Last year, as we did some research on the places of innovation for a client, we interviewed Mitch Altman, dubbed the “father of the hackerpaces”. The topic was to know how large companies could find an inspiration from the hackerspace movement.
mitch altman hackerspace culture corporate innovation martin pasquier innovation is everywhere
Mitch founded Noisebridge, one of the first hackerspaces in the US in 2008, and since then, he’s been traveling a lot to share his thoughts and experience about coworking spaces, hacking and the DIY culture.
Here’s an almost uncut version of this e-mail interview we had between Singapore and Berlin.

For a video intro to Mitch Altman, you can have a look at this video from TedX Brussels.

Hackerspaces are about love

Innovation is Everywhere: I agree that the “community + creative experience” is what people need and/or want. A hackerspace is a good place when you’re out of your job. How could a corporation set up a hackerspace, as they have their own rules, such as minimum attendance, selection of projects that can bring value to the company, etc… or do you feel it’s incompatible? The “Google time” of 20% for engineers to work on their ideas seem to be a good example, did you meet similar cases elsewhere?

Mitch Altman: One of the big things that make hackerspaces work so well is that people are playing and working on projects that they love — or exploring what they love.  A big problem with company’s environments is that they give little room for people to explore and do what excites them — they are bound to do the projects that make the company money, whether they like the project, or not.  Pretty much the only options an employee has is to transfer, or to quit.

From what I hear, Google no longer allows employees to do whatever they want for their 20% time.  And I’ve heard that it is less than 20% now.  This is hearsay, however.

If a company could give their employees time to play, I think that would go a long way in keeping employees happy and creative.

 

Innovation is Everywhere: If hacking is taking something which exist and augment it, then share it, could a corporation set up a space with their products into it, and let hackers, tweakers, makers play with it?

Mitch Altman: Another big thing that makes hackerspaces thrive is that they are conceived of and started by people who want one.

If a hackerspace is imposed on some people from above, I don’t think it would work as well as when people envision what they would like in a space, and then create it.

Assuming it is the employees of the corporation who will be using the internal “hackerspace”, perhaps the best way to proceed is to give the employees who will be using the space time to get together to determine for themselves what kind of a “hackerspace” they would like to play in.  Then give them some resources to create it for themselves.

Another thing that makes hackerspaces work well is that the people who start it, and who keep it going, build up the space themselves (to varying degrees).  Creating a master plan for the layout, and then building it  is a very bonding experience.

Some spaces do all of the build-up themselves; some do most of the build-up, but hire contractors for some of the things that are difficult for them (such as for spaces where there is no one who knows plumbing); some spaces do very little build-up of infrastructure, but they lay out the tables and chairs and tools, etc.  Regardless of the degree, the build-up that the members of the community do together is very valuable.

dim sum labs hong kong hackerspace innovation is everywhere martin pasquier interview mitch altman noisebridge

An evening at Dim Sum Labs, Hong Kong’s hackerspace (2014)

Events and communication make hackerspaces breathe

Innovation is Everywhere: What is the role of events in such a space? Is it only to make it breathe like a micro-organism? You say for instance the hackerspace movement has been kickstarted by the Chaos Computer Camp in 2007. It also seems from a few spaces I visited (Dim Sum Labs in Hong Kong, Hackerspace Singapore, CC Hub in Lagos Nigeria) that events come first, and the space as a “mere” consequence of it (we’re more and more attending -> we want more than a bar/a coffee shop to meet, let’s find a place!)?

Mitch Altman: Events are very important!  The physical space is very important!  The ability to hang out in the space without planned activities is also very important.  And the ability to come whenever inspired to use tools is very important. The ability to come whenever someone wants to ask questions of people who are there is also important.

Hackerspaces need to have ongoing workshops and classes and events to keep the energy high, and to attract more people to explore things that they want to learn, and things that might excite them.

 

Innovation is Everywhere: Communication is another key of hackerspaces: Websites, meetups, talks… How do you see this working for a corporate powered space? Can it mingle smoothly? Is a charter a good idea, or does it already sound like too much bullshit?

Having a written vision statement and written mission statement is very important.  It is also important that people who use the space all agree on how the space is organized, how decisions are made, and what rules to enact and follow.

One of the hackerspace design patterns (and please do look up and read the “hackerspace design patterns“) is to meet once a week.  This has proven through the years to be important for healthy community.

There must be a procedure for people to follow when there is conflict.

Communication is a big part of all of the above.

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A day at CC Hub, Lagos biggest coworking space (Nigeria, 2014)

 

Innovation is Everywhere: My feeling is that the will of hackerspace is to be for everyone, but as many tech-related phenomenons, there is also a risk of just reproducing existing divides (the most techy will go there, and the other ones will drop out). Same with a company powered space: can we imagine everyone taking part? random-picking and compulsory attendance? or just let the community do and have only young hipsters joining something they already know?

Mitch Altman: It is important that each hackerspace welcomes all who would like to check them out, but each space is not for everyone.  I don’t think that a hackerspace will work well when it is mandatory for people to go there, since this defeats the purpose of it being a place to explore and do what one loves.

It is probably best to ensure that the “hackerspace” at the company is only for people who want to make use of it.  For that to work well, the time spent there needs to be valued by the company.

Mitch Altman’s “Do-acracy”: do first, solve issues later

Innovation is Everywhere: How did you design Noisebridge, by the way? I suspect it’s something collective, if so, how did you do that? A few meetings with quick validation points, and then, the space always open to evolution? How to keep a minimal decision power in a collective space, or does it need it anyway at all? Is there any architectural features you’d like to stress?

Mitch Altman: When we created Noisebridge there were very few models to draw from.  So, we created our own.  It turned out that it took a year of discussions before we got our first space.  Here’s what we came up with:

We met every Tuesday to discuss how we, collectively, wanted to organize and run Noisebridge.  We all decided to have an anarchist collective, with no leader, no followers, and only one rule:  Be excellent to each other.  We chose to create a non-profit, tax-exempt, membership organization.  We chose to have all decisions made by consensus.  We chose to have a board of directors (required by law) with no power, but only responsibility — they are required to “rubber-stamp” the consensus of the membership.  Officers (also required by law) also have no power, but only responsibility.

The board and officers are elected.  We wanted to make it difficult for people who are wanting to use a board position or officer position to have power over others. Since consensus is inherently a conservative process, we decided that most things at Noisebridge would happen through “Do-acracy”:  if you want to do something, and you believe that it will not be a problem for anyone, then:  do it.  If it turns out to be a problem for anyone, then it is up to the person(s) to speak up, and it is important for everyone to work things out.  We have a conflict resolution process that has evolved over the years of our existence.

The above has worked well for us.

Some hackerspaces are organized in similar ways as Noisebridge.  Other hackerspaces are very different.  It is up to each group how to organize themselves so it works for them.

Community is hard work.  It will always be hard work.  But, if it works out for those involved in the community — then the community works.  What I outlined above works well for Noisebridge.

Noisebridge san francisco mitch altman interview on hackerspaces martin pasquier innovation is everywhere

Noisebridge, the mother of all hackerspace!

 

 

Innovation is Everywhere: Love comes back quite often in your speeches. I think this is also what Chris Anderson is writing in “Makers”: the internet unleashed the power of tons of people who were bored at work but could suddenly express what they really liked online, forums, and then form communities. Is the hackerspace the logic consequence of the internet? Could it come without? If so, is there also, next to the physical space, digital communities to help anyone to join the space, know what it does, and join at some point?

Mitch Altman: The internet is a very powerful tool.  But it cannot replace real community.  If real community isn’t available, then the internet is way better then no community.  But it is still just a tool.  It is a tool that real communities can use.  And they are great for spreading the word for all the cool things available at each hackerspace, and at hackerspaces in general.

I don’t think that the hackerspace movement would have happened without the internet.  People started making cool projects (physical things, as well as software), and many posted about their projects online.  This allowed people to see that there are many others who are interested in the same or similar things.  It also showed people that there is a need for real community, where people come together.

MAKE Magazine keyed into this.  They created a physical, print, magazine with lots of cool projects that anyone can make.  Then they created Maker Faires, where people could come together.

mitch altman hackerspace culture corporate innovation martin pasquier shenzhen maker fair innovation is everywhere

Hackerspaces have existed in Germany for a long time.  But it is about the same time as MAKE Magazine and the first Maker Faire that enough people came together for the hackerspace movement to take off.

Part of what helped the hackerspace movement take off was the creation of hackerspaces.org — which is a central networking website for all hackerspaces to help each other, and for people thinking about starting a hackerspace to seek help.  It is also a central website for people to find hackerspaces to play in.

BTW, I am currently pushing for an international Hackers In Residence Program, where any organization can call for a Resident.  Some may provide very little, others will provide all expenses paid — it is up to each organization to determine what they would like from a resident.  Each organization gets a web-page, with an easy-to-fill-out form to describe what they want from a Resident.  And anyone can browse through the Resident opportunity pages, and apply to any they find interesting.  I think this will be a fantastic resource for many organizations, including companies, hackerspaces, museums, libraries, schools, universities…  (As well as a fantastic opportunity for many people to travel and learn, and to cross-pollinate.)

hackerspace org mitch altman interview martin pasquier innovation is everywhere makers

Innovation is Everywhere: Overall, what do you think characterize hackerspaces compared to other innovative spaces such as the Googleplex, GE Garages and, say, my nephew’s science fair in school? Except or in addition to the above, what is the key element/pattern at work? What is likely to make it work? What is likely to make it fail? Do you have a way to “measure” the success of a hackerspace, or we just don’t care because it was first and foremost a project of passionate, who know anything can fail?

Mitch Altman: The measure of the success of a hackerspace is how awesome it is to be there!  This isn’t very quantifiable.

I think that I’ve described what makes hackerspaces different than other places, such as the examples you gave. Hackerspaces are places with supportive community for people to explore and do what they love, regardless of whether they make money with it — though, people are finding, more and more, that they can make a living with projects that they love.

The other spaces you mentioned are there with a goal of making money, regardless of whether others love it or not — though, to make it work, there has to be some strong interest on the employees involved.

There used to be companies with research departments.  And some of them used to allow “pure” research — where people who worked there were encouraged to explore whatever intrigued them (even if there was no obvious way it would translate into profits).  This is very rare now, from what I can tell.  Unless you look in a hackerspace — then it is the norm.

Innovation is Everywhere: Thanks a lot Mitch! To read more about the hackerspace movement, we can refer you to our wrap-up of the Maker Cities project, as seen in Shenzhen, where 11 makers from all over the world showcased how their city did embrace the maker culture.