Ontario Water News

Toronto Hackathon Invites Students to Design Water Solutions

Increasingly, the water sector is turning to the “hackathon” format to encourage collaborative approaches to water challenges. The City of Toronto and Ryerson Urban Water’s recent hackathon put the spotlight on entrepreneurialism and highlighted the importance of combining skills and resources to develop real-world solutions.

For the budding entrepreneur, a “hackathon” can be a tremendous litmus test for real-world preparedness and team cooperation. Applying this collaborative format to the theme of green infrastructure, Ryerson Urban Water (RUW) recently partnered with the City of Toronto to organize a youth hackathon that invited teams of students and recent grads to design new solutions for green infrastructure challenges.

Over the weekend of October 28, the hackathon welcomed registrants from more than a dozen universities and colleges, as well as recent graduates from a variety of disciplines, including engineering, urban planning, environmental sustainability, landscape architecture, biology, and anthropology. Forming multidisciplinary teams, the students worked together to share and enhance their skills, taking design ideas through to business pitches.

In addition to networking, cash prizes, and the chance to introduce real-world solutions, students also received the support of more than 70 professionals from industry, government, and academia, who served as speakers, mentors, and judges.

Praise for hackathon format

According to Angela Murphy, Manager of Research and Partnerships at RUW, the hackathon, which emphasizes quick results over polished execution, had its fair share of converts.

“Our judges came from the City of Toronto, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, from private engineering firms, and green infrastructure companies,” she says. “These community leaders were impressed by the level of conversations and designs happening, despite the rigid time constraints.”

Participating as a mentor and judge, Senior Research Analyst Raad Seraj attended on behalf of WaterTAP to lend his support to these up-and-coming entrepreneurs. He likewise commended the event’s approach for its rapid prototype method. “Hackathons rely on isolating the fundamentals of a problem, and then using a multidisciplinary approach to create a solution that is both elegant and applicable,” he says. “These events hinge upon small teams that can quickly develop a common language, make collective decisions, and delegate tasks.”

The format also allowed students to tap into the support and cohesion within the sector itself. Eric Meliton, Project Manager at Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and part of the Green Streets initiative’s advisory board, says that “Ontario’s water sector is well-connected, which is the reason that many professional mentors volunteered for the event. Their active participation sets a strong precedent for students to witness.”

The city, along with RUW, created the competition in response to the pressing need for more university and college opportunities that emphasize cross-disciplinary collaboration. Sheila Boudreau, an urban designer at the City of Toronto, helped initiate and organize the event. She had become increasingly aware of how academic departments often operate independently at the expense of a well-rounded workforce.

“As counter to the ‘silo’ effect, a brainstorming design competition using a cross-disciplinary approach seemed encouraging,” she says. “We proposed a problem-solving experience that delved deep into the barriers we experience when it comes to green infrastructure.”

Real-world problem solving

Students had already made real-world understanding a priority. “Prior to the event, our interviews with students determined that neither money nor prizes were the main draws,” Boudreau says. “More important for participants was gaining professional experience, networking, and connecting with mentors in a multi-disciplinary format and creating a solution that could be applied and practical in real life.”

To kick things off, facilitator Alex Gill, a mentor at Ryerson’s SocialVentures Zone, helped each team pinpoint their problem definition.

“Alex urged participants to consider empathetic design,” says Murphy. “He asked participants to think about the actual social obstacles that prevent a problem from being solved.”

This approach made all the difference, according to Seraj. “The event was a unique platform to explore not only the material components of green infrastructure, but also how the social aspect of urban environments can foster resilient communities.”

Jiya Benni, a recent graduate from TU Delft in the Netherlands who is now an urban designer volunteering with Park People Toronto, and a member of the winning hackathon team praised the guidance they received. “With the guidance of speaker presentations and mentors, we learned that social engagement can be more persuasive than economic appeals,” she says. “In order to raise awareness of issues such as stormwater management to get projects off the ground running, community endorsement can be critical.”

The winning design

The judges were delighted with the results of the hackathon. “It was terrific to see that students could put together effective strategies in just 72 hours,” Meliton says.

“I thought the hackathon timeframe would perhaps be too brief to really develop a stable idea,” Murphy says. “My expectations were duly exceeded. I did not imagine the designs would be as developed as they were, and the teams came up with genuinely new ideas.”

Benni noted that her team members first had to deprogram their biases about stormwater. “Stormwater is not always detrimental; you have to change your perspective about it,” she says. “This rethinking led us to the insight that most people are unaware of alternative productive uses for stormwater.”

The team’s end result was a series of educational art installations for public spaces. Each piece was designed to make communities aware of the metrics regarding floodwater, ways to manage it, and the advantages of managing it as a resource.

Branded as Drip Pop-Up rain harvest capture technologies, each of three installations was a temporary, flexible, modular installation targeted for the downtown core. The first, called Drip Pod, used a sequence of descending trays that collect and filter stormwater to a bottom ledge for pet drinking water.

The second product, Drip Chime, functioned as an art installation that can be installed in neighbourhoods, parks, and schools. Hanging structures that resemble chimes demonstrate the permeability of materials. One “chime” is made of concrete and will not let water pass, the other is soil in a wireframe conducive to vegetation.

The final entry was the Drip Meter, a bus shelter installation that featured a two-sided glass wall with a life-sized family cutout. Rainwater would collect between two glass panes to inform pedestrians about water levels relative to their height.

“The hackathon united different fields of expertise for the same cause, but rather than focusing on large-scale initiatives, we were taught the integrity of a small-scale bottom-up approach,” Benni says.

Seraj sang the praises of the winning team. “The team members learned to work well together very quickly, they proposed an unique combination of stormwater awareness and placemaking, and they presented their idea in a concise and evocative way. Our growing water network will be all the stronger from experiences such as hackathons.”

Going forward

“It was wonderful that WaterTAP and so many of our partners, who I like to think of as our water friends and family, participated in and supported this event,” Murphy says.

She adds that the event wouldn’t be a one-off without follow-up. “We will continue to support the students by providing further business support through our Ryerson Zones, liaising students with volunteer career coaches, and advising critical legal information about intellectual property for patenting designs.”

On November 30, the winning team met with Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner, City of Toronto, to present their winning submission, and to discuss the hackathon experience as well as their career aspirations. “The installation designs were quite savvy,” says Keesmat. “The city looks forward to advising the students the next steps for proceeding with their designs.”

“It was promising to see some very intelligent students aspiring to join Ontario’s water sector,” Meliton says. “Through the event, students got a glimpse of the everyday challenges that water practitioners face. Now, they understand that solving problems in this industry often demands a creative approach.”

Boudreau says that the youth participants were very satisfied. “After the event, one of the mentors reported that at least 10 students independently said they found the hackathon to be a unique and rewarding experience. In a very concentrated period they were able to absorb and practice new ideas and skills, develop dialogue and critical thinking with other disciplines, and then work with their peers to creatively solve a problem in innovative ways.”

Josh Chong | WaterTAP

*Photos courtesy of Ryerson Urban Water Group