On our recent trip to China, we were lucky enough to get the chance to visit one of local Hackerspaces in Shanghai. The place is called Xinchejian and it looks like something straight off William Gibson novel. Tons of cardboard boxes, tiny robots scattered all over the place, art pieces, 3d printers, hydroponics hacks (?) ... The kind of organized chaos all of us happily relate with. We met with David Li, a foreman of the Hackerspace who introduced us to the local scene and challenges of running this kind of environment in the place where passtime is not a commodity.
A factor that makes all the difference here is easy access to serious production-grade fabrication resources. The limit seems to be only in creativity and novelty of ideas (and ability to get some bootstrap funding). Everything else is easy. And that is exactly what this kind of place is all about - enabling creative people with tools for expressing their ideas. David had a great analogy with BSD and Linux communities in the 90ies - while BSD community was somewhat elitist and not really welcome to noobs, Linux crowd always had patience for even the most boring and repetitive questions. And Linux eventually enabled so much change, while BSD for the most part ended up on the shelf. It seems that the same holds nowadays in terms of the gap between "true" Electrical Engineers and the new hacker/maker crowd.
That is why David tries to attract as many people from diverse areas. A beautiful example is the one of a girl who was a professional piano player with no knowledge of electronics whatsoever. She joined the Hackerspace and within couple of months ended up picking up the necessary skills and building a spectacular interactive "singing tree" installation art piece (for which she also composed an original score). And that is what this 'hardware revolution' is all about ...
Sadly, our time was limited but next time around we'll try to hang out more and participate in the community. If you happen to find yourself around Shanghai, by all means don't forget to visit Xinchejian !