Better Living Challenge


Hacking a communication strategy with Fontys and Vega

Sep 20, 2017

The BLC team hosted a five-hour hackathon with students from Vega School and Fontys Academy for Creative Industries (Tilburg, the Netherlands). Students were briefed to develop a communication toolkit for facilitators and intermediaries to communicate with township residents who are in the process of upgrading their dwellings and neighbourhoods. The focus was on passive design and incremental improvement of dwellings. The hackathon was organised to explore the potential of ‘co-creating’ communication toolkits.


BLC’s John Edwards and Kelly Arendse brief students

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon, also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest, is typically a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software and hardware (prototype) development collaborate on projects. Some hackathons are intended simply for educational or social purposes, but this methodology has also been applied to find solutions to problems (e.g. new software or prototype development).

Hackathons typically start with presentations outlining the event, client brief and topic to be explored. All required information is shared at this stage, and ongoing support is provided by facilitators. Participants then suggest ideas and form teams, based on individual interests and skills. The main component of the hackathon then kicks off, lasting anywhere from several hours to several days.

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Students share thoughts with tutor. Photo credit: Gareth Brown

A series of group demonstrations and presentations occur at the hackathon finale. In documenting the process, groups tend to make descriptive videos, write blogs, share links and progress on social media, and upload open source code (e.g. GitHub). In doing so, the impact of the hackathon extends from the physical space which makes it possible for people to share, learn from and possibly build from the ideas generated and initial work completed. Hackathons often include a contest element as well, in which a panel of judges select the winning teams, and prizes are awarded. At many hackathons, the judges are made up of organisers, sponsors, or industry experts.

Methodology and Process

The hackathon methodology was modified to be applied to the context of the brief. The student group was subdivided into three stages of design-thinking principles:

  • Stage 1: Students started empathising with the challenges in the context of the target group.
  • Stage 2: Following Stage 1, students started ideating concepts for a communication toolkit.
  • Stage 3: The final stage entailed rapid prototyping and developing a project implementation plan.

The students received intensive support and feedback from the CDI’s BLC team and lecturers of Fontys ACI and Vega school. This resulted in a wide range of concept proposals for toolkits which forms a valuable input to the various research topics of the CDI.

Students were expected and encouraged to explore the main topic of the BLC2 by watching a few videos about informal settlements and their challenges, prior to the hackathon taking place. The following links to videos were provided by the BLC2 Team:

Proposals by the student groups

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Student ideate during group work. Photo credit: Gareth Brown

Group 1: Community Hub (Vega)

  • Insights: The root causes of informal settlements are attributed to socio-economic issues, physical infrastructure, environmental factors and weather resistance.
  • Concept: Hubs will be developed throughout the informal settlements which provides funding (social enterprise), materials (recycled or subsidised) and skills development (entrepreneurship, gardening, communal space, etc).
  • Rollout Plan: Empowerment of builders, facilitators and community leaders on where hubs will be located.

Group 2: Amandla (Vega)

  • Insights: Adverse weather conditions, security, and sustainability are threats to residents, particularly woman and children.
  • Concept: Toolkit on structural integrity
  • Rollout Plan: Transferring knowledge (e.g. workshops at schools, community centres, churches, pop-up locations), activations, and monitoring knowledge adoption and application.

Group 3 - diagram

Group 3 proposed a multi-media communication tool to communicate re-blocking

Group 3: Re-blocking Toolkit (Vega and Fontys)

  • Insights: Lack of communication is at the heart of distrust and failure in implementation.
  • Concept: Communicate re-blocking to community members and create trust.
  • Rollout Plan: Guidebook, documentary of houses being built, infographic as a visual step by step guide; and audio walkthrough of house by community leader in multiple languages.

Group 4: Taxi Talk Project (Vega)

  • Insights: People living in dense informal settlements rely on public transport.
  • Concept: Building a prototype shack at a taxi rank to show upgrading ideas.
  • Rollout Plan: Following proof of concept and identification of taxi ranks, funding will be secured to construct the information shack.

Group 5: Be Warm (Vega and Fontys)

  • Insights: Although informal settlement residents are likely to recycle, they have a low level of understanding potential insulation of shacks through recycled materials.
  • Concept: Hub for training to show/demonstrate new insulation ideas using recycled materials.
  • Rollout Plan: Following proof of concept and secured funding, a hub will be established as a training centre.

Group 6: Megablock Metropole (Fontys)

  • Insights: Communities are keen to find their own solutions but have a distrust in government institutions.
  • Concept: An educational board game in which participants (mostly school children) are awarded ‘imaginary money’ for tasks completed, and then they need to set priorities as to what they would like to spend it on (facilities e.g. hospitals, houses, sanitary facilities, etc). They can also choose to save their money, or invest in income-generating activities such as operating a spaza shop.
  • Rollout Plan: Game mechanics should be developed and participant feedback incorporated during user testing. The game could then be tested in a number of schools, and tournaments can increase the popularity of the game. Ultimately, each game should be recorded to communicate community needs.

Group 7

Group 7 proposed a ‘community board’ showing neighborhood aspirations and milestones

Group 7: Our Future Vision (Fontys)

  • Insights: Community leaders have a vision and the interests of the community at heart.
  • Concept: An interactive and multi-sectoral community board showing dreams and milestones related to upgrading.
  • Rollout Plan: This is the first step in a upgrading process where needs analysis is determined.


  • The brief: The brief changed from re-blocking education to passive design changes to existing dwellings. The BLC project team therefore allowed the brief to be broadened to allow for more general principles of upgrading to be explored.
  • The students’ knowledge/expertise: The students are currently studying advertising, business and marketing, and hence the context of planning and architecture in informal settlements were not well understood. As such, the ideas generated related mostly to the forms/nature the toolkits might take, and less focus was spent on the content of the toolkits.
  • The time-line: This was a 4:30 hour hackathon and the pressure to deliver a reasonable presentation was heavy. The thirty minutes scheduled for presentations were insufficient due to set up time for seven groups, two of the groups being based in the Netherlands, and technical difficulties.
  • The ideas: Not all groups used the provided Project Proposal Canvas templates, to capture ideas and processes, or PowerPoint Presentation Template. The BLC project team was provided with the written hard copy sheets to capture.


The Hackathon methodology was successfully modified and applied to introduce students to the living conditions of residents in informal settlements, and to use design-thinking to ideate around possible solutions for incremental improvements to passive design and incremental improvements.