How to Support Entrepreneurs ‘Hacking the Pandemic’

Explaining the local ‘maker’ response to COVID-19

Kelsie Nabben and Darcy Allen
September 2020

An under-explained trend of the COVID-19 pandemic is local innovation through local hardware ‘maker’ responses. These local, grassroots efforts build, hack and disseminate public health solutions that can be referred to as spontaneous, or ‘permissionless’, innovation.

As tracers of emerging technology and its implications for society, we have written a number of articles heeding the risks of how technology is applied in crisis, as well as proposing suggestions on how to navigate, coordinate and improve economic and social recovery. Here, we want to investigate a positive technology trend of the pandemic — how the ‘maker movement’ offers a radical, yet practical, response through decentralised, open-source, make-shift hacking to share solutions, and how ‘maker’ efforts be better supported in policy responses to the pandemic.

To do this, we explore what is happening, how it can be explained, and what should be done to support it.

European standards for medical supplies made freely available to facilitate increase of production, courtesy of https://covid.riat.at/corona

Hackers solve problems.

Hacking can refer to computer programming to compromise digital devices for malicious purposes, or a solution to get a job done. The primary goal of the hacking movement — alive at least since the early days of the Homebrew Computer Club — is to come up with ingenious solutions to hard problems. For the purposes of this analysis, hacking is a fast, elegant way to solve a problem.

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly created a swath of problems that needed to be solved.

In early 2020 the pandemic put enormous stress on our social, economic and political institutions. There were unpredictable spikes in demand for medical equipment and panic buying of other basic supplies. Supply chains broke down. Trust in institutions diminished.

While most people were glued to daily press briefings of COVID-19 cases — looking to the government to provide direction — there was an interesting and important shift in how problems were being solved by households and user groups. Innovation became more decentralised.

Examples of hacker responses to COVID-19 include open-source hardware for medical use, including testing and analysis, ventilators, face masks, protective gear, disinfection, data analytics, sanitation, other miscellaneous hardware, and low-tech supply chain solutions. Creators often gather around local community spaces in pursuit of their ‘COVID maker response’ to # hackthepandemic.

Why we need hackers.

The common attributes of these approaches are that they are local, permissionless, open-source and replicable. ‘Communitytech’ is not only important in terms of values, but also because the digital economy in which we find ourselves consists of the critical infrastructure of hardware and software.

The everyday hero matters.

This coordination is happening organically, through local hardware hackers and civil society groups. It’s quite remarkable that this process is happening from the ground-up. It pushes back on the narrative that the solutions to the pandemic come from the top-down, and that individuals are helpless in overcoming the challenges.

How to explain these groups.

Recovering from the pandemic must be entrepreneurial. It requires fast adaptation to new and unsolved problems. It requires new business models and the deployment of new technologies.

Innovation theorists are increasingly pointing out the rise of bottom-up user innovation. Aided through new technologies, innovations are emerging in small local communities rather than large commercial research and development laboratories.

Bottom-up innovation uses local information about entrepreneurial opportunities to solve problems. Smaller more agile groups can adapt quickly and experiment with new information. They also often release their discoveries to the world quickly and for free.

Many of these communities are innovation commons where hackers come together to create self-governance mechanisms (such as reputation and social norms) facilitate sharing and coordination of knowledge.

Fostering hackers.

Exciting projects are bubbling up organically from local groups. We can see that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. But what can we do?

One step is to recognise that which these groups can and do spontaneously emerge, they are affected by policy frameworks.

Policymakers must understand that good pandemic policy is more than just public health policy or conventional economic policy. It is innovation policy.

The post-pandemic recovery will be propelled through adaptation and innovation. That innovation won’t be confined to governments and large companies. It will also come from amateurs and hackers.

But the capacity to form groups and hack is affected by policy. Regulatory frameworks designed for slow-moving innovation in corporates can inhibit hackers.

To foster the bottom-up entrepreneurial processes we have described here governments should take a stance of permissionless innovation. Innovation should be enabled by default, rather than requiring permission. Even seemingly tangential policies such as zoning can impact the ability for people to meet in physical spaces.

And how can you help? Talk to others about the importance of experimentation in solving pandemic problems. Connect with a hackerspace and contribute your knowledge and expertise. Support frontier projects. And, of course, start hacking.

Kelsie Nabben and Darcy Allen are part of the team at the Blockchain Innovation Hub, RMIT University.

More can be explained on why a local-first, open hardware and software approach is important in two upcoming co-authored IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference papers: ‘S4: Simple, Secure, Survivable Systems Human-first crisis technology design principles’, and ‘Capacity Maintenance During Global Disruptions: Security, resilience and incentives matter’ (P Gardner-Stephen & K Nabben). The latter emphasises the importance of secure, verifiable hardware and supply chain security.

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Social scientist researcher in decentralised technologies and infrastructures. RMIT University Digital Ethnography Research Centre / Blockchain Innovation Hub