Tucked away off the outskirts of Sneinton stands Roden House, a building most wouldn’t think twice about when walking past. But if you are one of the 700 Nottingham Hackspace members who owns a key, you’ll know that there’s quite an extraordinary space inside, where your skills and creative projects can be nurtured with the help of specialist equipment. Our Eve Smallman spoke to founder Dominic Morrow about the concept, the ups and downs, and why spaces like these should be as common as gyms...
In name, Hackspace sounds like a dark lair where greasy-haired folk hunch over computers attempting to take down Facebook. When Dominic unlocked the door and led me up the stairs, I was pleasantly surprised to see a huge, open space filled with comfy sofas and bric-à-brac. The surprises kept coming – a sewing room, the dream workshop for a carpenter, and even a machine name Lasery McLaserface. The idea is simple: Hackspace provide the equipment that its members need, and the members use it and maintain it. They share money, knowledge and time, and create workspaces far better than those they could afford if they were to go at it alone.
“It comes out of a primarily German idea, back to the dawn of the internet,” says Dominic. “When it was too expensive for the average person to have internet, the German people from the cyberspace culture would find somewhere in their city that had an internet connection, and would explore the webspace together.” This idea spread to the US, where it became more about prototype and technology. When it finally came to the UK, they incorporated woodworking, textiles and machinery. “Whether it’s virtual or real, people can now come together to create or mend something worthwhile.”
The space can be utilised for a variety of projects. People can use it for their individual work – I met someone who was painting delightfully intricate miniatures – or members can also use it on much larger scale. Dominic tells me: “One of the most recent projects that one of our members ran was a robot cocktail barman that the space funded – you could order your drink from your phone, and the robot would squirt it into a cup.” He also describes another project where butane gas and electronics were used to create a fireball game. “We once helped a PhD student from Loughborough who was making a system that could monitor toilet usage in developing countries, which aimed to help the separation of clean and dirty water,” he says. “The list goes on. There are hundreds of projects going on all the time.”
There are no teachers, no compulsory requirements, and no hierarchy. Instead, it’s a self-driven learning environment. Dominic says, “It’s a community space for university and school leavers who want to carry on their skills and practice them in a place that has all the tools. It’s for the retired who want to share their skills, or who want somewhere to go and feel part of the community. It’s for people who work and don’t have lots of time, and it’s for parents who want to encourage their children to be creative. We are a team.”
As humans, we can do three things that an animal can’t: we can tell stories, we can make fire, and we can use tools
Dominic feels the space is an important instrument in keeping the skills usage of tools and equipment alive. With young people now struggling to become homeowners, they don’t often have the space to learn DIY. “As humans, we can do three things that an animal can’t: we can tell stories, we can make fire, and we can use tools. There are fewer people who can use tools these days, and the ability to create something that’s not virtual is an important part of being human. It’s something that’s getting lost in today’s world.”
Hackspace does have its difficulties. Dominic tells me: “As great as it is, it can be hard to get things done, and it can be emotionally labour intensive. The people involved are all usually problem solvers; working with numbers, dealing with hardware and software problems, which means there can sometimes be an emotional disconnect.”
The group are currently trying to get an accessible stairway and lift fitted between its current space and the recently acquired space, so more equipment and rooms can be utilised. However, having 700 people involved in the decision-making process means it can be difficult to get things done. They are also struggling financially, and will have to close their doors next year if their situation stays the same. Dominic says, “We need more capital to be able to fund the creative minds of our community.”
Dominic still has high hopes for the future of Hackspace. He’d like to be able to lend tools out, be able to cooperate more with other co-working spaces, and have the space used by the immediate community. “Back in the seventies, having a gym membership wasn’t normal and now it is! I want the same sort of development for Hackspace.”
Hackspace’s free Open Hack Nights take place every Wednesday from 6.30pm at their space in Roden House, NG3 1JH.