Autocatalytic *Spaces

Autocatalytic *Spaces

Hacker- and makerspaces are a fairly meta concept. While they can be explained via terms like “community workshop,” they are essentially a created place where people can create projects. It’s sort of like a school for teachers. It’s important to understand this, because this entry involves some folk who see the space itself as a project. There are many systems stacked on each other, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes awkwardly. Things like space layout, new member introductions, decision-making processes, monetary obligations. If done well, these systems are joyfully participated in, and disappear except for the standard maintenance and conscious involvement of the membership. In a smooth-running space, you don’t have to think about where to return your ratchet to, you just do. You don’t have to struggle with understanding the board-voting system because you helped create it, and contributing to it helps further your community.

Impressionen vom Stempel-Workshop at Dingfabrik, with permission from Fabienne

There are certainly people in your space who are specialists in maintenance and repair of the space itself. We do have to worry about due dates on bills, and maintaining safe space, and the dirty fridge not providing the material basis for the next incarnation of Cthuhlu. Some people take on the active role of those administrative tasks. And yet, part of being a hacker/maker/citizen is being aware of and responsible for the systems you’re part of. This is a participatory culture we’re creating.

A metaphor, just to be sure we’re in the same cognitive place: this is like when you get so good at riding your motorcycle that you reach a flow – you have only to think about where you’re going, not clutch-shift-clutch. As hackers and makers, we care to know how the carburetor or fuel injector is working, how that interacts with the air intake, what other models of motorcycles are out there. I can keep going about the welded construction, the materials involved, what grease to use, etc, but I think you get the point. Now extrapolate that to your *space. Also think about how nice it is to have reference material to help guide you through – either an online forum, or the oil-smeared choose-your-own-adventure of Haynes.

During my wonderful winter stay in Berlin, some of my lovely hosts discussed the idea of *space creation and maintenance. Skytee and Pylon participated in the first rounds of the Hackerspace Design Patterns. They were co-founders of Köln fablab Dingfabrik. Fabienne, another founder of Dingfabrik, but not an original documentor of the Design Patterns also sat with us. It’s important you know their names because these ideas would not have emerged without that conversation. Their work on the Patterns was sort of like laying the groundwork for that motorcycle maintenance forum.

Back around 2007, there were a fair number of spaces either established or getting started, mostly in Europe. The people participating in them mostly at least knew each other, but didn’t really have a dialog around the creation and maintenance of the spaces themselves. There was, however, conversation around the curation of those ideas and structure. And so, be still my organizing heart, a small group just started on it. They curated the conversations into general topics and flows, what seems to work and what doesn’t. That set was dubbed the Hackerspace Design Patterns. Those, along with a tour of European *spaces around the time of Chaos Communications Camp in 2007 is arguably what spawned the boom of *spaces in America. (Bre posted about the talk at Chaos Communications Congress later that year about the Patterns as it was happening right here on MAKE.)

Infrastructure before projects. Get the place and the people and the infrastructure all set up and folks will come up with the most amazing projects. Get the space, power, servers, connectivity and all that kind of stuff all set up so that projects and community can be supported. You need to have a mailing list, wiki, and an irc channel (or jabber server).

When my hosts, along with others, later founded Dingfabrik, they were glad to apply the Patterns. And better yet, to discover they were still relevant and useful. Part of this is due to continued conversation around and development of those patterns, but it is also due to the intelligent and careful laying of groundwork. I love how the sharing of knowledge is a key component to this movement, manifest even in the propagation of useful infrastructure.

Hearing these folk, who have been involved in the *space community for so long, speak with such passion about the community and their own Dingfabrik (sidebar: ownership as something that is/should be for any participating member of a *space, not just the founders) was inspiring. They spoke of the creation and maintenance of the space itself as a project just as worthwhile as the Taschen nähen workshop or Steampunk Bandwidth Meter coming out of it. They see these *spaces as decreasing the barrier to creativity, a place where you can make a mess, make noise in ways that you can’t in your own home. They are the infrastructure on which creativity and community exists.

The next time you’re visiting your friendly neighborhood *space (bonus points if you get the comic reference), remember to take a moment on the long-term group project of the space’s infrastructure. Remember to grease the chain by running the vacuum cleaner. Give a special thank you to the people who set aside their own physical projects to maintain the infrastructure. See how you can lighten their load.

If even only a small part of this movement is the creation of things, not simply the consumption of them, remember that this also applies to the social.

Vielen Dank an meine Gastgeber @fbz @skytee und @pylonc.

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Willow Brugh has been an active participant in the hacker and makerspace community since 2008, giving her purpose towards distributed systems, engaged citizenship, and mutual aid. With heavy involvement in Maker Faire, Random Hacks of Kindness, and the SpaceApps Challenge, Willow’s main skill is “getting out of the way.” She loves seeing how ideals which thrive online, such as transparency and collaboration, manifest in these spaces and events. Willow has also been known to give candy to individuals from more traditional approaches to entice them towards these different models of engagement.

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