As a member of two hack spaces (and co-founder, secretary, and treasurer of one), I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit a local hack space during our visit to South Africa. A quick web search later and I found that Cape Town's hackspace is called Maker Station. I dropped them a message asking if I could drop by and say hi as an ambassador from the UK, and asking them to suggest a time - UK hack spaces tend to have an open evening sometime in the week when random people can turn up to look around and meet people; so I was expecting something like that, but didn't see a time advertised on the Web site. But they suggested I suggest a time, so I did.
If we'd planned this a bit better, we'd have brought stickers (a traditional hack space give-away gift) from Bristol and Cheltenham Hack Spaces, but we didn't - so, instead, Sarah painted a picture from each hack space:
For those not familiar with them, UK hack spaces tend to be run like a club or society - a constitution document of some kind sets out rules for people to become members, and for members to vote on a board who are in charge of making sure the space meets its legal obligations and controls the flow of money. Usually, members get unlimited access to the space and voting rights in exchange for a monthly membership fee (with some tools that use expensive consumables requiring extra usage fees on top to cover that). The monthly memberships go into a bank account, and the elected board choose to spend that on rent, insurance, electricity, broadband, consumables, and so on, and the money left over each month piles up until it's enough to buy a fancy new tool requested by the members. Most members have day jobs and hack on projects in their spare time, so hack spaces tend to be quiet during the day and busy in evenings and at weekends; and, as I mention above, there's usually an open evening every week for potential new members to come along and visit, which is also the day members come along to socialise, thereby ensuring there's a good population present to welcome new people. There are no paid staff; the board are all volunteers, and members are expected to unlock and lock up if they visit at a time when nobody else is around.
So I was quite interested to find out that Maker Station was different. We were met inside the entrance by Felix, one of the founders. The entrance led directly to a cafe area, with leaflets of hackerly interest lying around, and a range of drinks and crisps and stuff (including Maker Station logo biscuits they'd made in their own rocket oven!) for sale. The space is staffed and open during business hours; the two founders are there during the day as it's actually their day job, and they have two employees to help (the cost of living in South Africa is much lower than in the UK, which is what makes this practical).
Beyond the cafe was the hack space itself. Much of the space is divided into benches (or larger studios), which are either rented by the day in a sort of hot-desking arrangement:
...or dedicated to a single user who pays regularly for it, so has extensive tool and work-in-progress storage dedicated to them:
People normally used it during the day, but if people were still hacking when 6pm came, they'd keep it open in the evening as well. One user I spoke to there was making a commission for a client, suggesting that the member demographic was more people hacking on stuff for a living than evening hobbyists. Felix and his brother (the other founder) don't quite make enough to run the place from memberships alone; the shortfall is made up by them working on paid commissions of their own in the space. Felix showed us some current projects they were working on, an exhibit for a local science centre and a small wind tunnel for somebody experimenting with wind turbine designs:
I didn't get the impression there was quite the sense of community that UK hackspaces have, with their busy open evenings and highly decentralised governance; Felix said that he often found himself acting as a "broker" between people who wanted some skill and people who had it or who a good supplier was for something, while in the UK, such connections usually arise organically on the open evening, so I suggested he might like to set up a weekly social slot in the cafe (and maybe a wiki for sharing information like supplier lists, like we have at Cheltenham Hackspace).
I was very impressed by their facilities. A proper cafe! Lots of space! Many, many, tools, including a decent metal lathe, forge, foundry, and welding gear!
Interestingly, they didn't tend to go in for the stock UK hack space tools of laser cutters and 3D printers. It turns out that in Cape Town there are several suppliers who will do small-job CNC cutting and lasering and 3D printing at a reasonable price using high-end equipment, within easy travel of Maker Station. As far as I can tell, it's prohibitively expensive to get that sort of thing done in the UK other than in industrial quantities, which is why UK hack spaces end up buying their own equipment!
Felix seems to be really good at community outreach and education - something we're looking to expand at Cheltenham Hackspace, not to mention a speciality of Sarah's, so we were interested to hear about that. Here's a video of Felix giving a talk to students about prototyping. One thing that impressed me was that he runs things he calls "disassembly workshops"; take a pile of unwanted appliances, and unleash a bunch of children on them with screwdrivers (and some expert help) to tear them apart. This is fun in itself, and provides an opportunity to learn how the things you're taking apart work, as well as building skills in using the tools and working out how to get things to bits.
Once you have a pile of bits, depending on the age range and abilities, you can let the kids stick the bits together to make art to take home - or teach them electronics by wiring them up to do new things, maybe even so far as building robots out of the mechanical and electronic parts.
We enjoyed our visit to Maker Station. It was refreshing to see a different take on the usual hack space financial model, and interesting to see how the differing economics of South Africa affected what a hack space needed to be and could do. And Felix was inspiring as an educator and speaker! I'm keeping a close eye on his Twitter feed for good ideas to use in my own sci/tech outreach activities