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Hacking London: An Industry's Rite of Passage

Hacking London: An Industry's Rite of Passage

This coming weekend, London will host the first-ever AEC Hackathon held outside of the U.S. To set the stage, below is a preview of what the United Kingdom can expect from this energizing forum for innovation in the built environment. Headed to the UK? Register here for this historic event.

By PAUL DOHERTY, AIA,  AEC Hackathon co-founder | Jul 13, 2015


One’s life can be measured by celebrations, graduations, and other rites of passage. We all experience these moments where events take on a life of their own, and we are but actors on the stage of life. The AEC Hackathon is not only a personal rite of passage for its attendees, but also for the architectural, engineering and construction industry from which this new, game-changing community has been formed.

From the outset, we designed the AEC Hackathon to be not just an event, but a community. The events, themselves, are meant to bring problem solvers together, to facilitate ideas, and to deliver solutions in various states of completion over a weekend. A collaborative oasis is provided to allow teams of tech and AEC folks to:

  • Hit the ground running - Bring their own problems, ideas, projects, and past hacks;
  • Expert categories - Hack on predetermined categories of interest (Facebook’s new campus, smart buildings, digital fabrication, etc.);
  • Sandbox: Meet smart, new people, brainstorm, and come up with their own hacks.

The challenge is in the hands of each participant as to the event’s success… and continues after the Hack weekend in the form of online communities and meet-ups before the next Hackathon. It is a true grassroots event that has developed a community that self-polices itself very well.

We have had companies use the AEC Hackathon to work on projects they cannot work on during the workweek due to a number of issues (cost, time, limited resources, interruptions, etc.) Other organizations, meanwhile, have used the experience to learn new things (software, hardware, processes, standards, etc.). Our job as the organizers is to create and facilitate the right environment. The event itself is up to the attendees. You make it what you want to be. If it’s about IFC’s and BIM? That is yours to Hack. If it’s about augmented reality working in Google Glass in the field? That’s someone else’s focus to Hack. Having experts from Silicon Valley meet AEC folks like yourselves naturally creates a cross-pollination of ideas and issues to solve that makes for a very dynamic environment.


There have been numerous AEC Hackathons, with the first two sited on the HQ campus of Facebook in Menlo Park, CA, in November 2013 and March 2014. Granted, with the recent entry into the AEC space of tech giants like Oracle (Primavera) and Google (Flux), Facebook may seem an unlikely choice to host a potentially important AEC event. Behind the scenes, however, members of the Hackathon organizing committee were working on a sustainable, green home for a Facebook employee who loved the idea of taking the lessons he had learned and exposing them to a bigger community. Thus the selection of Facebook as our host. The ramifications of the space, Facebookers, services and the overall vibe of having the AEC Hackathon at Facebook could not be measured.


It was the perfect environment.

After months of planning, the stage was set; organizers benchmarked the event against other successful Hackathons, but continuously looked for opportunities to bring together the elite tech developers from Silicon Valley, and around the world, and match them with the best minds in our industry. The result? Over 300 registered AEC Hackathon “pirates” participated in the two events, with over 100 “observers”. They bore witness to a rite of passage, an intervention of sorts, for a stodgy industry historically resistant to change. Like someone blowing dust off an antique, the minute you walk into "the Hack Room", you know it's something different… something communal... hopeful... and long overdue.

Friday – Day 1

The tone is set on the Friday night kickoff when the organizers welcome the visiting "pirates" and explain the spirit of the event, which is to disrupt, innovate and break traditional processes of the AEC industry in a safe zone, one that protects the individual while celebrating the result. At that first Facebook Hackathon, organizers discovered that the majority of participants had come on their own dime, and that they did not even inform their employer they were planning to attend. When asked, almost every attendee had the same answer: just the promise of the AEC Hackathon was good enough for them to commit time and money in the hopes of getting something that their existing organizations were not providing, and likely would not fund.

Typically, the Friday kickoff sets the tone, and draws the parameters within which each team will focus: i.e. design, construction, big data, smart buildings/smart cities, robotics, GIS/3D, digital fabrication, etc. The exchange of ideas gets started with a lighting round of introductions by the attendees. Each is allotted just 15 seconds to state why they are there, what technology they possess, what tech they need, and what common process they want to “hack”. Afterward, over the course of 90 minutes, people gravitate toward others with similar problems to solve, and this process naturally, almost magically, defines the structure of the Hackathon for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday – Day 2

The next morning starts with the recently formed teams getting to work at 9 am. Having teams formed overnight between tech experts and AEC professionals has proven to be a stroke of genius, as teams begin a design process that both sides understand -- schematic design, design development and construction documents are similar for both industries. Whiteboards, easel pads, and hi-speed WiFi are all employed, with large amounts of data sets and digital resources provided the teams.

When you walk into a Hack Room on Day 2, it is like entering a scene from the movie “The Matrix” or Tony Stark’s workshop in “Iron Man." A hive of energy surrounds teams of workers, passionate about making a change to a process, a hack, anything that will help our tired but proud industry. Surrounding the hack, on the periphery, are new technologies like 3D Systems’ Cubify 3D Printers, Oculus Rift (Virtual Reality), Leap Motion and Google Glass… seducing the development teams to use their products. Each team takes its time on Saturday to define its hack and then gets down to producing a solution to present on Sunday.  The word magic is often overused to describe an important place in time. But the word magic cannot be overused when it comes to Day 2 of the AEC Hackathon. The ingredients of place (Silicon Valley, NY, Chicago, London), time (BIM is tired, so what's next?) and value (an event that draws tech experts and industry colleagues into intense, focused collaborative problem-solving) naturally creates a “happening”.

Meanwhile, concurrent workshops of renowned experts from both inside and outside the AEC industry run throughout the day, providing even richer resources for the Hackathon teams to draw from. Typically, the workshops run on two tracks in two different rooms. The AEC track offers educational sessions on topics like smart buildings, smart cities, GeoDesign, digital fabrication, big data and FutureTech. In the other room, the Tech track might look at augmented reality, web 3D, additive manufacturing, and cybersecurity. Usually, participants will take the disruptive nature of the event to heart, and adapt team names like The Devils of AEC Disruption; "Dude, Where’s My Nail Gun?"Hack-E, and "This Is How You Do It, Pirates!", capturing the essence of these events.

Sunday – Day 3

One very cool aspect of the AEC Hackathon is the mix of both young and veteran people, proving that different generations can work and excel together when put into the proper environment and given a common cause. More than one industry veteran of 40+ years have described the events of Day 3 with words like, “This was an important event... One of the best ever... An absolute game changer” One particularly enthusiastic hack team member even told me, “I now have a book to write about one of the most incredible weekends of my life, where I was privileged and blessed to engage with incredible minds that truly cared about making a difference.”

As time ticks away on the Sunday deadline, the teams are beehives of activity with code flying everywhere. When the deadline arrives, the teams begin their separate group presentations. Below, a YouTube video of the AEC Hackathon 1.1 presentations and selection of winners. 

tangible results

All solutions of each AEC Hackathon are meant to remain open source solutions, self-policed for the industry to use. One example of open source solutions can be found here. The goal is to continue and expand the community of open source solutions, focused on improving the built environment. Some other notable outcomes just from those first two Facebook events, aka AEC Hackathons 1.0 and 1.1:

  • One submitted hack solution already had its first customer within the first weekend;
  • One hack actually turned into a company that was recently acquired;
  • Two other hacks are now startup companies with bright futures; and...
  • Augmented reality is here to stay.

Unlike anything you have ever experienced, the AEC Hackathon is part educational workshop, part networking, and part intense competition -- a hybrid of inventive acceleration that hits on all cylinders via the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

This is the moment to break things and challenge the status quo.

This is the moment to break things and to challenge the status quo, which means discomfort for those in the AEC industry who have made money and built careers on the persistent inefficiencies of our processes. They do not want to change for true change will only work against them. Well, let them be warned. Armed with the terrible swift sword of technology, more and more of us are hacking right through our industry's inefficiencies... and we are coming for you.

Many of you reading this will not know that this transformation has already happened until it is too late. Many of your workers already are embracing this collaborative problem-solving with excitement and hope, and you may not even know it. There has never been a better time to be in the AEC community, an industry with a bright future and so much unrealized potential. Say goodbye to the old AEC industry and its parasitic processes and roles, and say hello to the new age of hackers.

Yes, a rite of passage has occurred in our industry, and now it is about to hit Europe.

Enjoy the moment.

Based in Collierville TN, the author is president & CEO of The Digit Group Inc., cofounder of the AEC Hackathon, and a recognized international expert on Smart Cities. As one of BuiltWorlds' three advisors for its new SmartWorlds Initiative, Doherty will be speaking here at our Future Mobility event on Thursday, July 23rd. For more information, click here.

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