Remakery special report: Catching a rising wave of makerspaces in California

I decided to take full advantage of the amazing offer of a grant to travel to San Francisco (see previous post, and thanks again to the Surdna Foundation) by booking an extra 10 days after the conference to travel around the Bay area visiting interesting and inspiring projects that the Remakery could learn from. (The grant covered the flights and first few days’ accommodation, I topped up the rest – and it wasn’t all work, I also relaxed in some beautiful hot springs overlooking the Pacific… but that’s another story!)

Co-working and makerspaces are mushrooming in the Bay area – a bit of advance research found more than enough destinations to fill the time, and when I was there I kept finding more – so this is by no means a comprehensive survey, but the best I could do while also learning my way around!

At the DLYGAD conference I met Randy Sarafan, Tech Editor from Instructables (and author of the techie upcycling book 62 Projects To Make With A Dead Computer), who kindly invited me for a tour of their office – a bit of a makerspace in itself, where Instructables staff invent and test new ideas and sets of instructions to post on their website. The space includes a well-equipped tool room, sewing room, kitchen (where an ice cream cake had recently been cooked up – mmm!) and a cupboard of treasures waiting to be mailed out to participants in their sponsorship programme – 3D printers, CNC machines, sewing machines, electronics kits and the like. I was excited to learn that if the Remakery crew can put together 10 sets of instructions into a guide for Instructables, we too could earn ourselves one of these fabulous bits of kit! Watch this space…

Randy at his workbench in the Instructables office

Also sharing the Instructables sofa was Bilal Ghalib from GEMSI (the Global Entrepreneurship and MakerSpace Initiative), who boggled my mind with his sheer energy, enthusiasm and the audacity of his plans to plant the seeds of makerspaces across the world, especially the Middle East and North Africa, “to foster a culture of innovation, creativity, problem solving, sharing and making”. He’d just returned from a trip to Beirut and Baghdad (the latter an especially powerful experience since his family comes from Iraq, so he was meeting long-lost relatives as well as bringing together a group to form the beginnings of a Baghdad hackerspace). More about his work in this recent Wired article

Bilal (centre) at GEMSI’s 3D printing workshop in Baghdad with TEDxBaghdad

Nearby in central San Francisco I visited a branch of TechShop, one of the first of a growing chain across the US. TechShop is a membership-based shared workshop, similar to a hackerspace but operated on a commercial basis (in stark contrast to the anarchist ethos of Noisebridge, see below). Described as “Part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace, part learning center”, TechShop offers an impressive range of tools and classes, and a small but well-stocked materials supplies store. It was quiet the day I went (post-Thanksgiving), but the posters and sample products on display suggested quite a lively community of makers creating everything from guitars to bamboo bicycles to Red Bull racing vehicles and 3D printed masks.

TechShop snaps

I managed to catch Noisebridge (the SF equivalent of the London Hackspace) on one of its busiest nights, the monthly 5 Minutes of Fame, when a crowd of perhaps 300 people were crammed into every corner of the space to watch a series of intriguing 5-minute talks that ranged from a 9-year-old’s interpretation of Egyptian mythology, to various Noisebridge members explaining their work, including the WikiSeat “platform for open source furniture design”, Puzzlebox software for brain-controlled technologies (using headsets that read brainwaves to control model vehicles and robots), and “Terrible things to do with Piezoelectric Sensors”. The most rousing speech was from Alex Peake of Primer Labs, whose passion for hackerspaces echoed (and if anything, expanded on) Bilal’s “irrational optimism”, with a vision of hackerspaces as catalyst for a renaissance of global culture and education: he stirringly invoked the planet’s “2 Billion Under 20” (as opposed to the elite “20 under 20” competition for young entrepreneurs), asking “What would the world be like if 100% of humans were literate coders, makers, artists, scientists, thinkers and doers?”, noting the recent exponential growth in hackerspaces (from around 50 worldwide in 2008 to 1000%2B now) and proclaiming that “The future of hackerspaces = the future of humanity”! 

Snaps from my evening at Noisebridge

Noisebridge wore its anarchist heart on its sleeve, with posters proclaiming the principle of “Do-ocracy” (if you want something done, do it) and the space’s one and only rule (“Be excellent to each other”), and everyone called upon at one point to grab an instrument and sing along with the “Hackernationale”. Its Aladdin’s cave of geeky tools was hidden away up a minimally labelled dark staircase in the Mission district, a bit like Dalston before it got trendy.

I stopped for while outside the BART (tube) station to listen to some passionate young spoken-word poets who apparently hosted an open mic in the square there every Thursday. A black guy in his 60s who’d performed earlier in the evening began chatting to me and spoke of his fears of growing racism nurtured by economic hardship, and the lack of educational or employment opportunity for young people like the crowd gathered with their beers and poetry (who were ethnically diverse and probably a mixture of both students / graduates and the less educationally privileged). Much of the spoken word reflected this narrative of constricted options, of struggles to survive and make meaning. I thought he might be exaggerating the racism, but on the way home I heard the n-word used twice. I felt like the hackerspace movement had a lot of growing to do (in the sense of growing up, not just exponential growth) if it is to develop from being a niche for geeks to fulfilling the vision articulated by Alex and Bilal, of providing inclusive learning opportunities for rising generations (both here and in places like Iraq) who bear the brunt of the precariousness and slow collapse of existing economic and educational systems.

Across the Bay in Oakland, I found further examples of creative co-working, each with its own angle. Sudo Room is a hackerspace at a much earlier stage of development – recently moved into one room in an under-used office block in downtown Oakland, equipped with a small 3D printer, a drill, and not much else but an enthusiastic bunch of founder-members, primarily techies with an activist strand also evident. Their debate about how to upgrade the door access system – “hack” it themselves with a second-hand RFID system, or pay the landlord’s professional contractors – was comfortingly reminiscent of the Remakery’s ongoing internal discussions about the benefits of a DIY “community self-build” approach to construction versus, or combined with, skilled contractors. (Passion lies with the former, but practicality and speed sometimes call for the latter.)

Sudo Room as it stands, and some “5 year visions” for its future 

Next up was the Crucible – in comparison with the spaces above, a staggeringly large (50,000 sq ft, almost ten times the size of Noisebridge) post-industrial building in Oakland that houses a bewildering range of facilities for working with metal (TIG, MIG, Arc and Oxyacetylene welding, blacksmithing, jewellery making); glass (blowing, casting, fusing and slumping, cold working and flameworking); ceramics, woodwork, bicycles, kinetics and electronics, neon, and even a fire performance room. Overall it functions more like a kind of open-plan college than a hackerspace – most of its income comes from classes rather than membership fees – but there is a contingent of open-access members through the CREATE program (CRucible Extended Access to Tools and Equipment), as well as an area of private rental studios on-site, whose occupants have access to the tools too. The number of members was only 20, compared to hundreds of people doing classes – it seemed the demand on the space for education limited the appeal of membership, since members couldn’t be sure they’d be able to use tools when they needed them if a class was going on.

These pictures give a partial indication of the scale and diversity of what’s on offer at the Crucible

While the Crucible, with its massive scale and fire fixation, harked back to an industrial era, the next venue – the Place for Sustainable Living (PLACE stood for People Linking Art, Community and Ecology) – evoked a neo-agrarian future, with courses including “handcrafting skills (brewing, clothing and textiles, fermentation), permaculture, appropriate technology, homesteading, theater and arts, urban gardening, homemade health care, and herbalism”. From the outside its high-fenced corner plot in a residential neighbourhood was unprepossessing, but there was a surprising amount going on inside – a flourishing permaculture garden taken over from a neighbouring church who couldn’t manage it, several intriguing hydroponic contraptions and greywater re-use systems, a busy bike workshop (Spokeland), a main building that could open up like a stage for events, a cob (earth) oven for making pizza, and of course – yet another shared workshop space (which they referred to as a Fab Lab, though the focus was on mechanical rather than digital tools). The smallest such space I’d seen (a shed equivalent to about 3 garages in size) with a community of users that consisted of 2 regular users and a handful of drop-in members (with no formal membership fees, but an ad hoc pay-as-you-go mode) yet it had a high density of innovation – one user was building solar-powered “artisan electric vehicles” - bikes, rickshaws and trailers (Tyson Webster of Vessel Bikes), another specialised in greywater treatment systems (Nik Bertulis of DIG Cooperative). A few blocks away were friends at All Power Labs, creators of “tools for power hacking”, including the Gasifier Experimenter’s Kit. The PLACE site was shared by a community of people who spent summers touring festivals and colleges with their “sustainable living roadshow” but had decided to settle and create a home for the alternative ways of living they promote. It was early days, but there seemed to be lots of potential.

Views of the PLACE

Rock Paper Scissors, sadly, was closed when I passed by, but looked intriguing. This “community arts space” is volunteer-run, with a membership system that doesn’t involve payment but a form of participation they describe as an “intense commitment”. Its facilities include a shop selling members’ work (clothing, crafts, zines and music), gallery space, free and low-cost classes, an Arts Lab with sewing and screenprinting equipment, youth programmes, and a Zine Library.

Rock Paper Scissors 

Also worth a mention are co-working spaces that don’t involve any tools (except the ubiquitous laptop). Tim Nichols, who I worked with on the launch of the Brixton Pound in 2009, relocated to set up the Hub Bay Area (on two sites, in Berkeley and San Francisco). I met up with him at the Hub SF, an impressively large space that formerly belonged to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. It was packed for a networking event after the Greenbuild conference, bringing together people from all sectors of B-Corps (social enterprises, the US equivalent of CICs). I sampled fairtrade coffees and local beers, and heard about biomimicry meet-ups, a rumoured San Francisco city-wide currency, and the existing neighbourhood-level currency Bernal Bucks, which has its own debit card. Around the corner I also spotted a branch of WeWork, another co-working space that seems more commercial than the Hub (less focus on “changing the world”) but takes a similar approach to “building great spaces and connecting interesting people”.

Hub events and office use, and WeWork’s window graphics

I also kept an eye out for how re-use and recycling are dealt with. The municipal recycling systems operated by Recology seemed pretty efficient – 78% of San Francisco’s waste gets recycled, with more separation of materials into different bins than we see here, and they’re aiming for zero waste by 2020. There’s even an artist in residence programme at the dump, to demonstrate some of the more imaginative uses so-called waste can be put to. Since 1999 residents have been offered financial incentives for reducing their trash volume, leading to a 90% increase in diversion to recycling and composting.

I also spotted a Community Recyclers depot where people could drop off specific types of recyclable waste in exchange for money (“buyback”) – a facility utilised by some of the city’s (noticeably large) homeless population. On several occasions I saw people wheeling trolleys around laden with bags full of bottles and cans on their way to the depot. The rules on the sign outside included “Please recycle sober; No profanity; No soliciting other customers”.

Another well-established re-use route is through Goodwill, a national chain (or rather a confederation of local chapters) of charity shops whose profits go to support training and employability programmes.

Closer to us in size was Creative Reuse, a scrap store primarily supplying schoolteachers, but also open to artists and makers, and popular with the general public. Every square foot of the store was crammed with stuff of all kinds – from packaging to postcards, electrical parts to pottery kilns, DVDs to plastic lobsters. They’ve found effective ways to maximise the use of limited space - tightly packed shelves, stacking containers, and wheeled trolleys (helping staff quickly move things around) were much in evidence. A separate warehouse is used for their humanitarian re-use operations (supplying food, shelter and clothing in response to emergencies and poverty). In their 30 year existence they have obviously learned a lot about how to channel materials to new uses, and still run up against problems - such as boxes full of ring-binders that won’t sell even when reduced to 5 cents. Yet overall, the business seemed to be on a good footing - having recovered from a rocky patch a few years back, when an injection of funding and a relocation rescued it, it’s now financially self-sustaining with a dozen staff. (Note: Creative Reuse is in Oakland, but San Francisco has its equivalent in SCRAP).

Images from Creative Reuse - thanks to Pete who showed me around!

On a larger scale, Urban Ore in Berkeley was a huge warehouse and salvage yard filled with every imaginable type and size of windows and doors, baths and sinks, pieces of wood, stone and metal, containers, furniture and homewares, music and books, tools and fixings, in fact anything that can be salvaged. They employ 3 staff at the nearest landfill site, pulling out re-usable items; in all there are 40 staff, and it turns out to be run as a for-profit business; staff are paid a sales commission on top of their hourly wage, although Urban Ore is about as far from a shiny corporate store as you can get. It’s a company on a mission “to end the age of waste”, with the website proudly proclaiming that “On an average day, Urban Ore prevents nearly 20 tons of waste from entering local landfills”. (A similar organisation I missed visiting was Building REsources in San Francisco, which sells re-used building and landscaping materials and also has its own tumbled glass manufacturing facility for on-site recycling of broken glass).

Urban Ore’s warehouse, and just a few of the thousands of re-used products for sale inside and outside!

Though not directly Remakery-related, food – and its socio-political context – was another topic that kept coming up. In a Berkeley theatre window I spotted the “Faces of Hunger” exhibition – a series of photographs that jarred with America’s image of consumer bounty, picturing people of all ages and races from across Alameda county queueing at (and volunteering in) food banks and distribution points. The YMCA around the corner displayed a food bank donation barrel in the window. I narrowly missed a community forum event at the Place on the topic of “Land, Food %2B Power”, featuring Melvin Dixon from the Black Panthers and co-hosted by Occupy the Farm. Outside Mandela Foods Cooperative in West Oakland – an oasis of healthy produce in a notorious “food desert”, a predominantly black area neglected by mainstream food stores – a table was set up offering passers-by advice on what foods to eat for different parts of the body and health conditions.

Food issues and community responses

I dropped in on the “Peace Blowout”, an evening at the People’s Grocery (a community organisation focused on food education, food justice activism and supporting access to healthy, organic and locally grown food in West Oakland) where residents were invited to “blow out the obstacles that prevent our communities from thriving and unifying!” – with a shared feast, poetry, ceremony, and a brainstorm focused on food challenges and the social justice issues surrounding them.

Peace Blowout participants, and drawings from the brainstorm


West Oakland was somewhat reminiscent of Brixton, not only in the presence of a strong black community (I was proudly told that all the houses within several blocks of where I was staying had been built by black people), but also in the palpable presence of a self-reliant, creative spirit actively contesting the sometimes difficult circumstances. Clearly the area had its issues – a fellow passenger on the train issued warnings about getting off there and asked me to call him when I’d safely arrived; a church displayed a graveyard full of wooden crosses representing the homicides in Oakland that year; empty, run-down post-industrial buildings were common – yet a sense of local pride and will to change things for the better showed up in a variety of ways, not least some of those mentioned above. A roadside bench challenged “Do something positive for Oakland or please leave!”, while “Love Oakland” posters from the Oakland Grown loyalty card (their alternative to the Brixton Pound) and the Downtown Holiday Shopping Guide encouraged shoppers to support local independent businesses. As we are also finding here though, there seems to be an ambiguous relationship between genuine local-rooted community development, and the dynamics of “gentrification”.

Surreally, a message from “Oakland’s Guardian Angel” appeared in a downtown window, prophesying that “the future of Oakland is far beyond human imagination…” (it turned out to be a quote from a utopian early 20th-century book, Who Made Oakland?

Oakland community spirit More evidence of social innovation could be spotted everywhere, from the visibility of Credit Unions (generally bigger and more commonly available than here) to posters advertising a Dump the Pump phone app (encouraging drivers to quit their vehicles in favour of the BART), a Berkeley Lab event on Solar Fridges and Personal Power Grids designed for use in the developing world, and a series of Health Through Art posters that refreshingly replaced advertising with exhortations to “Slow down. Feel your heart. Breathe.” Orange posters by Spotmojo were placed in the windows of empty commercial premises, inviting passers-by to imagine “What do you want here?” If even a few of them get filled with creative projects building on the examples of those I’d visited, the future of the area really might be beyond (current) human imagination…

Posters and signs indicating some of the social change initiatives in the area