A few days ago I was invited to a party. Party invites are always good, and if I can make it to this one I’ll definitely go. It’s from a continental European hackerspace, and it’s for their tenth birthday party. As I spent a while checking ferries and flights it struck me, a lot of the spaces in my sphere are about a decade old. I went to London Hackspace’s 10th earlier in the year, and a host of other British hackerspaces aren’t far behind. Something tells me I’ll be knocking back the Club Mate and listening to EDM of some form at more than one such party in the coming year.
For most of the decade since I found the then-recently-established mailing list of my local hackerspace I’ve spent a lot of my time involved in more than one space. I’ve been a hackerspace director, a member, and many roles in between and I’ve seen them in both good times and bad ones. Perhaps it’s time to sit back and take stock of that decade and ask a few questions about hackerspaces. How have they fared, what state are they in now, and where are they going?
Has It Really Been That Long?
There was a time when hackerspaces were very few and far between, almost legendary entities that you’d heard about but never visited. If you were lucky enough to be a member of a hackerspace twenty or thirty years ago then I am envious of you, for aside from a brief taste of the required atmosphere during my Robot Wars days my hardware work was pursued mostly in the wilderness. As they spread out from those trailblazers your part of the world may have had its first hackerspace on a different timescale from mine, but they edged into the UK in about 2009 and 2010. First a few larger cities had them, then they spread inexorably to smaller ones so that now it’s a fair certainty that any European settlement from a large town upwards will have one. We’ve seen a few wither on the vine while others have burned brightly and faltered, but have they matured? Can a hackerspace director at last get their hands dirty in the workshop without constantly fighting for their space’s existence?
Different people find their own benefits from the hackerspace community, whether it be in the workshop, the politics, the running or simply the community itself. For me they have provided a stimulating community of like-minded tinkerers through a difficult period in life, and by my observation they provide a similar refuge for many others. Unfortunately though they do not serve everyone in the same fashion, and I find it disturbing how many people I have encountered along the way for whom the community has not been kind. Individual members fade away from their space when they are treated badly, but in particular those involved in the running of a space proceed to inevitable burnout. I shouldn’t have a host of friends in the community who have been damaged by running a hackerspace, yet I do, and I believe the cause of this is reflected in the way the movement has evolved.
What Happens When a Small Group Becomes a Large One?
Hackerspaces arrived here not just in the form of rooms full of tools and machines, but as organisational copies of some of the places that inspired them. For many this meant a model based around consensus and an almost Athenian approach to democracy, in which all voices had a say and for which the idea was that all members would contribute to the running. The phrase “Do-ocracy” appeared, in which tasks and functions could be done at will by anyone, with the idea that they would be done by those most suited for them. These models and concepts can work, indeed there are spaces in which they work well. However they are invariably the smaller spaces, and as the membership grows their flaws become rapidly apparent.
When a space first emerges, it is usually at the hands of a small and well-motivated group of individuals with a common purpose. They become a well-oiled machine, and a space in this phase of its existence can be an exciting place to be a member of. Spaces that stay at this size with somewhere around twenty members are fortunate, because the problems that face larger ones under a consensus model never have a chance to appear. If they can cover their rent and no calamity befalls them such as their landlord wanting the building emptied, they can have a happy future.
As their membership grows though, the percentage of members who share the ideals and work ethic of that original crew becomes ever smaller, and the deficiencies of the model begin to show. Despite the do-ocracy the members expect there to be Someone In Charge, so there will be some sort of board of directors. An uneasy divergence emerges between the three competing influences of directors, do-ocracy, and consensus, as the percentage of members prepared to perform the do-ocracy declines and the directors are left to pick up the slack.
Meanwhile the membership believe themselves to have a say in everything because of the consensus model. The beleaguered directors are under attack from all sides as they try to keep up with the space-running tasks that nobody else will do while simultaneously weathering the onslaught from the inactive members to whom consensus has given a sense of entitlement. Meetings become hours-long nightmares of endless waffle as members with Something To Say exercise their opportunity to drone on for hours that they could be spending taking on some of that do-ocracy work of getting stuff done.
This is a rite of passage for every growing hackerspace. The jump from a few handfuls of people to a large, self-sustaining membership hinges on successfully navigating this in-between time without alienating the people who make up the community of the space. The most successful spaces by my observation have been those that have modified or even moved away entirely from consensus and do-ocracy, and that now sport a more executive model in which a board of directors is left to run the space with accountability in a much more periodic form akin to the shareholders meetings faced by directors of large companies.
Would You Invest In A Home For A Hackerspace?
Having adapted the governance model to fit the growing hackerspace, what remains a threat to it? From where I am sitting I worry chiefly about the insecurity of so many hackerspace venues. It seems everywhere you turn there’s a story of a hackerspace whose lease wasn’t renewed, or whose walls simply can no longer hold all of the goings-on. Whatever the reason, the common problem for the mature hackerspace seems to be location, location, location.
Our advantage is that we are prepared to take on odd spaces that might otherwise be unrentable, but on the other hand those spaces have a tendency to be in locations whose owners have an eye towards redevelopment. I have lost count of the number of times that successful and financially viable spaces of my acquaintance have needed to move for this reason, and I wish that there were some way to be put on a more stable footing.
Some spaces go in with other organisations to occupy a larger space, as the ability to pay more in rent grants additional bargaining power with the landlord. For example my hackerspace in Milton Keynes shares a building with the local Men In Sheds that is rented from the local Community Foundation, but that is an extremely lucky situation. Though the relationship between space and Shed is a largely harmonious one in MK this can be a dangerous path. Other spaces have tried the route of going under the wing of a sponsor, only to hit the buffers when the sponsor loses interest in them.
There are times when I wonder whether there is a viable business model in a community-owned property investment company with the aim of providing accommodation for hackerspaces with the ability to pay a sustainable rent, but I am sadly not an accountant nor an expert in property investment companies so it remains only an idle thought.
…And What Does The Future Hold?
So the spaces around me have not only survived the decade since the movement arrived in my part of the world, but have become the centers of hacker culture. What are the challenges that will face them in the next decade, and how should they cope? I’ve touched upon the lack of security of tenure with respect to physical space, so beyond that I think the chief threat comes from a proliferation of competitors. Whether you call it a hackspace, a hackerspace, or a makerspace, it can sometimes seem as though there are a plethora of spaces springing up, and we can be lost in the crowd.
The answer of course is that very few of them are hackerspaces as we know them. Aside from the FabLabs that many people will be familiar with there is a trend for all sorts of organisations to put a 3D printer and maybe a laser cutter in a room and call it a hackspace. They want to appear innovative and on-trend, but they also want complete control over their resource. Thus they never replicate the secret sauce that makes our hackerspaces special, which is the community and its ability to generate ideas and cool stuff. They do however present a threat, because among them are so-called hackspaces that compete with our hackerspaces for funding and other resources. When a community group is competing with a space run by a much larger entity with professional staff dedicated to fundraising, they will always be at a disadvantage. I can think of more than one British city that has reached saturation point with these spaces, with consequent problems for the community space. Our best hope with respect to these spaces is I think to recognise them as a fad, and trust that they will largely be a thing of the past in a few years time as the Next Big Thing takes their place.
It’s been a bit of a shock to realise that the spaces I’m involved with are all around ten years old, but despite some of the teething troubles and ongoing challenges I’ve noted above, I think the movement remains in good shape. If you’re from a space that has escaped any problems I envy you. If you’re a diehard fan of consensus and do-ocracy then I hope it never goes wrong for you as I have seen it go. Meanwhile, if you have a view on any of this we’d love to hear from you in the comments. Keep supporting your local space, so it is still going in a decade’s time.