As Vunki Mano! - the social hackathon and participation exemplar of Võru, Estonia - marked its seventh edition and fifth year anniversary, it was not just the event's milestone we celebrated. Equally important were the individuals whose dedication and innovation have been pivotal to its success.
The visionary pioneer in the face of new challenges
In 2016, the local governments of Võru County sought an answer to the question of how to solve people's problems in a situation where it seemed that the old system no longer worked. This led to the birth of a social hackathon in cooperation between Tallinn University's Institute of Social Sciences, local authorities of Võru County and the NGO Helpific.
As a result, the first hackathon was organized in 2018. At the time, Kadri Kangro, also involved in the creation of the format, stated that the goal was to test whether the idea acceleration method used in the private sector could work in rural areas to find innovative solutions for people's well-being.
Kadri Kango and Daniel Kotsjuba as two of the mentors of Vunki Mano 2023. Credit: Ula Malinska-Mark.
According to organizers and mentors, the problems solved at the hackathon are "wicked", meaning they are complex or difficult to define, yet controllable and manageable.
Kangro emphasized the importance of accepting that there are many problems we don't fully understand and cannot solve alone, but can collaboratively approach. "In today's society, everyone is highly specialized and operates in their field. Therefore, the strengths must be combined so that we can create innovative solutions," said Kangro, a mentor at this year's Vunki Mano.
Today, the hackathon has evolved into a tool that helps identify and solve problems important to the community.
Inclusive outreach efforts from the communication specialist
The goal of Vunki Mano has been to involve as many representatives of different target groups as possible. Therefore, this year we expanded the campaign so that the information reaches everyone, regardless of their access to channels. The campaign for Vunki Mano was widespread, found in newspapers, outdoor banners, social media, websites, local government channels, development center networks, and digital screens. We also used video, image, and text content in the campaign, gave a radio interview, shared experiences from previous years, and used important regional figures as spokespersons. Additionally, we created a special anniversary design and an original series of drawings to celebrate the fifth anniversary, visible both online and on the street.
"It is such a pleasure to say that the campaign of the hackathon was so successful this year," said Lota Vana, communication specialist of the Võrumaa Development Center. "14 different ideas were submitted to the hackathon, of which 9 participated in the event that lasted for two days. Also, the Vunki Mano community increased by over 100 people, more than 10 percent, during the campaign period," she added. The campaign's success was also evident in the positive feedback from participants.
Various campaign efforts for Vunki Mano! 2023. Credit: Lota Vana.
A mother's journey: personal motivation leading to collective action
"It's unbelievable that we are standing here with this award," said Aire Kokk, who submitted the topic of mental health issues among young people and the availability of help.
"Yes, this topic is personal; I have come up with it," Kokk referred to the personal experience that motivated the idea. "One of my three sons, thirteen years old, developed an anxiety disorder, resulting in him not being able to attend school for seven months," Kokk, visibly emotional, shared. "Our family's approach was to discuss and find solutions," she continued. It soon became clear that this issue was not unique to their family. "It's a topic not often discussed, and that's why it's crucial," Kokk, who presented the idea, emphasized.
The winning idea "Let's Make the Walls Talk!" aims to solve the problem of insufficient psychoeducation by helping young people get professional primary support for mental health issues. It plans to stick QR codes on mirrors in two schools in Võrumaa - Võru Kreutzwaldi School and Rõuge Põhikooli. These codes would direct young people to existing mental health websites. The jury highlighted the smart use of existing resources, the overall maturity of the idea, and a strong final presentation as the strengths of the idea.
The winning idea "Let's make the walls talk!" team accepting the award.
Initially, assembling a team for the hackathon posed a real challenge: "Last Friday, there was not a single person in my team," Kokk recalled while accepting the main prize. "The more I thought about it, the more daunting the topic seemed! But then I started reaching out. Many people wanted to participate but were tied up with school or other activities..."
She had only words of praise for her final team: "Teamwork is unpredictable, but we had an extremely awesome cooperation!"
Explore further the transformative ideas and projects that were birthed at Vunki Mano 2023 here!
The observer turned innovator: academic exploration at Vunki Mano
Several academic works have also been written about Vunki Mano hackathons. Karolin Eks, a final year digital product design student at the Estonian Academy of Arts, participated in the hackathon as an observer this year and found inspiration for her thesis at the event. "There is no point in pursuing something new if the community sees that there is a need for something," she said later in an interview.
Karolin making observation notes. Credit: Ula Malinska-Mark.
If at first, Karolin's goal was to simply observe what was happening, by the end of the day she accepted the award on stage as one of the team members: "The energy in the room around you is so strong that it's strange to be silent."
According to her, the goal of Vunki Mano is to show that anyone can lead change. "Actually, it is not the case that we have some activists and ‘natural’ leaders in the community. Each of us could be it, but life just doesn't always allow it," said Eks. She added that at the Vunki Mano, someone gives you permission, like: "Come and do it!" For Karolin as a product designer, it also seems logical that some ideas do not reach implementation in the form presented at the hackathon: "In this sense, it is not bad at all if all these ideas do not reach implementation. Even unrealized ideas have energy when they have already reached someone's desk."
Vunki Mano has not only solidified its presence in Võru County but also inspired similar events across Estonia, showcasing the adaptability and appeal of its format.
Mai Timmi, a longstanding mentor of Vunki Mano, shared insights on its expanding influence. 'In Pärnu, a city inspired by our approach, the inaugural hackathon propelled ten innovative ideas,' she noted. Under the EUARENAS project, the hackathon's recent focus has been on harnessing its potential as a tool for policy-making, further amplifying its impact beyond its original scope.
Vunki Mano! will be held for the eighth time in October 2024.