Calgary’s first ‘hackerspace’ redefines organized creativity
Journeying into the industrial sector just east of Barlow Trail, the first visit to Protospace can be a bit daunting.
Between rows of hermetic, square buildings, isolated from any appearance of human touch, the space’s one defining feature is a cute little folding sign wearing the neon logo, signaling that you are not, in fact, lost.
Upon entering the warehouse (through the back door, as per the request of another cute little sign), that sense of alienation is renewed. What are these machines? What is all this stuff on the wall? Is something burning? Several seconds later, however, you are greeted by someone, usually bearded, sometimes in a white lab coat, who recognizes your look of abject terror.
Relax, their tone suggests. Yes, something is burning, and no, it is not an accident – some members made their own smelter. For what it’s worth, you are not the only person to feel this way. When Valerie Roney (yes, a girl, there are several here) first came to this free-forming mix of engineers, students, artists and general curiosity-seekers, she knew little about technology, or nearly anything related to what people do in this space.
And even to the people who come here, that question has no definite answer. One thing is for certain, though, these are popping up everywhere. With hackerspaces in Seattle, Berlin, Utrecht, Chicago, Saskatoon and virtually any other sizeable city, it seems the need for an open place with no real restrictions on what you can do or make is a very common desire.
“It’s incredibly welcoming. It’s a safe environment to learn and to be stupid,” says Roney, who was one of the first members of the space.
Meeting initially in a storefront in Eau Claire Market three years ago, Protospace, through monthly member fees of $50 and a few unnamed donators, moved into its new location last October. Andrew Preece, a consulting analyst for TELUS, and one of the space’s founders, says the size upgrade was desperately needed. “Rent for a space that is suitable for us is very expensive.”
The expensive rent comes from the space’s versatility — they needed somewhere that could accommodate absolutely anything.
Take Lorin Briand for example. An astrophysicist by day, he needed a place away from home to work on his pet project – a series of plastic tubes and bottles filled with what he calls “growth medium” (a solution of water and assorted garden minerals) for growing algae. When pressed on his intentions for the algae, he smiles broadly, “for food.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
When talking about places like this to the new or uninitiated, the name always comes up. Why call it a hackerspace? Isn’t hacking bad? Why not makerspace, or something nice?
“We often have big debates about whether we want to call it a hackerspace,” says Roney. For some, the term brings back memories of mid-nineties’ news sensationalism, and images of dark, sticky basements, like in the 1995 movie “Hackers”, in which a rollerblade-clad Angelina Jolie chugs brand name energy drinks and skirts federal authorities while yelling about hacking the planet.
While Preece is well aware of the connotations the name carries, he finds himself more than willing to carry the hacker torch. “We are hackers, all of us,” he says, eyes sweeping the room.
“We’re not compromising any systems or breaking any laws. All we’re doing is exploring. Whether that involves writing code, or learning how to machine or learning how to sew, all those things are considered hacking.”
From the group huddled in the corner, tinkering away on a perpetually-unfixed laser cutter, to the two 3-D printers, made from scratch and sitting on a table, to Briand, looking for investors for this homegrown algae, it seems hacking and general creativity are synonymous here.
“I didn’t know I was a hacker until I came here,” adds Roney, who says the only thing she had resembling that mentality before she came was from tinkering in the garage with her dad and grandfather, “just problem solving.”
What brings these people together is a simple sense of novelty, a need to pry things apart and see what’s inside. That is the defining feature of this organization, and to some, that simplicity may be Protospace’s greatest advantage.
DON’T CALL IT ANARCHIC
“These are the pockets of innovation that change the world.”
These words come from Eugene Kowch, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Education. To put it simply, he studies leadership and business structures.
A self-styled complexity theorist, he looks for alternatives to the conventional, top-down hierarchy used by most organizations over the centuries. He also thinks that the kind of informal education seen in Protospace, and hackerspaces all over the world, will be “everything the organization of the future needs to consider.”
“I’m sure they don’t want to become an Apple Computers, but this is where those kinds of ideas come from.”
Kowch’s resume backs him up. After a 15-year stint as an engineer at an unnamed oil and gas firm, he left the limousines and thousand-dollar suits to work as a superintendent and principal around Canada. He has seen firsthand the kind of environments ideas thrive in, and how they differ from the schools and businesses of today.
“Education has become so structured and so specialized in terms of curriculum,” he says. “Our systems are so big now, they’re hard to really change.”
Having seen Protospace from its conception, Preece agrees that this culture of ideas – a place where projects are defined by interest, rather than money – is not only more fun, but more efficient as well. “I get asked a lot about what projects we’re working on,” he says, “and that’s really a loaded question.” “I’m sure they don’t want to become an Apple Computers, but this is where those kinds of ideas come from.”
—Eugene Kowch, PhD,
University of Calgary
“Hackerspaces are not just about projects, because projects have a super high barrier for entry. You have to have an end goal, there’s an organizational structure, and a penalty for failure — that’s a really poisonous way to think.”
The diverse makeup that Protospace has is also key to this freedom of ideas. As Preece points out, when people from different disciplines come together freely. “It’s very easy to come up with a series of ideas and test them and play around before we even get to the point of a project.” Kowch agrees, saying, “Their strength comes from learning from each other.”
Kowch sees this autonomy as “critical to an emerging network,” noting that a lot of the people who make up Protospace are students, “getting to do things they can’t do at school.”
The fruits of this creative freedom are not just confined to the space where they are made. Last Christmas, the space was asked to make a topping ornament for the East Village Christmas Tree. Their response: a neon tesseract – a three dimensional projection of a seemingly impossible four-dimensional shape – that sat atop the tree through the holiday.
“Like a seed thrown into the middle of a field, ” Kowch waxes, he sees the system of the future as having to grow and die in response to its environment and its ideas. It’s the freedom foundational to Protospace that gives it an efficient leg up in this competition.