Next Step-athon: towards next-level health and healthcare for Amsterdam

Next Step-athon proved to be a successful online substitute for Hacking Health Amsterdam. An intensely diverse group actively helped those with an innovative idea to improve health and healthcare in the Amsterdam region. As a result, many next steps are now in the works.

Let’s talk health and not illness

It’s Friday 11 September 2020. It was time for the second edition of multi-day Dutch Hacking Health Amsterdam (HHA). But with COVID-19, the event has moved online and recast as a Next Step-athon.

In keeping with the City of Amsterdam’s noble aim of extending the healthy lives of citizens by two years by 2025, the focus of the single-day event was not on patients and their illnesses, but on citizens and their health.

“It was a technical challenge to make this happen,” admits one of the organisers, Esther Gervers, of social innovation consultants Gloedmakers. “But the energy was incredible: with all these different sectors really connecting with the healthcare sector to bring about positive change.”

Thinking laterally together

15 ‘pitchers’ presented their concept to improve health and healthcare in the Amsterdam region – from helping senior citizens with dementia get more involved in their community to developing masks that allow the hearing impaired to lip read.

These pitchers were joined by a heady mix of over 100 programmers, policymakers, entrepreneurs, data specialists, designers and a rainbow of healthcare professionals (from academic hospitals, insurance companies, homecare organisations, mental health specialists, etc) – who were all there to help push these concepts closer to real-world applications.

From problem to solution – while maintaining the contact

Simone Kukenheim, the Amsterdam deputy mayor responsible for care, made a short welcoming speech. She noted how healthcare is in a state of reinvention as the population ages and the focus turns to long-term homecare.

“We need to think ahead,” says Kukenheim. “We also need to focus on prevention and healthier lifestyles – as we learned from COVID-19, it’s best to be as fit as possible. But most people are not going to suddenly change and start dieting. So, we need to start with the children. We need more smart solutions – but ones that are not a substitute for pure human contact. We need to support the healthcare professionals in the best ways possible.”

Human design thinking: empathise, get inspired, accept failures

The Next Step-athon uses human design thinking as its backbone. Thomas Schuurmans is director of Proportion, a global human-centred design agency focusing on bringing impact innovations to Africa and Asia. From a quiet trail at Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, he summarised the three essential mindsets for a designer:

  • “Start with empathy. Talk with all the parties and really delve into their real-world needs.”
  • “Look for inspiration everywhere – perhaps a solution already exists in other sectors. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.”
  • “Be aware that the initial prototype will fail. So, fail fast, learn fast and move forward.”

The participants could then attend two of the six offered workshops, which fleshed out various elements of this approach: “Design a solution”, “Connecting remotely”, “Build your business case”, “Discover the need”, “Make steps” and “Experimenting and validating”.

It’s the implementation, stupid

Afterwards, Erik Gerritsen, the secretary-general of Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport of the Netherlands, came online for a caffeinated pep-talk:

“Think bricolage. Use what is out there already – that speeds it all up. As they say: it’s the implementation, stupid! And make something big out of something small,” says Gerritsen before offering something more concrete: “Reach out if you need help with the next push.”

A speed date between sectors

Then it was time to split into smaller groups for speed dating. Here, the pitchers were hooked up with not only hackers but also Amsterdam policy- and decision-makers – people with the knowledge, networks, and budgets to push these concepts to pilot stage. On hand were representatives from key social and medical organisations such as OLVG, Amstelland, Amsterdam UMC, Zorgdomein, AFWC, de Sociale Maatschap, Combiwel, etcetera.

One of the 15 pitchers was Lisette Orth, who works at HVO-Querido, an organisation that helps those with social and/or financial problems. She seeks “collective financial care”, where banks apply their data to flag those with potential financial problems – so an intervention can take play as early as possible.

“There’s a close link between financial problems and health – they influence each other,” says Orth. “And there are huge gains, both socially and economically, if we can reach these people at an earlier stage. The question is: how can we bundle our strengths with the financial sector to offer preventative financial care”?

Rounding the triangle

Charlotte van Laar, medical sector specialist from ABN AMRO, confirms her bank can identify changes in one’s life – whether a pay cheque falls away, or if a child’s bank account is emptied. But then there is the issue of privacy. “We can’t just forward their identities to other organisations. But in terms of HVO-Querido coaching and training our employees to ask the right questions and offering wider options, this could be an excellent way forward,” says Van Laar.

Representatives from the healthcare sector and an insurance company were also enthused. “We need to push the triangle, and involve the City. I can connect you,” says one.

Things were happening fast.

Care for innovation

During the short closing summary, it became obvious some of the other pitches were in an earlier stage of development. In these cases, the next steps were more along the lines of: “Start with some basic market research. Who’s it for? Who pays? Who’s the competition?” says Hans Ossebaard from Games for Health Europe.

Others recommended diving deeper into the national government’s healthcare innovation support organisation: “Care about Innovation” or approaching event sponsors – and scene connectors – Smart Health Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Economic Board. “Like today’s event, these are organisations that facilitate bringing different people and parties together,” says Gervers.

Then as the Amsterdam rappers Snoopgoods, PA, Shaka and Grijz perform “live”, someone says in the comments: “Diversity in innovation is what it’s all about.”

Many thumbs-ups follow.


A finale for the Next Step-athon is set for 16:00-20:00 on 20 October 2020 when the pitchers will present any developments and various winners will be announced.