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Building a Better World Through Design: Protothon and EY

November 29, 2017

Keep calm and get hackingRecently, more than eighty design-oriented and engineering students from ten different universities as well as professionals from across New York City spent fifteen hours over two days at the NYU Media and Gaming Network (MAGNET) facilities in Brooklyn for the first-ever "Prototyping Hackathon" (ProtothonTM). Sponsored by Ernst & Young LLP (EY), the theme of the inaugural Protothon was disaster relief.

In the U.S. alone, the first nine months of 2017 brought fifteen disasters claiming a total of 323 American lives and costing $1 billion or more each. These figures do not include the devastation Mexico suffered from a recent earthquake and the extensive damage storms have inflicted across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the aftermath of major disasters like the ones we saw in 2017, nonprofit organizations, companies, and individuals are eager to extend a helping hand, either by donating money in support of relief and recovery efforts or by applying their core competencies to the situation in innovative ways.  

"Design can save lives," said Domenick Propati, founder of Protothon and an NYU professor. "This Protothon will showcase that premise as teams develop impactful and actionable solutions that can be carried forward to help those impacted by natural disasters."

Participating students sat in on a panel with three people who have worked in different aspects of disaster relief and recovery efforts, attended a UX design workshop, and then broke into teams and spent ten intense hours working to develop innovative and sustainable solutions that addressed one of the many disaster-related challenges voiced by the panel. While the final presentations featured prototypes of the solutions, they all had seen numerous iterations and improvements throughout the day — with feedback from experts in design, disaster relief, and solutions development.

"Disaster relief solutions largely look exactly how they looked thirty to forty years ago, pre-Internet," said Reese May, the national director of recovery at the St. Bernard Project, who served as a panelist. "So you can imagine how ripe this industry is for new, creative, innovative solutions to address this ever-shifting environment."

The Protothon provided students with an experiential learning opportunity while allowing EY to work with them in solving real-world challenges in a simulated environment that was similar to what they are likely to experience upon entering the workforce. Students also got a chance to learn more about the full breadth of services EY brings when solving client and community problems and its commitment to diversity of perspective, one of the critical pillars of design thinking.  

"As an organization that is two-thirds millennials and ranked number one on DiversityInc's 2017 Top 50 Companies list, EY understands that the best solutions come when all levels, perspectives, and experiences are included at the same table," said David Kadio-Morokro, deputy innovation leader at the firm. "Many of the processes our EY professionals use in identifying and refining solutions in the private sector for our clients can be applied to solving complex challenges that affect people and communities. That's what Protothon is all about, and we are proud to be sponsoring the great work these students have put forward."

Ideas that leverage the blockchain, digital storage of critical insurance documents, drone damage assessments connected to SMS emergency alerts, and an app for crowdsourcing specific aid needs for nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) were just some of the solutions presented by Protothon participants. Throughout the event, Protothon founder Dom Propati stressed the importance of "the design thinking process" and not just "the result." Later he noted, "It was never about the perfect solution. There is no one right answer for disaster preparedness, relief, and response. For participants, this was an extremely real-world exercise in deconstructing a complex problem, clearly defining their end users, testing their concepts, refining their prototypes based on feedback, and articulating their findings to judges." The presentations helped the "experts" think differently about their relief strategies and about different ways they could approach disaster relief. And the reminder to digitize all critical documents relative to ownership, insurance, and emotional memories was an especially helpful takeaway.

As recruiting becomes increasingly sophisticated and technologically focused, organizations need to understand that hackathons and other experiential activities can be opportunities for young people and potential job candidates to engage in something productive for themselves and society. Yes, the organization with positions to fill will pay close attention to candidates' work style, problem-solving abilities, and teamwork skills, but regardless of whether students leave with a job offer, everyone in the room will feel better that they have contributed to solving a problem and making a difference in their communities.

Ellen_glazerman_for_PhilanTopicEllen Glazerman is EY Americas University relations leader and executive director of the Ernst & Young LLP Foundation.

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