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Hackathons and sustainable finance: Geneva initiative takes on the challenge

(Credit: Natalie Joray/ Open Geneva)

Hackathons have become an increasingly popular way of finding new solutions to old problems. However, they are still a relatively new concept in approaching sustainable finance. A Geneva initiative takes on the challenge of proving their worth to companies. 

The University of Geneva and Open Geneva, a non-profit association promoting innovation in the region, returned this week with the third edition of their sustainable finance hackathon, announcing three winners on Wednesday at the Building Bridges conference.

The all-night “sprint”, held last Friday at the Campus Biotech in Geneva, brought together 65 students, international organisations and private sector companies to build – or “hack” – solutions to sustainable finance problems.

Although not all pitches become winners, by pulling participants out of their everyday roles and asking them to interact with people from different backgrounds, the event aimed to create some unexpected and potentially game-changing results.

Among the winning projects, for example, was a challenge set by RAM Investments, an asset manager that wanted to develop a way to predict real-time carbon emissions levels from company annual reports, where the data provided is for the previous year.

Twenty-four hours and many cups of coffee later, the team developed a numerical tool that can interpret human text in the reports, and a machine-learning algorithm that can predict the amount of CO2 emitted.

The hackathon also resulted in some unlikely collaborations. CA Indosuez Wealth Management, for example, wanted to find a way to empower women in managing their wealth. The challenge attracted UBS employees to the team.

“It was interesting to see competitors in the same room having a brainstorm,” Cristian Santana, a master’s student in responsible management at UNIGE and the official “hack manager” of the event, told Geneva Solutions.  “Now they are even thinking about how to work together.”

Bringing creative thinking to sustainable finance

Communities far outside the tech world have increasingly been using these intense brainstorming sessions to develop ideas by bringing together people with different skill sets.

However, finance has been slower to catch on, particularly when it comes to tackling questions of sustainability, said Thomas Maillart, senior lecturer at the University of Geneva and president of Open Geneva.

“Sustainable finance faces tremendous innovation challenges, many of which require a change of perspective on the purpose of finance, on how financial institutions shall adapt”, he said.

Santana added: “The finance sector is moving towards innovation through either digitalisation or going green. But they are moving slower than other sectors and we don't have time to waste attending to the UN Agenda 2030 - SDG goals.

“We need hackathons because we need innovative solutions in a short period to save the planet,” he told Geneva Solutions.

Converting companies to hackathons

One of the key objectives of this year’s event was to demonstrate to companies the value of hackathons in helping to foster ideas by removing the usual hierarchies that employees might be confronted with in the workplace, said Maillart.

*“*Having a free ‘no judgement space’ is really key to seed and grow disruptive innovations,” he explained.

To ensure that work on developing the solutions that came out of the hackathon continue beyond the event, organisations involved – including Lombard Odier, Carbon 4 Finance, and UNCTAD – were asked to take ownership of the projects.

“Several of these organisations have expressed interest in hiring students they met precisely to continue these projects” Maillart added.

In total, the hackathon resulted in nine projects, with cohorts voting for the winning three on the closing night. The third winning initiative was a proposal to create a decentralised fund using AI to measure and reward sustainable nature stewardship, specifically for protecting coral reefs.

How to get the most out of a hackathon

Hackathons can create a structure and process around an ideas process that can otherwise be quite abstract, said Santana. He explains how to get the most of the 24-hour brainstorm.

Picking a challenge. The first step in a hackathon is submitting a challenge, which is then reviewed by the event's committee members. From new ideas developed during a brainstorm to more established challenges, the best way to participate is taking a defined problem that needs to be solved or projects that are already launched and need complementary skills to develop.

Preparing a good pitch. To create a good pitch, the group needs to capture and keep the audience's attention. Participants have just two minutes to win over their audience. This requires storytelling and providing real-life examples.

Forming a team. Participants may or may not know each other before the challenge starts. Sometimes it’s more fun to hack with strangers, says Santana. It’s can be a great way to meet new people and contacts in the industry. Each challenge can be managed by a challenge manager. This person is in charge of looking for interested people with a complementary skillset to create potential synergies that will allow the hack to advance smoothly.

Turning ideas into action. To create a team all people must have a general knowledge of the challenge and the tasks to be carried out. The creation of subgroups and the division of effort makes it possible to move forward in parallel with the problems that need to be addressed. Great communication skills are crucial in bringing the group together.

“If I was to summarise the lessons learned from this event, the highlights would be the fruits of collective intelligence and teamwork,” concludes Santana.

From Geneva to Asia

Open Geneva has been taking its hackathons further afield. The organisation is working with the  Swiss Development and Cooperation (SDC) Agency in collaboration with Tsinghua University and UNITAR, to create “impact hackathons” in Asia Pacific.

The latest initiative, SDG Open Hack! convened by Tsinghua University, was held in Beijing and Shenzhen in November and drew around 2,000 participants across 17 hackathons, Maillart said. The next one will take place in Singapore in June 2022.