A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to visit Forskningsavdelningen (“The Research Department,”) a hackerspace located in Malmö, Sweden. Malmö is a faded port town that suffered enormously from the closing of shipyards and the loss of port traffic in the 1980s. It reminded me a bit of a more charming version of an American rust belt city like Baltimore, or Philadelphia.
In recent years, the city has seen an economic recovery, but there’s still a great deal of vacant industrial property. The Research Department is located inside an old factory and has a very grunge feel to it.
I spoke with OlleOlleOlle, a friendly, articulate hacker with very little of a grunge feel to him. He was nice enough to fill me on the origins and operation of the hackerspace.
Brendan: When did you establish the hackerspace?
OlleOlleOlle: In 2008. August, we got the idea, and in September we implemented it.
B: So it only took you a month to find the space?
O: We were lucky.
B: How many people were involved in the founding?
O: Three or four, starting, or saying “We’re going to do this.” We had met, and then we said “well, I have a friend…” and “I have a friend, too!”
B: So did you guys know each other before this? Did you become a group of friends because you wanted to do this? Or were you a group of friends who then decided to start a hacklab?
O: I think we became friends. Some of us had met before, in previous consultations. There’s a Linux pizza evening in town that was instrumental in two people meeting. And, well, this thing has met a lot of friendship.
B: Where’d you get this idea for the hackerspace? What made you want a physical space for this?
O: That was Keoges’ idea. He said, “I’ve heard some things. Look at this website, there’s a podcast, and there’s PDFs and instructions on how to do it.” And then he said, “I also have a space.”
B: So what exactly is the deal with the space?
O: It’s in a factory. The factory is rented. It’s a cultural center, and the people who run it do it communally. If you get ‘activated’ there, you can say, well, I want to be active with cleaning up. Or, you come there and say “I wanna be in the big meeting”–you’re in the big meeting.
B: So you approached them and said, ‘”we’d like to be a hacklab in your cultural center”?
O: Precisely like that. We actually came and we tried to impress them with a 3-point program.
B: A powerpoint presentation?
O: We had written it on a big piece of cardboard. We just pulled it out, and said, “Well first we wanna work for–like, there’s this thing about ‘nature commons’ in Sweden–
B: Oh! I think I heard about that, is that the thing where you get to camp whereever you want, because of world war II?
O: Well, not so much, at all, because of the war, but you get to camp whereever you want for one night. You don’t disturb; you don’t destroy. Leave naught but footprints, take nothing but pictures. So that kind of slogan is very ingrained with Swedish people, and so when we invoked that, we said we want “allemansrätt“ for electronics and technology, and whatever else–science–you can think of. So we summed it up as ‘digital natural commons’ or something like that. We had that, and we had ‘reuse and recycling’.
B: Of electronics and technology?
O: Yeah, and I think ‘sharing’ was the third point.
B: So that was in the beginning of September?
B: And after your presentation, they were pretty much like, ‘welcome aboard’?
O: Exactly like that.
B: How long did it take to actually get the space to a place where it felt like a hackerpace? Where there was stuff there to mess with? How much time was spent just finding stuff and moving stuff?
O: I think it would take around 3 weeks of constant activity. Four or five times a week we’d be there cleaning, or picking things up, or gathering furniture.
B: How much time and effort goes into the space now?
O: Per week?
B: Sure, per week.
O: Let’s say I’m there for a full sitting of 4 hours, on Tuesday night. We have meetings every Tuesday night. We start at 6 and we go on until it’s boring, or you have to go. It’s four or five hours, usually. And, maybe I do something on another day, two hours, maybe. Because it’s fun. It’s also about friendship: you meet people, and you wanna hang out with them. And that mixes in with the ‘doing stuff’.
B: That sorts of segues into the next question: Where do you get the motivation, and what are you personally getting out of it?
O: I get support for whatever weird stuff I’m cooking up. Someone that knows what I’m talking about is listening. Support and encouragement, those are the main functions.
B: What are you into? Are you more of electronics hacker? Because you mentioned you do software in your daytime secret identity.
O: Electronics for me is learning lots of things. I learn the first 80% of something with hardware, I learn the last 20% in software. Because I work with it, so getting best at software is not as interesting as getting better at electronics. Instead of striving for the last excellence, I’d like to be better at actually doing some things. Also, it’s fun to do things with your hands.
B: So how do the bills get paid for the hackspace? You said the factory’s rented? How does that work?
O: They [the community center people] do cultural events, and they make money on the cultural events. So they pay the rent. We volunteer at the events and do other auxiliary stuff. Perhaps we buy a vacuum cleaner, or some other one-off thing. We’re formalising our commitment to being useful by, for example, having courses, and then having the people who go to the courses pay a little sum of money.
B: Can you say a little bit of the organizational structure of the space?
We’re big on consensus. We haven’t had any important economic transactions that haven’t been gifts, or potluck gifts. So I’m trusting everyone else by buying this cool thing, and I basically still own it, but I’m putting it here for people to use. But everyone knows I gave it it, so I rock. So we have not had to have any sort of “Let’s do this,” or “Let’s not do that,” we’ve steered clear of that.
B: What if there were a [non-financial] dispute about what do with one of the rooms at the hackerspace? Would you just argue it out?
O: Well we’re very un-argumentative people, and we would talk about it, but we don’t have a formal process.
B: Do you think the goals or the uses of the space have changed from what you originally imagined them to be?
O: Well, we have not changed our very simple mission: that there should be a place for the tools and toys that are too big for my apartment; a floor upon which to be able to spill. It’s there, and it’s a working, functional thing. Lofty goals? No.
B: What were some of your favorite projects? Was there anything particularly frustrating that didn’t get done?
O: Things don’t get done. Things get experimented on; we move on to the next thing. We are very unproductive! We cancel very many projects. We start very many projects.
B: What are your favorite projects that have been started?
O: One of the coolest experiences was “Let’s build a jukebox,” a four people sat around and said, “Yeah! Let’s do that!” and we had four completely, completely different visions of what a jukebox is, how to build it, and what its features should be.
B: So did four jukeboxes get built? Or did one Frankenjukebox with a bajillion features get built? What happened?
O: A lot of long, hard conversation, which turned into ZERO jukeboxes! It was a very interesting exercise in design discussion.
B: Are there any recurring events or workshops that you hold regularly, other than the weekly meetings?
O: Nope. Not yet. We’re planning two courses, which are Basic Electronics and Introduction to Microcontrollers. These are two study groups that we’ll launch as soon as we have a member list for them.
B: How much interest is there? How many people are you expecting?
O: On the mailing list, there are about 35 interested people, and we average about 7 people on our Tuesday meetups. Our meeting structure is quite simple.
B: Do you have the hardware necessary to teach the course? The microcontrollers, for example.
O: You would get information about what you should acquire to be able to complete the course. It’s a group effort to make everyone knowledgeable about microcontrollers, and if somebody brings a Picaxe–Picaxe is a brand of microcontroller–or an Arduino, or something else, that thing gets included in the course syllabus. It’s not like, here is a 101 plan, stand here and consume. It’s more, you and we produce this thing, and when we move on, it moves on.
B: If you could make a wish for your hackerspace, what would it be?
O: That we gender-equalize in 2009.
O: Yeah, that’s our basic plan: Don’t be scary to women. And, we’re succeeding at that, but we haven’t “marketed” our group at all. But if you’ve heard of the concept of a hackerspace and you go to a list to find your country, and that country is possibly Sweden, and you live in Malmö, you’re in for a good surprise. That’s kind of how, actually, people found that when we said ‘We’re making a bus trip to Berlin, to the 25C3,” and then people found it. I guess they typed in their town, and Berlin and that conference. So web presence has its perks, but it doesn’t solves “any of the above” problems. It doesn’t help bring any girls in. So outreach events will be thought up in an organic way. We’re not here to save the world. We’re here to have fun. And I would like to share the fun with my female friends, too.
B: Cool, thanks for talking to me.