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The power of hackathons: When innovation goes open source



John Bell

Ideas are the lifeblood of a company like Philips. We nurture, develop and share them with a world that expects us to inspire. But the best ideas often don’t emerge from a single person – they’re the result of collaboration.


’Collaborative innovation’ has become synonymous with the Philips way of working. By building effective partnerships with outside organisations, encouraging internal team-building and consulting with our customers, our innovations become not only unique but meaningful too.

And there is another more unorthodox, unpredictable, entirely thrilling means of collaboration that has had a profound effect on our company’s development in this new digital age. The Hackathon.

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It’s a competition in which we invite developers, start-ups, scientific teams and small businesses from across the world to solve a problem of our choosing. How to help the world’s ageing populations, for example, or innovations that can transform cities yet preserve our natural resources. On the surface, the Hackathon is a fun way to push boundaries and think laterally. But it has also become one of our most inspiring events, a crucible for encouraging, celebrating and rewarding unique ideas.

Teams conceptualise a problem or issue based on the data we present, develop a strategy, bounce ideas off each other, borrow other teams’ thoughts and methodologies, share information and skills and often end up at a solution far different from the one they envisaged at the start.


It’s an exciting way to work because it demands collaboration and encourages participants to inject innovations with the most crucial ingredient of all. Meaning.


Innovation has always been at the core of what we do but our innovations need to be meaningful if they are to change people’s lives. There is little point in developing products that may be clever but which aren’t meaningful.


The Hackathon crystallises that way of thinking. Despite its chaotically fast and short-lived nature – with many teams working through sleepless night(s)  – it forces participants to focus on an issue and think about innovations with a diverse set of inputs. It also reinforces the idea of privacy and trust because, aside from encouraging creativity, we also drum into our participants how important it is to treat data with respect so that it doesn’t intrude upon people’s daily lives.


Bringing such external influences to our internal way of working – and to problems that we wrestle with constantly – inspires us to view things in a different way. Which is why we like to host and participate in these Hackathon events, where our staff are part of this unbridled enthusiasm.


There are so many fabulous ideas and astonishingly agile brains out there that it makes great business sense to collaborate with them, even for a short period. Sometimes they may be rewarded with a collaborative project with us or simply take pride from taking part. But at its heart, the event aims to provide avenues for solving an issue that is vital to our planet’s future.


As a company we’ve learnt how crucial it is to co-operate – with governments, partners, stakeholders, smaller more agile start-ups and demanding consumer groups.


The Hackathon presents a new way to collaborate and a great way to keep us all on our toes.

John Bell

John Bell

Head of Strategy and Partnerships, Philips Research

John Bell is Head of Strategy and Business Development at Philips Research. As such, he contributes to the strategic direction of Research, the research portfolio and the role of strategic partners (via public funding and Open Innovation). In addition, he is involved in accelerating end-to-end innovation and new business creation in Philips.


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