culture?

For the past few years I’ve immersed myself in the world of hack days, and become pretty interested in collaboratations between hackers and artists / cultural organisations.

Not “hacker” in the sense of someone who does something evil to a bank’s website, but rather “hacker” in the sense of someone who sees a problem, rapidly develops a quick solution in a playful, creative way, often with technology.

I now self-identify as a hacker (of the second variety), and have been attending hack days where software people, designers and organisations with interesting open data get together to innovate in public, in teams that form on the day, always with surprising, funny and inspirational results. Examples of these events are Culture Hack Day, National Hack the Government Day, Rewired State and Culture Hack Scotland.

This kind of open innovation has been seen in the cultural sector in the open space event format for some time, but the crucial extension is that these events and processes result in rapid development of digital and technology-based ideas and can be used to validate a variety of ideas before one or two are developed into actual products, services or cultural works.

We are now beginning to see many more cultural organisations applying these techniques not just for one off events, but looking at how to enable more long-term projects within their organisations with “hacker in residence” programmes, open data initiatives and adopting agile/lean methodologies for digital projects.

It’s early days, but I can see some new thinking emerging here. If you’re a cultural organisation and you’re excited by hacker culture and what could be achieved through open innovation and open data what are the actions you should take in order to embrace it? What projects are leading the way in applying these principles in successful ways? What does “success” mean in the context of cultural hacking? Do hack days lead to actual tangible results, or is it more about shifting a mind-set about what is possible with digital tools?

Nesta and the Clore Leadership Programme have given me a small amount of research money to enable me to have conversations with people involved in and interested in these kinds of things, so I’m starting this site to pull together whatever comes out of the process along the way.

By November I’ll have written up a short paper about what I’ve learnt, which I’ll be presenting at a Nesta event, and it’ll be published in a collection with a number of others.

In the spirit of openness, I’ve built this site using a mashup of Padrino and Jekyll, which is probably a bit crazy, but it does give me more freedom than a Tumblr/Posterous/Wordpress thing. I’ve put the source code on github too.

Please leave a comment if you’d like to chat about these things over a coffee!