Social Innovation

Are there digital solutions for social and economic challenges?

Sebastien Turbot
Curator and Global Director, World Innovation Summit for Education
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Social Innovation?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Social Innovation is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Social Innovation

Feeding Forward is a mobile application that is on the frontlines of a battle against food wastage in the United States. Since its launch in 2013 the app has helped recover more than 690,000 pounds of food to feed more than 570,000 homeless people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Feeding Forward won theAngelHack Silicon Valley Hackathon in 2012.

This innovative solution is yet another example of how technology is triggering social change. But it also reflects a growing trend: collective citizen impact. Indeed, citizens from all walks of life and sectors are hacking socio-economic problems – whether local, regional or global.

Hacking for good

Hackathons offer developers and coders opportunities to design new software and hardware, usually in an intensive day-long session.

Seeing the success and potential, the tech world started to leverage hackathons to design digital solutions for social and economic challenges, spending caffeine-stimulated sleepless nights coding for change.

Yet many promising prototypes failed to yield the expected outcome because when implemented, the solutions rarely matched the real problems. Why?

Even though hackathon participants were genuinely interested in social change, they were not armed with the all the necessary information, especially about realities on the ground.

Over the past couple of years, a much stronger wave has emerged that combines technical and practical expertise in the form of civic hackathons. These events are an effective way to raise awareness about issues, understand the real needs and develop relevant solutions.

Social good hackathons have sprouted around the globe with a mission to tackle major issues such as access to education, health, climate change, disaster management and even food and clothing.

From San Francisco to Seoul, community organizers, developers, designers, entrepreneurs along with government staff are increasingly turning to hackathons in a bid to put their heads together to find concrete and achievable solutions.

For instance, Human Dignity was the winning pitch at this year’s XPrize Visioneering gathering. The concept aims to provide a scalable and sustainable pack-and-go housing solution for refugees around the world.

Online platforms such as OpenIDEO maintain a hackathon approach but the challenges are often stretched over months to allow users to understand people’s needs before diving into solutions.

Grand challenges led by XPrize, OpenIDEO, Sankalp’s Social Design Jam in India or Harvard’s Data Fest are just some of the major initiatives that are cultivating change from the grassroots.

Buzzing with energy and motivation

I recently attended an education hackathon organized by Cartes Blanches in Paris, France. Buzzing with energy and motivation, the room was full of people, young and old, employed and unemployed, from the public and the private sectors. More than that, it was an event that connected like-minded people who were rallying for a common cause: rethinking the link between education and the world of work.

In my opinion, these hackathons are an ideal way to empower and engage young minds to become future agents of change. Millennials are eager to leave a mark on the world and are on the lookout for inspiration to launch their own start-ups and initiatives. They are also frustrated due to the shortage of opportunities to develop their ideas and creativity. Social good hackathons and jams can help fill the void.

So what skills do participants need to take part in a social good hackathon? The essentials include creativity, team spirit and an open-mind with plenty of enthusiasm to solve problems. And FYI: coding is not a necessity.

In fact, not all challenges are linked to technology. Civic hackathons that incorporate human-centered research are also on the rise.

A global campaign that remains etched in my memory is the Gates Foundation’s Global Reinvent the Toilet Challenge in 2012. The Foundation challenged universities around the world to design affordable toilets that could transform human waste into useful resources such as energy.

Hackathons – be it massive gatherings, an online hub or a large-scale global challenge, are creating opportunities for communities to solve problems with the appropriate talent and skills set. In a day and age when one size does not fit all, community-driven solutions are the key to solve local challenges. And this happens when citizens are understood, involved and engaged.

This article is published in collaboration with Skoll World Forum. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Sébastien Turbot is the Curator and Global Director at WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education), an initiative of Qatar Foundation.

Image: Co-workers brainstorm in the office of the HowDo, a “how-to-do-it-yourself” app. REUTERS/Thomas Peter.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Social InnovationEconomic ProgressFourth Industrial Revolution
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

These 6 social innovators are unlocking value in marginalized communities

Victoria Masterson

April 9, 2024


About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum