Down a dim dusty alley in Bedminster is a door, behind which lies a workshop, a brightly lit room in which all sorts of people – most wearing glasses, it must be said – are busy. Several are pouring over computer screens, one person is fiddling with what looks like an old mechanical pen plotter, whilst someone else in the corner is conducting an experiment with mould on porridge. What on earth is going on in here?
Relax. This is Bristol Hackspace, the local lab where everyday experimentation is encouraged and boffins of all stripes welcomed with open arms. Formed back in 2009, it’s a community group, focused on science, technology and the whole business of making things.
The Bristol group was the second such UK ‘hackspace’ (after London) and are indeed part of a larger growing global network. “The original idea came from California,” explains David Wynne, Hackspace Committee Member. “I suppose there is this movement of people – the ‘maker movement’ – who are interested in creating things for their own sake, rather than professionally. Whether that’s artistic creation or technology and engineering, it’s done in a more light hearted and open and sharing way – quite often through not only open sourced software, but open sourced hardware – designs that are often freely available over the Net.”
Sharing is a big part of the Hackspace. The traditional image of the amateur scientist is of an eccentric figure beavering away on his own in his (and it usually is ‘his’) shed, but the Hackspace is different. “One of the important strands is the community here,” says Wynne. “and the fact there are like-minded people to share ideas and knowledge with. Another is community resources – we exist on contributions from our members and that allows us not only to have this space but also some of the tools and equipment that individual members wouldn’t necessarily be able to purchase themselves.” He gives an example of the laser cutter that the group have invested in during the past year.
There is a communitarian aspect to many of the Hackspace projects too. Bristol Braille is a significant recent example of a venture aiming to create a computer braille display so that visually-impaired people can have access to digital information at a relatively low cost. But Wynne insists that quite often what happens at Hackspace is nothing more than a member thinking ‘what happens if I do this?’ “Whilst we tend to attract the sort of projects that have a community use there are plenty of people involved in the Hackspace purely for their own entertainment.”
One thing is certain is that it’s growing. From an initial group of around 20, Hackspace has expanded to over 90 full time members. One or two of the projects have attracted Kickstarter funding and members regularly exhibit their creations at the ‘maker’ fairs that are a feature of the Hackspace network.
The key thing for Wynne is that all this knowledge is shared and accessible, rather than being stuck away in an ivory tower. “I don’t want to lapse into clichés but the world is getting more complicated and personally I feel it’s crucial that people in the community have an understanding of these technologies. It’s a way of disseminating knowledge that would otherwise be in a much more exclusive domain. It’s tremendously important.”
If you fancy sharing a workbench with fellow geeks and fun inventors this is the place to be. See: bristol.hackspace.org.uk