This is our entry for the Hackerspaces book, which will be released around 25C3. It will probably also serve as the default site for english visitors.
Hackerspace name: Metalab
Hackerspace tagline: open center for meta-disciplinary magicians and technical-creative enthusiasts
Hackerspace website: http://metalab.at
Tell the story of the beginning of the hackerspace. How did you come up with the idea? How did you choose the name of your hackerspace? What was your original vision?
We had seen inspirational examples of hackerspaces and geek culture at CCC and c-base in Germany. Vienna didn't really have much to show in that regard, and we missed a place to meet and collaborate on projects. What we really wanted was a public living room or laboratory where people could meet and work with friends without having to go to a cafe, pub or workplace. Our vision wasn't exactly the same as the german hackerspaces - while their spaces and focus had grown historically over decades, Vienna had nothing comparable at that point. So we just tried to gather all the cool people we could find, with as diverse skills and interests as possible, and told them we wanted to build a space together.
Our name developed from the fact that we wanted to have a "laboratory", but one for all kinds of things and projects. We aimed to establish an open climate conductive to a plurality of interests, professions and genders, thus Metalab.
Our logo depicts a phone booth – old school, public-access technology that has certain mythical qualities in fiction (examples include Dr. Who's booth that serves as a gateway into other worlds, and Clark Kent turning into Superman in one).
What are some obstacles that you had to overcome at the beginning of your hackerspace when you were just getting started?
- Critical mass: Many people think, everything that does not exist yet is impossible. When we started there were two of us. In an important early meeting, in which we decided to rent the room, we were about 30-40 people. Without this crowd, establishing the hackerspace would have been very risky, financially. It was very hard to get an initial crowd and convince them that it is indeed possible.
- Basics, scouting: It can take a long time to establish the basics, like the real world space you have to rent. The wiki and regular bi-weekly meetings at a cafe were indispensable in this phase. When someone found an interesting location, he created a wiki page with the specs and we would organize meeting with the real-estate agent or landlord. Keeping this process as open and accessible as possible makes a lot of sense, because at this stage you usually want to find comrades-in-arms.
- Meetings: It was very important to us that meetings do not degenerate in 'hanging out'. We always had the goal of building the space, and avoided distraction from that. We've seen before in other groups that regular meetings at pubs attract a different crowd than task-oriented meetings. We knew that by focusing on something concrete, we'd attract the people we'd need most in the starting stages.
- Smoking policy: The first big discussion, and one of very few that had to be resolved by a vote, was on the smoking policy in the lab. Should smoking be allowed, forbidden, or confined to a certain room? If so, what size of room? To avoid endless discussion, we had people voice their opinions at a meeting, and then called for a vote. A temporary solution ended up becoming the permanent one, and now our lounge (where the gaming consoles are, and movies are watched) is the designated smoking area.
- Voting: Voting should be a last resort, if the majority opinion isn't obvious. When voting, we try to vote over complete solutions/plans, not small details, lest we get the bikeshed problem. Condorcet/Borda style voting makes a lot of sense for decisions like the roomplan.
- Pre-existing groups: Initially, part of the plan was to give several pre-existing independent initiatives a shared home at the Metalab -- this didn't work out as well as expected, as some of these groups ended up either renting their own spaces (HappyLab), meeting elsewhere, or dissolving as independent entities altogether (CCC Vienna). The Metalab rather became a new group of its own right, rather than just a network and meeting place of others. However, a lot of new groups came into existence at metalab.
- Renovation: We established the infrastructure - like power outlets, the kitchen and the floor - step by step, while actively using the space. This led to an endless Sokoban game, where certain rooms became unusable for many months at a time. It was unavoidable, since we did not have the financial power to fix everything at once.
- Organization: It took a long time until we had infrastructure for membership administration and (automatic) bank collection. Usually, nobody wants to do these "boring" tasks, because people prefer to hack or slack. If you can, build the stuff before moving in - after you'll have your hands full with work.
Describe your hackerspace. What do visitors to the space notice that is special about the space? What kind of tools and resources do you have at the space?
People will note that its a very creative, if somewhat disorganized space. Self-built machines, huge drawings on the walls, whiteboards where people express their thoughts. Many details that refer to the culture we all grew up with, for example the blinking Space Invaders in the lounge.
- a small but well-equipped workshop
- a photo laboratory (dark room), that also hosts a professional setup for etching PCBs
- lots of electronic measurement tools like oscilloscopes and pattern generators, soldering irons, and other tools needed for electronics development
- a CNC machine
- a small lathe
- gigabit ethernet and wireless LAN
- DSL and wireless (funkfeuer.at) internet uplink
- audio equipment
- a CAD station
- computers (lots)
How often do you meet? What happens at these meetings?
Our core/organization team (which is not clearly defined, so everyone can join and take up tasks) meets monthly to discuss matters relevant to the whole hackerspace, like current and future renovation projects and equipment purchases. We have multiple special interest groups, which meet more regularly and often spontaneously.
The Lab itself is opened daily, usually around the clock. Every regular member can get a key and people meet on a daily basis.
Describe a disaster that occurred in your hackerspace. (flood, lightning, accident or some such thing)
We've luckily been mostly accident-free so far: The worst one was when Internet access was cut off for days (weeks even!).
While renovating the lounge and drilling holes in the floor, we damaged the underfloor heating, resulting in a small fountain. We were lucky, this heating system is low-pressure...
Marius burned his eyebrow on the 2007 Hackercamp organised by the CCC while operating our homemade potato gun, Honkhase famously hit a MiG (the plane) while riding a bike because he got distracted by the potato gun.
A few valuable items (external harddrive, portable gaming devices) have gone missing, possibly stolen.
Regarding lightning: a strike has been observed on the street directly in front of the lounge window. No disaster, though.
Most fallouts in the Metalab so far were social in nature, not technical or nuclear.
What are some things that have come out of your hackerspace that you are most proud of?
Two of the smaller rooms have color-shifting ceiling lights, and one of them can even be set to exact RGB values.
Metalab was also the place where the commercial web startups Soup.io (personal publishing), Mjam (food delivery) and art group Graffiti Research Lab Vienna were founded.
Was there anything that you did that was essential to the start of your hackerspace? Do you have any advice for people who might be thinking of starting a hackerspace?
Don't give up if people tell you that it's not possible. Most people only believe in what they can touch. The same people (if they are geeks) will love the place once they can touch it. Illustrate your vision with visual depiction where needed. You can borrow such material from successful hackerspaces.
Don't establish too many rules. Decide issues when you need to - not beforehand or just in case. Humans are most productive when they do the things they want to do in an environment that encourages these things ... A hackerspace can approximate this sphere very well if everybody at least cleans up his/her own dishes. Shared geeky interests can be a wonderful thing.
Let folks and groups decide on their own how to promote and brand their work. It is important that the hackerspace doesn't act like a octopus that eventually captures every credit. The hackspace should be seen as basic utility but the work is done by individuals and not by the infrastructure provider, it just happened in this rooms and environment. Nobody has a problem to give credit for the latter and groups can build up or keep their individual identity.
We found it crucial to choose a central location in Vienna that is easily accessible by public transportation. In the outlying suburbs it's usually cheaper and the neighborhood might be less sensitive, but it is a big advantage when people can drop by easily after or before work, university, highschool or during their nightlife/leisure time activities.
A geeky hackerspace doesn't have to be restricted to coders or electronics folks only. A proper intermixture is moar awesome.
Don't underestimate the need for storage space and don't pile up junk if space is limited -- everyone has broken old hardware at home, make sure they keep it there ;)