HALIFAX – A fan whirs noisily in the small, second-storey room of a downtown Halifax office tower as Dan Friesen turns on the homemade spot welder he has brought along for show-and-tell.
He points out to an attentive crowd the various components of his device, from an everyday wall switch to a battery cable transformer.
Friesen gestures toward the contraption’s power cord, borrowed from a microwave oven.
“Yeah, just kind of ordinary parts around my house,” says Friesen, flipping on the device’s microswitch, which is embedded in a hockey puck.
Sparks crackle as the arms clamp down on two round overlapping metal disks.
“You can see it’s getting red hot there,” says Friesen, as a small dot on the metal begins to glow.
“And there you have it,” he says, seconds later, turning off the machine and fingering the now-joined metal pieces.
Friesen is one of several people who have shown up at the Halifax Makerspace’s open house night earlier this month to find out more about the startup group.
“I’m a maker. I like to make things,” he says. “And I thought it might be interesting to talk with other people who like to make things as well.”
Jay Strum, a 16-year-old high school student, is also at the meeting.
“I love tearing things apart and rebuilding them,” says Strum. “I like just tinkering with stuff, seeing how things work and getting an idea of how to modify them and get them to do other things.”
Though the Halifax Makerspace is still relatively young, this do-it-yourself-oriented studio is actually part of a much larger movement which has been spreading across North America over the past eight years.
As community-operated workshops, hackerspaces — also known as makerspaces, hackspaces or hacklabs — are places where like-minded, curiosity-driven tinkerers gather to share resources and expertise.
These collaborative workshops are founded on the do-it-yourself culture and typically centre around a common interest in electronics, science, technology and industrial arts.
The spaces can be used for anything from 3D printing to computer programming to lathe work. They are havens for amateur inventors looking to make something new or repurpose something old.
As community-driven initiatives, the focus of any given organization depends entirely on its members.
“We want to be a community-based collaborative workshop for any kind of creative outlet,” says Rob Hutten, one of the directors with Halifax Makerspace. “That’s the idea behind all this.”
An information technology consultant by day, Hutten is a woodworking buff who co-ordinates communications and planning for the newly-established hackerspace.
“I started out thinking I wanted a workshop and quickly realized what I really want is to be involved in a really exciting community initiative,” he says.
Today’s hackerspaces have their roots in the open community labs of 1990s Europe, such as Germany’s Chaos Computer Club. Their proliferation beyond heavily-funded centres was held in check at the time by restrictive equipment costs.
But rising numbers of people working in high-tech industries and the increasing affordability of equipment has contributed to the movement’s growth. This brought it to North America in the early 2000s and it spread.
“Hackerspaces are a logical extension of a group of passionate people coming together,” says Shannon Hoover, board president of the Calgary-based Protospace, established in 2011.
“It’s responding to a need that I think everybody has,” Hoover says. “To understand the world around us and to get involved in our environment.”
Testament to the movement’s commitment to sustainability and community involvement, Calgary’s hackerspace set up a repair cafe to help locals affected by the recent flooding in Alberta to fix their water-damaged electronics.
A common question is why the oft-maligned term “hacker” is used to describe the collaborative workspaces.
“The term hacker just means to take something apart and rebuild it, often for uses other than what was originally intended,” says Hoover. “If you decide to take your toaster and turn it into a space heater, that would be a hack.”
Though not driven by the need to commercialize, Hoover says the hackerspace movement has plenty of commercial potential.
Hackerspaces can serve as prototyping labs for projects with potential commercial value.
“The reason you’ve heard of 3D printing is because of the hackerspace movement,” says Hoover.
Hoover describes the rising interest in hackerspaces as a response in part to the rampant consumerism of Western culture.
“We live in a throw-away society and the maker movement is kind of a resistance against that,” says Hoover, adding that artistic self-expression also plays an important role in the creation process.
“People want to reuse the products that they buy,” says Hoover. “They want to fix things and they want to create things that reflect their own personality instead of buying product one of 10 million off a Walmart shelf.”
Although the Internet has made it easier than ever to connect online, makerspace innovators still opt to meet, co-operate, socialize and network face-to-face.
Despite the role played by digital technology in bringing like-minded people in touch with one another, interacting in a physical space is still recognized as critical to the hackerspace movement.
“People can be creative in their basements as well, and that’s also awesome,” says Halifax’s Hutten. “But we here like to think that there’s some magical stuff that happens when you get creative people who have different levels of skills and different types of skills in the same place together.”
One of Hutten’s biggest interests is the potential offered by hackerspaces to transfer skill sets to young people.
“I see a really strong role for seniors and retired people in a space like this,” he says. “I’m in love with the idea of a retired tradesman in here teaching some young kids how to weld or, you know, how to cut a 90-degree angle properly.”
To finance the space, Canadian hackerspace members typically pay anywhere between $20 and $50 in monthly fees.
While an estimated 900 hacklabs exist worldwide, Canada is home to about 40, though the number is growing.
One of the country’s newest spaces is Hackforge in Windsor, Ont., which opened its doors about a month ago from inside the Windsor Public Library.
Hackforge board president Doug Sartori says having the workshop in a public space provides the group with valuable exposure because of its visibility.
“I think there is a real risk with this kind of space to reinforce some of the existing demographics of the tech community,” says Sartori, referring to traditionally under-represented groups such as women. “I hope that having our space in a public building makes us more approachable as well.”
Like Hackforge, the Halifax Makerspace is also in its nascent stages, but Hutten is optimistic about its success.
“If we build something that can show the potential for how cool this could be, people will come,” he says. “I just have this really strong feeling that you put cool people in a room together and cool stuff will happen.”
© The Canadian Press, 2013