I recently gave a talk on hackerspaces at the New Context Conference in Tokyo . The theme of the conference was social media marketing so you can pretty much assume I was outside of my normal circle of electronics geeks. We were actually invited to participate by a member of CrashSpace , a hackerspace in LA, so I figured I might as well talk about hackerspaces in the context of a physical social network. Needless to say, I deviated from the theme pretty quickly. 

I mostly talked about why hackerspaces exist, why they're needed, and what goes on inside Tokyo Hackerspace. Hackerspaces are really an interesting phenomenon that has kind of blown up in the past two years. This is a graph of the number of hackerspaces started over time from hackerspaces.org. 2010 isn’t finished yet, but it already looks like it will outpace the number of hackerspaces started in 2009:


 Here’s a graph of the total number of hackerspaces:

If you look at the popularity of social networking sites and the popularity of hackerspaces, they've both grown tremendously in the past two to three years. One of the things that we were discussing is that hackerspaces as a physical social network grew at the same time that online social networks came into the mainstream. Here are the google trend charts for facebook and twitter as well:

Although not exactly scientific, these charts imply that facebook started taking off around 2008 and twitter in 2009. Hackerspaces really started trending upward in 2008 as well. From my experience in Tokyo Hackerspace, almost every member is on at least one type of social network and we keep in touch with each other when not in the space via social networks or the hackerspace mailing list. So actually, online social networks seem to complement physical social networks such as hackerspaces. This seems to contradict some opinions that online social networks make us more unsocial in the real world.

Another interesting thing that came up is that if you look at a map of the hackerspaces in the world , they are heavily concentrated in the US and Europe.

It's tough to say why this is so. I was talking about it with Lem Fugitt of Robots Dreams who thinks that hackerspaces tend to grow in areas that are moving to service-based economies. This is a pretty interesting theory and it implies that people don't get a certain type of satisfaction or fulfillment from just providing services, ie: working in HR or sales. I would tend to agree that building cool stuff is a bit more fulfilling than this type of work. However I’m not exactly sure if that’s the whole story about why there seems to be a concentration of hackerspaces in these areas.   

Another possible reason is that most of the media that cover technology/art/hacking are English language based. Although it’s a bit of a stretch to say that all of Europe can speak or read English, it does have a high concentration of people that are fluent in the language. Also, Japan is kind of unique in that it doesn't have a high concentration of people fluent in English. Inside Tokyo however, there are at least three hackerspaces that I know of. One of the reasons for this, in my opinion, is that Make magazine is translated into Japanese by Oreilly Japan. This would seem to suggest that publications and media do have an influence on the formation of hackerspaces.

There is also the possibility that hackerspaces appeal more to people in developed countries. The average age of a hackerspace member is approximately 30 years old according to a survey done by Extreme Activities in Cyberspace:

Incidentally, I'm actually 36 (turning 37 this year *sigh*). In most developed countries, there's a higher chance that the hackerspace members spent more time around technology and computers as they were growing up. This was certainly the case for me since my first experience with computers was in elementary school programming in BASIC. That gives me close to 25 years of being around a computer as well as using, building, modding, working with, and programming them. This may not be the case in newly developed countries where access to computers for the general public are probably a recent phenomenon. This might result in not having a critical mass of tech-savvy people within a concentrated area. If this is the case, it would also imply that hackerspaces will only increase in number since computers and technology are now pervasive in many of these countries.

One of the reasons I'm fascinated with hackerspaces is because of the potential they hold. The technology world today doesn't run around simple computers, technology, or electronics. I think people are more conscious of aesthetic design and usability as well as the functionality of a device. And with technology becoming more accessible, focused niches are being carved out where a lot of domain knowledge is required. Basically, that means that product design isn’t just a matter of technical specs anymore.

As a designer, I can see that real product design is becoming more of a multi-domain task that requires a lot of different skills. There is also the whole tech industry complaining about the lack of innovation which is simply not true. If you look at the technology underground of today which includes open source hardware, open source software, and hackerspaces, there’s a convergence of technology with art, music, cooking, fashion, and many other domains. Combining diverse fields like this is leading to many interesting projects and I believe they’re providing the seeds for many innovative ideas and new spins on old products. Hackerspaces are central to this since they provide a project space, tools, a pool of knowledge, and a constant flow of ideas.

One of the most important things about hackerspaces, and an area that differentiates it from other areas in the tech industry, is that most of the ideas and projects aren’t designed for any type of financial return. And unlike academic research labs, hackerspaces are usually very hands-on and focused on practical implementation. In Tokyo Hackerspace, we have a lot of projects or project ideas that revolve around environmental or humanitarian applications of technology as well as art. These types of projects would rarely see the light of day in corporate scenarios (without government subisidies) but are often the types of projects that, when further refined, may turn into something that is financially viable or lay the groundwork for something much bigger. 

If the future of technology does rely on multi-domain design and innovation, then just like the Homebrew Computer Club led to companies like Osborne Computer and Apple, hackerspaces may be the central breeding ground for a lot of the next generation technologies and products. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be true and it would mean that countries with high concentrations of hackerspaces may be innovation and technology leaders in the future.

I’m hoping that this is the case and in the future, it will be easier to start a hackerspace. Hackerspaces face a lot of the same issues that startups or non-profits face: paying the rent, acquiring tools, getting members, organization, buying parts for projects, etc. There's actually significant churn for new hackerspaces because of the difficulty in reaching a breakeven point. All but the most popular hackerspaces are usually struggling for funds.  If they’re seen as playing a central role to innovation, then someday, governments or private sector companies might be more willing to sponsor hackerspaces and at least relieve some of the financial startup issues.

Anyways, I’m looking forward to what the future holds for hackerspaces and I think that what we’re seeing is just the beginning. I can say that from my experience, being part of Tokyo Hackerspace has broadened my design views, expanded my knowledge of available tools, uncovered a bizarre interest in learning how to sew, and landed me on Slashdot. Quite an impressive impact on me for a rag-tag bunch of geeks...

Updated 2010-10-20: Interestingly enough, CNN just posted an article mentioning that innovation happens best in groups: "What I'm saying is individuals have better ideas if they're connected to rich, diverse networks of other individuals. If you put yourself in an environment with lots of different perspectives, you yourself are going to have better, sharper, more original ideas," he told Salon. Link to the article.

Add comment

Security code