Why you should care about your local hackerspace

Open centers of grassroots innovation, hackerspaces offer opportunities to source talent, create goodwill, and push technology forward

I had the good fortune to be able to attend Maker Faire North Carolina this weekend in Raleigh, N.C. Maker Faires are amazing events that bring together representatives from all parts of the Maker culture, DIY culture, and the hackerspaces movement. At this local Maker Faire, I was struck by the number of hackerspaces represented. The energy, buzz, and activity around their booths was captivating.

Our local hackerspace from Durham, N.C., Splat Space, was in the middle of the activity, with volunteers doing everything from teaching children to program in Scratch to demoing cool Raspberry Pi projects to showing off DIY sand-casting techniques for casting metal objects in your backyard to, of course, showing off the now ubiquitous, ultimate DIY machine, a 3D printer.

Amid all this buzz, it dawned on me that everyone should be excited about hackerspaces and what they represent, both for their local communities and the world. Although the hackerspace movement is growing rapidly, many people are still not familiar with them, where they are located, or what they do. So let's examine the hackerspace world and explore why you should give a crap about it.

Defining a movement

What exactly is a hackerspace (also referred to as a hacklab, makerspace, or hackspace)? In the words of Mitch Altman, a co-founder of Noisebridge in San Francisco:

[Hackerspaces are] centers of unique community, each supporting the individuals there to explore and do what they love, each an inspirational source of true education where anyone can learn what they need to live the lives they want to live, each a vibrant hub of local community.

The Noisebridge founder further elaborates on the nature of hackerspaces and hacking:

[A hackerspace is] a real physical space, like a storefront in LA or a warehouse in Detroit, where people are supported to explore and do what they love through hacking. Hacking is taking what is, improving on it to the best of your ability, and sharing it. Since anything, no matter how cool, can be improved, we can hack anything. We can hack computers and electronics, of course, but also art and craft, math, science, yourself, society, the planet. We can and do hack anything.

Likewise, Catarina Mota, founder of the AltLab hackerspace in Lisbon, Portugal, says hackerspaces are:

... community-built, self-financed, self-organized, and entirely grassroots, shared space(s) where people from all walks of life choose to pool their resources and spend their free time -- learning, teaching each other, and inventing.

A hackerspace, then, is a physical location, where members of the hackerspace community pool their resources (time, money, tools, equipment and supplies) in order to create a collaborative environment for learning, exploring, teaching, doing, and inventing.

Common features of hackerspaces include: A well-lit, accessible physical environment, with plenty of tabletops and workbenches; a video projector for presentations; small hand tools; electronic tools, including soldering irons, multimeters, oscilloscopes, benchtop power supplies, and more; machining and physical fabrication tools, including drill presses, band saws, grinders, CNC mills, CNC lathes, 3D printers, and related goods; scientific supplies and equipment; a lending library of books and journals; and of course, plenty of computers and computing equipment. Hackerspaces also tend to have a "spare parts" area where equipment is stored and intended to be taken apart, hacked, modified, or scavenged for parts for another project.

Hackerspace origins and evolution

The hackerspaces movement as we know it today largely originated in Germany. Soon after, an explosion of interest in hackerspaces resulted in the creation of new spaces all over the world, especially in Europe and North America. Mitch Altman has said there are now more than 1,100 hackerspaces in existence around the world, up from 20 or so in 2007. Hackerspaces.org maintains a list that attempts to catalog all of the world's hackerspaces.

The goals of hackerspaces are varied, but there is a common element of emphasizing education and invention. In the United States, most hackerspaces are 501(c)3 nonprofit educational organizations, and many hackerspaces in other parts of the world hold equivalent status. Hackerspaces promote education by hosting events at the Space, usually open to the public and free of charge, which range from soldering workshops to industrial sewing workshops to sessions on DIY residential electrical wiring to classes on cryptography, data security, and every topic in between.

Many hackerspace members also volunteer to take their skills on the road by participating in events at local schools, libraries, and other nonprofit institutions. A popular activity at some hackerspaces is the appliance repair café, in which members of the surrounding community are invited to bring in dead appliances (alarm clocks, toasters, microwaves, you name it), and members of the space will help them repair the device and restore it to a working state (or establish that it is truly beyond repair).

Hackerspaces and their members like to "dream big" and create BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) for themselves. There is currently an initiative called the International Hackerspace Space Program that has a goal of putting a hacker on the moon by year 2023! Talk about audacious. As Mitch Altman points out, it doesn't matter if the goal is actually attained, as the process of pursuing the goal is its own end; the learning, the exploring and the creativity harnessed and energized by trying to put a hacker on the moon will be its own reward. Note that this is not an entirely "pie in the sky" initiative yet; several hackerspaces are participating in a DARPA-funded project to do space research.

Given this diffusion of activity, how do you know when a hackerspace has succeeded? A hackerspace is a success when it helps people create things they could not have before. How does that happen? Either because another member has the right skills to help push through a sticking point or because there are enough people doing awesome things that something that looked impossible becomes much easier. Another way of establishing success for a hackerspace would be when they, as Mitch Altman says, "take something that was traditionally very expensive and make it cheap." The explosion of availability of inexpensive 3D printers is a prime example of this kind of hackerspace success story.

What hackerspaces mean to you

Why should you care about your local hackerspace? Well, as should be obvious, they are centers of learning. They offer both community -- the kind of collaborative energy usually associated with the university experience -- and an outlet for creative expression. As an individual, if you are interested in broadening your personal horizons, learning new skills, finding outlets for your creative desires, or hanging out with interesting people, there are few better avenues than interacting with your local hackerspace.

Organizations and managers within organizations should also look to their local hackerspaces. Why? Because hackerspaces tend to be hubs of entrepreneurial activity, and they can be a good place to recruit amazingly talented people, especially the so-called T-shaped people who have both an incredibly broad skill set and range of knowledge, as well as deep expertise and knowledge in at least one area.

Some hackerspaces are also open to collaborative ventures alongside local for-profit firms, or are at least willing to promote your organization through the channels they control. In exchange, a donation to sponsor the space is always welcome. For companies -- in terms of community goodwill and "hacker cred" in your local community -- there may be no better investment than sponsoring a local hackerspace.

Of course, you may be wondering what to do if you don't have a local hackerspace. The answer should be obvious: Start one yourself. Launching a hackerspace isn't necessarily difficult and there's plenty of information available from those who have gone before. For example, here's a handy guide to starting a hackerspace, courtesy of the fine folks at Adafruit. Also, the hackerspaces website has a treasure trove of useful information, including an awesome list of hackerspace design patterns.

But in the end, it's really just the following, per Mitch Altman:

Envision a culture you want to be part of, and put it out there. Pick a name, get a website, make stickers, hand out stickers to anybody and everybody, meet every Tuesday, and eventually get a physical space.

Interview with a Hackerspace organizer

Finally, to complement my own thinking on this topic, I reached out to Jeff Crews, current President of Splat Space, and posed a few questions about hackerspaces to him. Here is his take on hackerspaces:

Q. What is your definition of a hackerspace?

A. A hackerspace is a social group or organization, with or without a fixed physical location, made up of people who are interested in the inner workings of "things." Hacking involves the willingness to take physical or virtual objects and processes apart, find out how they work, and reassemble and recombine them (hopefully with improvements!).

The attitude of getting under the hood and fussing with the guts in order to learn and innovate is the key here, not the presence or absence of a given kind of technology. A knitting circle following premade patterns is not a hackerspace, nor is an "electronics club" that only builds prepackaged kits. A knitting circle that pushes the boundaries of their art, incorporates new materials, creates new techniques, and uses "knitting tech" in ways that have not been attempted before is a hackerspace even if nary an IC chip is found in their supply cabinet.

Q. How would you define success for a hackerspace?

A. Success initially means having regular meetings and paying the rent/keeping the lights on (if you're renting a space). Success over time is growing, developing more and more of a local and online presence, becoming known for innovation, sharing of knowledge, and outreach to those who could benefit.

Q. How does a hackerspace fail?

A. A hackerspace fails by being too exclusive, too centered on one thing, too cliquish and secretive, or openly hostile to outsiders and "the wrong kind of people." Territoriality is for chimps.

Q. How can we encourage more women to participate in hackerspaces?

A. Stop being a**holes. It's that simple, but I'll expand on it. The ownership of breasts, ovaries, and/or uterus is irrelevant to the ability to think logically, plan a project, present ideas clearly, use mathematics, code, solder, fabricate, or do anything else that might be going on in a hackerspace. (It becomes relevant only if and when a female member decides to do some bio-gyno-hacking on herself so that she can bear a genetically engineered baby-superweapon. That isn't an issue yet.) It is as irrelevant to hacking as is the social construct of "race" or someone's genetic makeup/ethnic background.

Women, like everyone else, want a welcoming and comfortable environment. An African-American potential member would probably look askance at a hackerspace that flew the Confederate battle flag. Likewise, a weekly rape joke competition would create what is known as a "hostile environment" for potential female members.

It's a delicate issue, especially since hackerspaces are often home to people who espouse various libertarian/Objectivist/anarchist/radical honesty philosophies, who see this as an assault on free speech. What those people don't realize is that those philosophies and the willingness to employ them usually come from a position of enormous privilege and safety that not everyone shares. Curbing one's tongue to make others feel more comfortable isn't censorship, it's courtesy. It's also good business for any organization.

Q. Why should "your boss" (in the abstract sense) care about hackerspaces?

A. Hackerspaces and the people that come out of them are innovative. Innovation is an attitude, not having "Skill Set Q with Toolkit X in Area B." Businesses that do not innovate -- they die.

Q. Where do you think hackerspaces are going?

A. As I hinted at earlier, hackerspaces are going to become more and more indistinguishable from "crafting groups" or "art groups." As hardcore tech types become more exposed to various arts and crafts, they will see how visual design, auditory design, and so on can be incorporated into their projects. And as crafters/artists become more comfortable with tech and the tech becomes more accessible (Arduino being a perfect example) more tech will be used by them. I think that what goes on at Splat Space is a perfect example of this.

Spontaneous combustion

Hackerspaces are hubs of intellectual and creative energy, centers of entrepreneurial activity and an amazing avenue for learning and education. Participating in a local hackerspace offers benefits to every member of the local community, including individuals, for-profit businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies.

Everyone can participate and learn a new skill, invent a new gadget, make a piece of amazing art, teach a class, and make new friends with a wide range of interests. Outside organizations may participate in the hackerspace to recruit talent, find help building a project, recruit volunteers to teach robotics to disadvantaged children in rural schools, or get a demo of an interesting new piece of gear they are considering purchasing.

Simply put, everybody should give a crap about their local hackerspace, or start one if there isn't one. Hackerspaces are truly the defining example of win-win.

This article, "Why you should care about your local hackerspace," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up on the latest developments in application development and read more of Andrew Oliver's Strategic Developer blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

This story, "Why you should care about your local hackerspace" was originally published by InfoWorld.