New Hackerspace Design Patterns

The wave of hackerspaces in the US over the last decade was triggered, in part, by the collection of the hackerspace design patterns, best practices that had been developed in European hackerspaces. This year at Chaos Communications Camp, Mitch Altman will be presenting an updated list of hackerspace design patterns and has asked the community for input. Here are my contributions based on several years of hackerspace administration.


Replacement Pattern

Problem: Volunteer roles require developing new skills and learning from the successes and failures of past volunteers.

Solution: Volunteers should start training their replacements as soon as they take on a role. Having more members with the necessary skills will make it easier to find a replacement when the time comes. Also, the more members who understand a particular volunteer role, the easier it will be for the volunteer in that role to communicate with the membership.

Principles Pattern

Problem: Members in a large group have different values, making it difficult to make decisions.

Solution: Early on, create a list of "common principles" or "points of unity" that describe the ideals that were important to the early members. These ideals should be explained to all new members. Debates should be framed in these common principles. Principles can be revised, added, or deleted, but only if there is consensus.

Mentor Pattern

Problem: On-boarding new members is difficult. New members can have trouble finding the resources they need and learning their responsibilities as members.

Solution: Every new member is assigned an experienced member as a mentor. When the member has a question, they can go to the mentor to find the answer. If the member is acting out of line with the group's principles, the mentor can talk to them.

Caretaker Pattern

Problem: There are a lot of space usage decisions to make, but most are irrelevant to any particular person.

Solution: Appoint a caretaker for each zone in the space (machine shop, craft room, etc.) The caretaker's contact info is posted publicly in that zone. If a member has a question or a problem in that zone, they can contact the caretaker to fix it. The caretaker gets final say on space usage decisions.

Outreach Pattern

Problem: Your space is almost entirely young, middle-class, white men and anyone else feels less comfortable using the space.

Solution: Actively increase your group's visibility in communities with higher percentages of women and underrepresented minorities. Place more flyers, advertise on mailing lists, and give these groups advance notice of classes and workshops before announcing them to current members and their friends.

Pot-Lock Pattern

Problem: Maintenance and cleaning is boring and no one wants to do it.

Solution: Hold a combination pot luck and lock-in. Everyone works on maintenance and cleaning and takes a break to share home-cooked meals with each other. No one leaves until time is up.

Conflict Resolution

Signage Pattern

Problem: Members aren't doing something they should.

Solution: Put a signs explaining correct procedure as close to the problem as possible, e.g. stencil "Clear off before you leave" on flat surfaces.

Physics Pattern

Problem: The group makes a lot of rules, but they are often ignored.

Solution: Instead of creating rules, make it physically impossible to do the wrong thing, e.g. instead of saying "turn the lights out when you're done," put the lights on an automatic timer.

API Pattern

Problem: Hackers don't like unnecessary rules, and rules are often unenforceable.

Solution: Instead of rules, create procedures for solving problems. For example, create a "parking ticket" that members can place on abandoned projects in their way, and a standard way to notify the group about the ticket. Allow anyone to dispose of an abandoned project a certain amount of time after a parking ticket has been issued.

Anti-Popularity Pattern

Problem: Conduct complaints turn into popularity contests.

Solution: When discussing conduct complaints, judge actions instead of character. Be clear about which specific actions were inappropriate and why. This has the benefit of reinforcing behavioral norms for other members.

Dossier Pattern

Problem: The board has received a complaint about a member, but the member says they didn't understand the rules. The board members are new and have no way to know whether the member has been a problem before.

Solution: Keep records of all member complaints in a system that is confidential and searchable. Even if someone doesn't want to make a formal complaint, leaving a note can help establish whether there is a pattern of misbehavior and help future boards follow up.

Anti-Kibitzer Pattern

Problem: Everyone has an opinion on how a task should be done, but no one shows up to do it.

Solution: Make it so that members have to put some effort in before they get to have input. Have discussions in committee meetings outside of general meetings, and require homework (e.g. email in proposals beforehand). If someone doesn't show up regularly, or doesn't do constructive work, stop inviting them to the meetings.