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In this college class, the assignment is to solve a local problem

UC Berkeley’s Hacking for Local sends students in the community to learn what people need fixed in their city–from unreliable buses to mitigating the risk of wildfires–and help them find solutions.

In this college class, the assignment is to solve a local problem
[Photo: Justin Pratt/iStock]

How do you convince people to drive less? When a team of University of California-Berkeley students considered the problem in the city of Berkeley–where traffic is increasing despite the city’s reputation as a bastion of progressive politics–they focused on how to improve the experience of riding the bus. One challenge is reliability; in a series of tests at bus stops, they found that the local transit app predicted arrival times incorrectly 9 out of 10 times. But when they learned that the transit agency already had plans for some interventions to improve reliability, they pivoted to another idea: making the bus free to ride. They estimated that it would cost roughly $4 million, and could potentially be covered in part by local businesses. The change, their research suggested, could make a meaningful difference in the number of people who choose to ride the bus rather than drive.

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The solution was one of a handful of proposals from Hacking for Local, a new class that asked teams of students to tackle complex local problems in Oakland and Berkeley using lean startup methodologies. It grew out of another class called Lean Launchpad, which helps students create startups over the course of a semester. “We started thinking about how would this apply to the non-startup world,” says Steve Weinstein, an executive who collaborates with other lecturers to teach Lean Launchpad at both UC Berkeley and Stanford, and who was one of five members of the teaching team for the new class. The first variation on the class focused on Defense Department challenges, and another focused on diplomacy. The latest iteration is designed to help students–and the local governments and nonprofits they work with–think about local challenges differently.

[Image: courtesy Prasad Gaikwad]

In the class, local groups and city council members suggested a set of challenges, and students spent 14 weeks making sense of the issues, conducting dozens of interviews with stakeholders and rapidly iterating on solutions, often pivoting from week to week. With a “flipped classroom” format, there were no lectures in class. Students prepared in advance and spent class time discussing ideas. The majority of the work happened off campus in the community. “The problem might be very different than what your preconceived notions were,” says Weinstein. “At a university like Berkeley, the students are super smart–that’s why they’re there–but the collective wisdom of all these students pales next to the collective wisdom of people on the streets living the problem.” (This was especially true because most of the students weren’t majoring in public policy or the particular issues that they were considering in the class.)

One team looked at the challenge of fire risk in the Berkeley-Oakland Hills, where a 1990s fire destroyed thousands of homes and killed 25 people, and where climate change is increasing the risk of another fire. Because homeowners weren’t taking action to reduce the risk on their own properties, the students proposed an app that would offer rewards–like a potential insurance discount–for completing a series of steps. Another group considered how to improve health in South Berkeley, where you’re more likely to get sick and die early if you’re black than if you’re white. After brainstorming a number of solutions, the students realized that community members wanted to find their own solutions, and proposed a community-led health initiative that would test new ideas with local health organizations.

Another team looked at the challenge of affordable housing in the area, and proposed a new podcast that would share personal stories of people experiencing homelessness as a way to build empathy in Berkeley’s wealthy population, and create more support for broader change. A group focused on Oakland proposed an app that citizens–particularly the African-American community, which is shrinking in the area–could use to easily give feedback on new developments so that their voices are included as the city transforms.

Many cities are trying to incorporate more innovative thinking, and many now have innovation departments. Still, the type of approach the class takes could lead to new solutions that might not have otherwise been considered. “I think the biggest strength of our project was actually taking the time to go and speak with people with genuine openness without having some sort of task that we were hoping to accomplish,” says Lucas Duffy, a masters student in development practice, a major focused on sustainable development, who worked on the team that created the concept for the podcast about homelessness. “And I think that if you do have a goal, it can be very difficult to go in and speak with communities without being extractive.”

“It wasn’t feasible for us to suddenly become policy experts on housing,” says Pratik Sachdeva, a graduate student in physics who also worked on the podcast concept. But the students could look at the problems from a different angle. “We were trying to get at a higher leverage point of trying to get people to move against the status quo–removing that inertia.”

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As in the business startup version of the class, the solutions were shaped by the reality of what stakeholders would actually want, and what would be possible to actually accomplish. “In this area, lots of people do what I’ll call ‘innovation theater,’ in the sense that they show an idea, but they haven’t figured out how that actually would take the idea and get it deployed,” says Weinstein. “So they say, we did a hackathon, or we brought a bunch of people together and they worked on this idea. And then no one’s thought through who would their partners be? What would they really have to do to get it? How would they get funding? And all of these things we make the students start thinking about once they have figured out what problem are they trying to solve.”

“Since we actually had to demonstrate what we learned through weekly presentations and interview analyses, there was no cutting corners with these projects, and as a result I believe all the teams put together ideas that were actually useful to the public and to some extent validated, making them more likely to be successful later on,” says Rafael Grillo Avila, who is a doctoral student in the law school’s jurisprudence and social policy program. “This was different from other project-based classes I’ve taken that did not hold students as accountable to the communities they were purportedly trying to serve.”

Weinstein says that he is now interested in expanding the class to other universities.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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