While in San Francisco recently, I visited Noisebridge, one of the largest DIY/hacker spaces in the Bay Area. I found out about Noisebridge because one of the 3D printing start-ups I had been reading about, Type A Machines, got its start when its co-founders developed a prototype at Noisebridge and another technical project space in the area, TechShop.
DIY and hacker spaces are becoming more common in the U.S., but there are different ways that these spaces operate. Noisebridge is unique for a number of reasons- it is technically free and open to the public to use, is open 24/7 and is an incredibly diverse making space. Its 5,200 square foot area includes a fabrication space (laser cutter and 3D printers), sewing area, kitchen, darkroom and tool shop. Noisebridge was inspired in large part by the hacker spaces in Germany, Austria and other European countries which popped up in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Tech Work Space at Noisebridge
Noisebridge is located in a gritty looking building on Mission Street. It’s the perfect type of place for getting your hands dirty while working on circuit hacking, building a robot, cooking up some dinner for other participants or any number of other projects that are going on at any given time.
VOIP enabled pay phone
As we entered Noisebridge, we were warmly greeted by Robert, who has been working on projects at Noisebridge for the past three years. Robert was kind enough to give us a complete tour of the space. Before the current warehouse space for Noisebridge came into being, co-founders Mitch Altman and Jacob Appelbaum (also of Tor) hosted a number of meet ups in coffee shops in the Bay Area for individuals who were interested in working on different creative/technical projects together. Eventually the group grew in size, warranting a more permanent meeting space, which prompted them to rent a studio apartment in the Mission, just down the street from its current location. Eventually, the group came across the current warehouse space, which allowed Noisebridge to scale up in size, capacity and capabilities.
Perhaps what I find most intriguing about Noisebridge in addition to the wildly imaginative, sometimes subversive and unexpected creations that come out of this space is the way that Noisebridge as a community operates. The organization is a non-profit, which supports itself based on external donations and fees from members. While you do not have to be a member to use the space and the majority of the equipment and supplies are free to use, members pay a monthly fee of $80, which provides them with shelf space for their personal materials and the opportunity to participate in the governing process for Noisebridge. The space was created in the tradition of hacker culture- anarchistic, relatively non-hierarchical and idea-driven. This is not to say that Noisebridge has no rules or methods for governance. The organization’s wiki lays out a well crafted vision, supported by tripartite pillars: 1) Excellence; 2) Consensus; 3) Do-ocracy. This framework helps to create a culture that promotes mutual respect and shared decision-making while promoting individual agency and creativity. While there are leaders of different projects or individuals who teach a class or workshop on a particular topic at Noisebridge, this leadership is in large part determined by a process of specific individuals taking the initiative to act upon a new idea or come up with a project they want to see to completion.
It is possible to consider the way in which Noisebridge functions as a common pool resource for its users. To analyze the space from this perspective could prove to be fruitful in understanding how spaces like this function in today’s capitalistic, consumer driven society and why they are needed at all. A common pool resource (CPR) is defined as “natural or human-made resources where one person’s use subtracts from another’s use and where it is often necessary, but difficult and costly, to exclude other users outside the group from using the resource” (Hess, 2006). While much of the work around CPRs has focused on natural resources such as forests or streams, there is also a great deal of literature around knowledge commons, the Internet and shared urban spaces.
The economist Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel prize in 2009 for demonstrating that individuals can develop rules, policies and other mechanisms for successfully governing the use of shared resources, thereby avoiding the “tragedy of the commons.” Noisebridge operates in large part of the basis of trust- individuals must first trust one another in order to be willing and able to share space, materials and equipment. Being excellent to one another (as articulated in the organization’s vision) requires each participant to trust all other participants. For example, at Noisebridge there is a giant wall lined with plastic drawers filled with LED lights, resistors, wires and a variety of other materials that are up for grabs. These items are free for anyone to use and there is no obligation for individuals to replace or re-supply the drawers, yet somehow these drawers remain well-stocked. How or why does this happen? I would contend that Noisebridge may use some, if not all of Ostrom’s 8 design principles for successfully managing a commons. These principles are (Ostrom, 1990; Walljasper, 2011):
1. Define clear group boundaries.
2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.
Hess, Charlotte (2006). Research on the Commons, Common-Pool Resources, and Common Property. Digital Library of the Commons. Available from: http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/contentguidelines
Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-40599-8.
Walljasper, Jay (2011). Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons. Available from: http://onthecommons.org/magazine/elinor-ostroms-8-principles-managing-commmons