How far can you hackathon?

Image: Mark Vletter via Flickr

I was at the biggest blockchain hackathon in the world — and this is the third time that I can write that sentence. Because this year’s Odyssey Hackathon was — again — bigger, better and more awesome than last year’s. The scale, the design, the organisation, the venue: it was all hugely impressive. Most importantly, the ambition has grown. Odyssey’s CEO Rutger van Zuidam has described it as “the commonization of our digital infrastructure”.

This ambition was reflected in some of the challenges. Teams would be working on a cargo insurance protocol for the world. And a government-backed protocol for digital permissions, and a solution for co-creating and sharing validated data during a disaster. Really great challenges and, if solved, important building blocks for a public digital infrastructure.

But when everything gets bigger and better, expectations rise as well. And that is where, on Sunday morning, amidst all awesomeness, I started to feel unsure. Were the solutions I saw really more ingenious than last year’s? In some aspects they were. There were far less teams that had forced a blockchain into an otherwise perfectly viable product. Also, in at least three of the tracks, ecosystem-thinking had taken hold: teams were working at different modules of a larger concept — which is laudable, in such a competitive setting. And some of the winners were much better than anything I had seen in the previous years. But I also saw a lot of the same apps, marketplaces and tokenization-solutions as in 2018 and 2017.

Was I being unfair? Most of the participants were here for the first time. Why should they be smarter than last year’s participants? Statistically speaking: letting more people in does not raise the average, nor does it change the form of the distribution. So: yes, I was being unfair to expect better solutions.

Which also means, in my opinion, that we have reached the limits of the hackathon model. It won’t get any better than this.

The thing is: no matter how well supported and facilitated, there is only so much a small team can build in a weekend.

This is not a problem in the Silicon Valley model — building an app (mvp, prototype) and pitching it to VC’s who will then hopefully fund your runway until your series A. And it was fine in the early days of blockchain, when we were all desperately looking for use cases and proofs of concept. But it is not how you build ecosystems, or “the next operating system for our society”.

As Hemant Teneja puts it: the era of “move fast and break things” is over. Blockchain and AI (and genomics, and drones, and AR/VR) are truly transformative technologies, that will deeply impact our society. The conversation about what is desirable and what is not, is a political conversation, in which the whole polis should participate: government, academia, business and ngo’s. And the conversation should not only (and not firstly) lead to laws and regulation, but also to research programs, standards, protocols, and building blocks (like an easy to use and safe infrastructure for digital identity).

Let’s be clear about what’s at stake here, from a business perspective. All these new data driven markets are, if left alone, winner-takes-all markets. The network effects are huge. And if you’re not Google, Amazon or Tencent, the odds that you will be the winner are very, very small. So if we don’t succeed in establishing a common infrastructure, a level playing field on which to compete, the digital world will be ruled by a handful of companies, most of them American or Chinese. From a societal point of view, the stakes are even higher.

Of course, the Odyssey team understands all of this very well. They have created the network, the ecosystem, the polis if you want, to have exactly this conversation, and to turn the conversation into action.

The most important innovation in this year’s hackathon might well be “the day after”. The Monday after the hackathon features a closed event called Odyssey Ignite, in which the nineteen winning teams, the challenge owners, other stakeholders, and investors, come together and … well, I don’t know, it’s a closed event. But I do know that there is an important role for six “super accelerators” who have, without exception, a thorough understanding of the importance and the challenges of building decentralized systems, and a network to go with that.

So it would be my guess that Odyssey Ignite is the start of an exciting journey into the largely unknown for both the winning teams and the challenge owners. And it would also be my guess that this is the direction for future iterations of Odyssey, where the hackathon itself will transform into an onboarding event, and the actual products, protocols and building blocks will be built later along the journey.

I mean, they would have chosen their name for a reason, wouldn’t they?



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