Innovation Hackfest: Finding solutions to the world’s most pressing problems

by Adam Skovron 

Team working in a room

Innovation revolution, connecting our talent with purpose

Innovation is the engine of the modern world. As society changes, the need for new and innovative solutions to tomorrow’s problems become more important. The one thing we’ve learned is that it’s not enough to simply create new things, we need to focus our efforts on creating solutions to real-world problems.

Often, we think of companies as impersonal entities. But when you create a purpose-driven culture, inspire people to apply their creativity to real-world problems they’re connected with, and harness your rich diversity together with the power of partnership, you may have just the right ingredients for magic.

Over the years working together with Cisco, we’ve shown over and over again how we can approach challenges from an innovation-driven view. From protecting rhinos in South Africa to helping stroke victims get rapid treatment in Thailand, the potential for technology to make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people is immense.

Towards the end of the last year in partnership with Cisco, we ran a Hackfest giving our people the opportunity to come together and leverage the power of Cisco technologies to address challenges around the UN Sustainable Development Goals. To be as inclusive as possible and to get the very best ideas, regardless of skill or function, we had two categories of entry. The Ideas category – where teams didn’t have to ‘build’ any part of their solution but describe how they would execute the idea – and a Solutions category – where contestants were challenged to build part or all of their solution as a proof of concept. The requirement to use Cisco technology was part of both categories, but the Ideas category opened up the initiative to teams who might not have had the technical skills to participate before.

Team working in a room

The Hackfest offers our people the chance to make a difference to the wider world

A hackfest is a unique tool in our innovation strategy, it brings together people from across our organization allowing us to gather a range of diverse teams to address specific challenges. Diversity of people and skills leads to diversity of ideas and creates the ideal environment for innovation. What’s important in the hackfest is the idea, and those ideas that spark the imagination of our people are invariably the ones that do the best. Personally, I love seeing teams come together with members from areas of the business that wouldn’t normally interact, but the ability to connect around something they’re passionate about brings it all together.

A spotlight on innovative thinking

The latest NTT Cisco Hackfest certainly didn’t disappoint. We saw a remarkable range of ideas being generated in both categories. From a real-time virtual assistant to eliminate barriers in communication between teachers and deaf students to data-driven approaches to understanding, managing and facilitating forest restoration, to pre/postnatal self-service kiosks to help reduce maternal mortality – the ideas were as diverse as the countries that they came from.

These are just some of the shortlisted entries but when the judging was complete, the winners in the Solutions category was - a real-time virtual assistant that provides simultaneous contextual translation from speech to sign language for hearing-impaired people using Cisco Webex and a plugin. It captures a speaker’s voice, in any language, and translates it to both text and sign language.

In the Ideas category the winner was Intelligent Forests. This entry proposed using a network of wireless sensors, camera traps as well as bioacoustics technology and drones, AI, machine learning, and IOT to prevent deforestation and wildfires. With their solution, a tree falling in a forest will always be heard, or more critically, the time between a fire starting and responders being alerted is shortened dramatically.

In my experience leading hackfests in NTT over the years, the one thing that never ceases to amaze me is the purity of the process. I’m always impressed how our people self-form teams, unleash their imagination, adopt the latest technologies and learn skills in real-time through the competition. Teams don’t feel restrained by the day-to-day constraints of the business world, instead they embrace the challenge and focus on creating the best solution possible. The wonder of the innovation process is that these ideas aren’t impractical, they embrace the passions of the teams and delivering real solutions to pressing issues. Something we need more of, not just in our company, but in the world as a whole.

Adam Skovron 

Senior Vice President, Innovation Frameworks & IP Capture, NTT Ltd.

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