One point I glossed over is why I believe that money and organizational forms are so intertwined when it comes to hackerspaces. This series could have been called, “Hackerspaces and Organizational Forms: Five Approaches.” Admittedly, I’m not talking much about money, how to find it, raise it or spend it. I haven’t talked much about fundraising, accounting or project management, though I plan to in the future. In my observation, what happens in Hackerspaces doesn’t need to be managed or carefully organized. Once Hackers gather in a space, they’ll begin creating and collaborating in ways that are remarkably similar regardless of culture, language or organizational form. Projects and programs that happen in one space can easily happen in other spaces, only marginally constrained by the organizational form in practice.
I believe the “magic” that happens in Hackerspaces is universal, as are the two necessary evils: Money and how to manage it. Being physical spaces, Hackerspaces have real costs and real opportunities for meeting those costs. Being collaborative spaces, the procedure for paying the bills involves some kind of relationship among the collaborators–that relationship is what we’re looking at when we discuss organizational forms. Failing to understand this relationship among the collaborators makes any discussion of funding very difficult. At the same time, carefully understanding these relationships as they’ve happened elsewhere gives future Hackerspaces the best chance of finding the right form for their own effort.
These forms are also heavily tied to the core source of income for each space. The Anarchy form, for example, implies that the rents for a space are essentially appropriated. The Angel form implies that they’re donated. The Owner form implies that they’re taken care of by a single participant, who generally subsidizes them. Both the Board and Membership forms implies that these costs are paid collectively by the participants, most often through membership dues. Hackerspaces, regardless of form, can solicit donations from the public, host classes for a fee, throw rent parties, sell shirts online, or Club-Mate in the space. However, each of those activities is handled differently depending on the form.
The Board Form
The Artifactory, Kwartzlab, Collexion, and Revelation Space are all different examples of the “Board” form. While each space heavily relies on its membership, each space has an involved subset of members that makes decisions. In a way, the “Board Form” is the least well-defined of the five forms and most prone to combination with other forms. Founder Todd Wiley describes Collexion as a hybrid of the Angel and Board forms:
Our board consists of people from our local chamber of commerce, universities, and higher ups at the local big-name tech companies (Lexmark & HP). This helps give us the legitimacy we need to raise funds. The board likes that they are fostering innovation, and see it is an economic development boost, because Lexington loves brains more than zombies do. The board is glad to help us organize things, find money, and host events, but most ideas come from the membership, where there isn’t a set hierarchy…By relying on outside sources we’re going to make membership as accessible as possible ($5 / month for students). The less barriers there are to experimenting the better…I think it will be successful, and free up hackers to hack, and those that are interested enough can take the reins and try to find monies.
As you might remember, we from revspace (den haag) were in doubt about the structure to choose. In the end we settled for the ‘stichting’, basically number four, mixed with elements of a ‘vereniging’, number 5. The board is ultimately responsible, however we define ‘participants’ that have the right to install and deinstall the board, as well as advise the board.
In many cases, a Membership space will have a Board of Directors. However, this doesn’t mean the space is taking on a Board Form, especially when a Board is required by corporate law.
The functional power that board has is the determining factor. If the Board is essentially a paper tiger, with the membership in functional control of affairs, the space is probably best suited to the Membership form. Punkin describes Kwartzlab as an example:
Legally, we’re Corporation Without Share Capital (Not-for-Profit), which matches “The Board”. We opted not to register as a Co-operative (which would more closely match “The Membership”), because the laws governing Co-operatives are more restrictive, without offering us any useful benefits. But the Co-operative or “Membership” philosophy closely matches our vision for the space, so we borrow heavily from it in our bylaws, policies, and procedures…We are 100% member funded (with all members paying the same level of dues), which was also very important to our initial membership. Any of the big decisions (like how much dues will be) are subject to a member vote, and all members-in-good-standing get an equal vote.
So, for lack of a better definition, if your space is primarily controlled by your members, it follows the Membership form. If the members leave most of the decisions and money matters to a subset, it probably follows the Board form. Landing firmly in one category or another is not necessarily that important, as long as the relationships of each are well understood. Some Membership spaces may functionally slip back into a Board form, just like Board spaces often migrate into Membership spaces, or use the Board form as a bootstrapping step.
David Cake describes how the Artifactory is using the Board Form to bootstrap their way into a Membership Hackerspace:
Our brand new Perth space is a board elected by the membership, and so far while the board has been doing a lot of the work and taking the lead on a lot of the decisions, meetings with the entire members are making most of the major decisions. So I guess we fit into the membership category really, even though the board are making a lot of important decisions in the process of getting us up and running.
Makers Local 256 is a non-profit 501c3 and would be considered “the membership” based, but I guess started out as “the board” based since the board is the original 10 members (changing soon given new bylaws and elections).
Makers Local 256 followed the critical mass pattern in establishing their hackerspace, with their original 10 members fulfilling the role of the 2+2 model. Their unique dues model describes how a Board can help build membership in the early stages:
The original 10 pledged a monthly donation that they could afford and we found a space that fit within that budget. We decided that extending this to new membership was a good idea and so we don’t have to turn away someone who might offer a lot but might not have a lot of money. A monthly pledge doesn’t have to be monetary but does fall under board discretion to ensure that said pledge benefits the space.
Especially when bootstrapping, a board can bring the agility needed to get things off the ground. Especially in the first weeks/months a lot of decisions need to be made, while at the same time the membership is still getting used to each other and the whole idea. Having to discuss all these decisions with the membership at large (apart from the fact that we currently have no actual membership defined as we are still in the process of forming the legal entity) will slow down the process of setting up the space a lot.
Of course, we, as a board, are listening closely to what the potential membership wants, and actively seek the opinion of everyone involved in the space. In any volunteer-driven organization you will see different levels of commitment. In my experience, those that become part of the board have a high level of commitment, and don’t mind pulling in a few extra hours for the greater good.
The notable advantages of a Board space are formal organization with less administrative overhead from the participants, as well a greater degree of formal control vested in fewer people. In most cases where there isn’t a hybrid form with another style of organization, the advantages are remarkably similar to those of a Membershp organization. Here, I’m looking at advantages of a Board form
Anarchy: Board spaces are (generally) official legal structures with explicit expectations and guidelines for operation and more stable bases of operation.
Angel: Most Angel arrangements take on some kind of Board form. As in the case with Collexion, these Angels offer advice and consult with the organization through their board. The advantages of having a board include greater independence. In the hybrid form, the advantage of having a board generally involves a defined role for the Angels and the ability to swap or separate Angels if need be.
The Owner: Sometimes an Owner space will have a small, informal group of advisers. However, the purpose of a Board is to have a group of people who make decisions as a group on behalf of the stakeholders. In this case, the Board is somewhat accountable to its stakeholders whereas Owners may not be as accountable. Board spaces generally offer greater freedom and flexibility and rarely exercise a kind of “veto power” that Owners have by default.
Membership: Board run organizations tend to mediate disputes and prevent certain routine issues from getting to the Membership level. Generally, this means more time for members to enjoy their space.
The notable disadvantages over alternative forms are also similar to the Membership form:
Anarchy: Board spaces must periodically file paperwork, support the space through dues, stay on top of other legal requirements and fulfill their stated obligations. This leaves less time for projects, hanging out, etc.
Angel: In the non-Angel form, Board members are often saddled with the heavy burden of coming up with the funds to run the space, and make tough calls on funding issues.
The Owner: Instead of having an owner to rely on for collecting and paying the rent, easily making special arrangements, mitigating disagreements among participants and having one “final say” on matters, Board members must come to agreement on certain issues or figure out ways to work around issues.
Membership: Ultimately, the Board is responsible for issues and decisions that otherwise might have been made by the membership. While the Board can occasionally punt, even a routine decision may run afowl of the membership and lead to difficulties.
Another disadvantage cited by Martens is what he describes as an anti-pattern of complacency:
…some members may fall into a consumer-like attitude. Expect the board to do the heavy lifting, and merely consume what the spaces makes available. The board members, by nature, will have a tendency to pick up work that is left undone, because they have a strong drive to ‘make it work’. That might lead to overworked board members, an apathetic membership, and failure of the space. That’s a doom scenario, and normally there will be someone to pull on the emergency brake before this happens. But still, something to be aware of I think.
The Board form is good for Bootstrapping, and depending on the environment, a next best form to the Membership model. Hackers are generally bad at paperwork and group dynamics, so having a Board to take care of the administrative overhead and mediate disputes can help ensure continuity and sustainability. It also works well as a hybrid with other forms, or as a means for acting as a firewall between Angels, Owners and Members. But beware of complacency!
As always, feel free to ask questions on the Hackerspaces Discuss list, or reach out to these spaces directly.
I’ll admit, this post is coming a bit late, but we’re still recovering from our month-long sleepless, caffeinated, sprint across North America. On the plus side, we’re done filming! We visited as many hackerspaces and makerspaces as we could in a month, but that was the easy part….
Now begins the post-production work.
We’ll be working for a quite a while on getting everything just right, so unfortunately I can’t give an exact date of release. I can, however, tell you that we’re going to try to have it done by next spring. Believe me, we’re just as excited to see the finished film as you are!
I want to say thank you to the dozens of people who helped us out along the way. Without the car trips, beds, and donations of both hackerspace members and kind strangers, there is absolutely no way we could have done this. We may have had the cameras, but it was all of you who made this possible. Thank you!!
For updates on the film, check out www.twohandsproject.com! I’ll do my best to keep all of you in the loop here on hackerspaces.org as well.
Congrats to i3Detroit on the grand opening of their new space in Royal Oak, MI (near Detroit). Not only is their space incredibly cool, they brought in the Mayor to officially cut the ribbon. Of course, being hackers, they’re not going to settle for oversized scissors and a red ribbon with a bow. Instead, watch as Mayor Ellison cuts through a 40-conductor ribbon cable with an oxyacetylene cutting torch:
To boot, their space is DOPE!! Tis ground level with a garage door, electronics lab, classroom, reading loft, and…they’ve got metalworking equipment!!! Oh, dear angle grinder and MIG welder, how I love your sparks, smoke, noise…and how I hope see you join with microcontrollers and heavy duty servos to make robots that fix abandoned buildings! How I would love to see a homebrew alt fuel open source automobile roll out the i3 doors! Pipe dreams?? Only time will tell…
Is it only a matter of time before we have a Head of State blasting open the doors of their country’s latest hackerspace? Hopefully so!
The /tmp/lab is organizing a group visit of CERN, the world’s largest particle
physics laboratory close to Geneva.
We have to give a 4-6 month advance notice, which probably brings the visit to
February/March 2010. Because I must give an estimate of the attendees, I would
be grateful if you subscribe before Monday Oct 19th.
While you’re there, maybe you should go try to find this little piece of history:
This machine is a se(rver!) DO NOT POWE(R IT) DOWN!! (Courtesy of Cory Doctorow)
* * *
Unfortunately, the list for /tmp/lab’s CERN excursion is FULL!
However, as there seems to be such a huge interest in making the trip still, probably somebody wants to step forward & start a list for a second group? [hint, hint]
C-base. Noisebridge. C4. HacDC. They are officially recognized and organized as independent entities. These spaces are funded, operated and controlled as directly as possible by their members. They open their spaces up for events, classes and social gatherings, and eagerly invite new members to join. These spaces are good examples of the Membership form of organization, the style of organization that most directly inspired the wave of spaces that began to form in late 2007, after Hackers on a Plane and that year’s Chaos Communications Camp.
While these spaces may make it look easy, bootstrapping a space under the Membership form of organization is often far more difficult than pursuing other forms of organization, especially when starting from scratch. There are also other ongoing organizational challenges. Ultimately, if something fails, members can only blame themselves.
Unlike Anarchy, Membership spaces require an official form of organization with explicit expectations, rights and responsibilities of members. Unlike Angel spaces, Membership spaces require their members to contribute the bulk of what it takes to rent and operate the space. Unlike Owner spaces, Members have an equal say in where to locate, how much to pay in rent and what projects to pursue with group funds. While spaces run by a Board and spaces run by Members are largely similar, the degree of difference in control and responsibility can be substantial depending on the situation.
Following this formula, the first step in bootstrapping is officially forming an organization. Incorporating is usually the first place where the 2+2 model from the critical mass pattern comes into play. The 2+2 group is usually the first to sign the paperwork and contribute the startup funds necessary to secure and rent a space.
Even while the 2+2 group has an implicit authority by virtue of being founders and visionaries, all they can do is set an example, work on the tasks at hand and inspire others to help. Without a space, these membership groups recruit others by reaching out over e-mail, attending conferences, dropping by local events such as DorkBot and Maker Meetups, and hosting their own workshops in shared spaces. More members means more dues and resources, but it also means more opinions and potential for disagreement.
In some areas, the 2+2 group will often contribute a substantial boostrapping funds to execute a lease, after which the usual rent and expenses are paid for by member dues. In many ways, it’s easier to “sell” potential members on the value of a space once it’s actually leased. Some hackerspace efforts began collecting dues long before a space was leased, making the process of executing a lease a shared effort from the beginning. In any case, once a group is large enough to pay the expenses, it’s safe to call the bootstrapping process over.
The notable advantages over alternative forms are largely ones of legal compliance, independence and true democratic control:
Anarchy: Membership spaces are official legal structures with explicit expectations and guidelines for operation and more stable bases of operation.
Angel: While Membership spaces can generally collect donations from outside the group, core expenses are paid for by members and function entirely independently.
The Owner: Members are not accountable to the concerns of an owner, the nature of their business, living situation or other concerns. As a group, members are free to use the space as they see fit, negotiate changes as a group of peers and have discussions where everyone is on equal footing. There is no “veto power” in a Membership group.
The Board: Members generally stay informed to all operations of the group and generally participate in any discussions that make a substantial change in the group. Instead of changing decisions made by a board, or waiting for a board election to intervene, decisions are made as a group from the beginning.
The notable disadvantages over alternative forms require more work from the members and more time spent on administrative matters and potentially distracting disagreements:
Anarchy: Membership spaces must periodically file paperwork, support the space through dues, stay on top of other legal requirements and fulfill their stated obligations as members. This leaves less time for projects, hanging out, etc.
Angel: Members are generally constrained by the resources they can obtain themselves. Instead of having the space and cool projects paid for, members must assess dues and raise money to pay for rent and expenses.
The Owner: Instead of having an owner to rely on for collecting and paying the rent, easily making special arrangements, mitigating disagreements among participants and having one “final say” on matters, members must come to agreement on certain issues or figure out ways to work around issues.
The Board: Instead of electing someone you like to make decisions for you, members must spend time on an ongoing basis meeting to discuss issues and working to solve problems collectively.
Talk of a fully democratic membership organization may be a bit misleading. In any group, leaders will generally emerge. Those founders who start spaces naturally fill a leadership role by guiding their space from nothing to existence. Sometimes, in the best interests of getting the space going, founders will gloss over underlying issues within the group that form from differences of opinion. Failure to resolve these in time usually results in group fragmentation that can lead to a group’s demise.
If the founders or other leaders who emerge exercise too much power, or hold onto it for too long, they can alienate others in the group or possibly even default in practice to another form of organization.
Another problem with fully democratic organizations is that members can always vote with their feet! Failing to attract new members or high membership turnover is also a big problem with membership spaces. Unlike Owner or Board spaces, every member is inherently responsible for creating the conditions that attract and retain members who help support the space.
While I strongly believe this form of organization is the best and most closely aligned with what hackers look for in a space, it’s not without its problems. Hackers are generally bad at paperwork and group dynamics, so sometimes an alternative form of organization is the best course of action to pursue. Sometimes ceding a little bit of control for the sake of having a space or keeping it open is the best thing to do.
However, if you’re serious about building a dynamic, sustainable space, you should consider following this model! It’s worked throughout the world and with the right energy, it can work for you too.
First of all, please introduce yourself – who is behind syn₂cat and what do you do for a living?
While syn₂cat began as a two men project in August 2008, it has by now developed into a fully fledged non-profit organisation, featuring 4 administrative members and 4 additional officers. The initial founders, Steve and David are a freelance IT consultant and a political science student respectively.
Of the additional people that soon stocked up the syn₂cat office, macfreak109 is a school teacher in information science, xx5y is a microelectronics engineer, Bartek a post-grad physics student, Gunstick a sysadmin and Michel is a student in secondary school. We only now got reinforced by an 8th crew member.
So how did you come up with the idea to found a hackerspace?
The idea of a hackerspace was born out of desperation
David felt that, should he ever have to return to Luxembourg after university, there’d have to be a hackerspace. Visiting the Metalab in Vienna, though only for a short hour and without much going on, was a key moment in filing that decision.
Though the idea of building a hackerspace was initially scheduled for after David’s graduation, we spontaneously decided to do it “right there and now”. Since then, the project has been steadily growing like an open source project, with its “developers” learning by doing how to run such a show.
What are your future plans for the hackerspace?
Bootstrapping the space is still the near future and once we accomplished that, attracting more people and launching projects will be our focus. One group will focus on youth projects to get more young people into thinking outside the box and begin seeing solutions instead of problems.
Another future task is to constantly shift the responsibility of the actual space to other, maybe younger, people. Although we talked about an “administrative” board, we are far from paper tigers and want to keep the complexity as flat as possible.
Why do you think is the movement spreading so fast right now?
It gained a lot of momentum by the Hackers on a Plane project and the incredible amount of hackerspaces growing in the US. The sudden US movement had its spark from some German hackerspace visits so I guess it was the Germans again
Interestingly enough this amalgamate of people starting open spaces backlashed to Europe again to give rise to a new iteration of hacker- or open spaces. The movement is nothing new but currently it sees fit in the hacker culture which sees an imminent uprise. To get to the point: People saw peers doing cool things in cool spaces and thought – “us too!” – and started doing it too.
Another factor might be the rise of social networks which allow ideas to spread quickly, especially amongst technically minded people. Hackerspaces take the connections made online and map them into the physical world.
The next big things will be our OpenWeekend where we show the space to the general public and keep it open for 36h straight. Further, we are also planning regular Python classes and electronics (soldering) sessions, with another focus on attracting other peer-groups such as user groups , the Chaos Computer Club, miniature railway hackers etc…
And the last question, where can we find some pictures?
Now at the 9th edition, the “Troppo Caffe’ Poco Cervello” (too much coffee, too little brain) it’s a cultural and scientific happening that lasts three days where people from all over the world (and beyond) are meeting in Palazzolo Acreide and via the internet to share experiences, research, culture, poetry, art and science with the intention to create new and beautiful things to donate to the community.
This edition will have people from all Sicily and also foreign guests committed in advanced programming sessions, dissertations for beginners, scientific experiments, sumptuous lunches, enormous dinners and sleepless nights dedicated to the passion for computer science.
Poems will be read, poems will be written, everything and nothing will be discussed, weeds will be weeded, new weeds will be planted, debates will happen, decisions will be taken, all and nothing will be done!
Everyone can join, the important thing is to leave the brain at home and bring a lot of coffee!
Thanks to our night shift teamwork with Georgyo, we’re now running the latest Mediawiki, a brand new kernel and cleaned up the Apache2 configuration to avoid name clashes between sites. Yeah, it’s all behind the scenes and you may have missed it, but it’s done. Thanks to Astera for backup! Support Abbenay!
The one-month old Abbenay hacklab has put out a call for support from the Hackerspace community. In the spirit of ASCII and PUSCII, they opened up operations in a squat in downtown Stockholm. While squats are unusual in Sweden, this particular space has been able to stay open for a month.
We are however facing an imminent eviction threat and police pressure has been significantly increasing lately – with civil cops coming very often to take pictures of the house and sirens waking us up early in the morning. This call is asking you to contact the landlord to show support to the hacklab and the squat…
Herein lies a rather unique opportunity. While you may not agree with the politics behind squatting, Abbenay’s call for support is asking for an open dialogue with the building’s landlord, advocating on behalf of Hackerspaces and asking for reasonable accommodation. Here is an opportunity to purposefully advocate for a fellow Hackerspace, not by necessarily aligning yourself with the politics of the situation but by appealing to a property owner why it’s in his community’s best interest to allow Abbenay to continue.
Although their methods are questionable, please consider what benefits you and your fellow citizens could enjoy from having such a dedicated team of goofy researchers in your capital city. Beyond the obvious press coverage…you would be surprised … how productive and ingenious these people can be, and how shaking and beneficial such an endeavor can be for the local community.
Those of you who have started hackerspaces know how difficult the bootstrapping process is, as well as how beneficial these spaces are to the technically creative and curious where you live. While your hackerspace probably took a different route in coming to be, consider that every Hackerspace confronts its own forming and operating challenges differently. Consider how you give and receive help at your hackerspace and consider that what Abbenay is asking for isn’t that much different.
While this post is a bit of a departure from my theoretical musings of late, I believe this is a fascinating situation with a good working solution that shows promise. Even if Abbenay is ultimately evicted, the mere process of reaching out to a property owner in another part of the world can help you frame your own thoughts about your Hackerspace and how the magic and struggles in your space relate to those in spaces throughout the world.