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A free space for creativity

Hackerspaces—locations that bring technology aficionados together—are multiplying across the country

Internal view of ABC Makerspace, in São Bernardo do Campo, which was "printed" in plywood and then assembled

Léo Ramos Chaves

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, designer Sandro Friedland, 42, entered a backyard in the Pinheiros district of São Paulo, eager to master the secrets of the 3D printer. Shortly afterwards software developer Gabriela Freitas, 26, arrived. She wanted tips for participating in Capture the Flag, a competition that involves solving information security challenges. There is no sign at the gate that accesses the house. Only a discreet graffito of an umbrella on the facade indicates the activity inside: this is the Garoa Hacker Club, the first and most famous hackerspace in Brazil, among the approximately 30 in operation around the country.

Sandro and Gabriela are not there to work or study. In a “community lab for technology lovers,” as Garoa is defined by its members, there are no well-defined boundaries between work, study, and leisure. “Knowledge is free,” says systems analyst Lucas Vido, 27, club treasurer, verbalizing one of the dearest concepts of hacker ethics. “The hacker culture has three defining characteristics: freedom, in the sense of autonomy, free access to information, and the free circulation of information. Hence the importance of using open source software and hardware, learning by doing, and cooperation,” says production engineer Victor Macul, 27, a professor at Insper private college, and a doctoral student in production engineering at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP).

Léo Ramos Chaves External view of ABC Makerspace, in São Bernardo do Campo, which was “printed” in plywood and then assembledLéo Ramos Chaves

In hackerspaces you can find different types of projects, such as robot development, programming marathons, lectures, and minicourses, as well as ample opportunity for sharing experience. The activities of Garoa and other similar spaces are supported by the monthly fees paid by members of the hacker associations, or, when applicable, by the university to which they’re connected.

For hackerspace regulars, the term “hacker” maintains its link to the original meaning, which arose in the United States during the 1950s, and was related to technological experimentation. It therefore has no association with “digital criminal,” as might be indicated by common usage. Lucas Vido says that hacking is “taking something that already exists and giving it an innovative use.” A good example of this culture is in Natal, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte. There, the Jerimum Hackerspace, which was created in 2017 and took its inspiration from Garoa, recently developed a blood pressure display using Arduino, a versatile open source electronic prototyping platform, and an obligatory presence at any hackerspace. “Arduino is cheap, with free hardware [the micro-controller board can be copied without problems] and there is a lot of information available on the internet,” explains Ana Clara Nobre, 26, an information technology student at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte. Nobre is an infrastructure analyst and one of the space’s cofounders. “We made a blood pressure monitor that’s cheaper than what’s sold in pharmacies, which even allows for viewing changes via a graphic display,” notes the analyst, who is also the coordinator of PotiLivre, the Potiguar Free Software Community in Rio Grande do Norte.

Léo Ramos Chaves Lucas Vido constructs a robot, observed by Fernando Guisso: Garoa was the first association of hackers in the country, created in 2009Léo Ramos Chaves

Hackerspaces are not committed to generating results that end up in patent offices or on market shelves. New technologies may actually emerge from these spaces, but those who frequent a hackerspace are much more interested in the process than in the outcome. This doesn’t prevent hackerspace members from occasionally joining forces to support projects with more practical and immediate results.

Some of these projects may be related to social or community agendas, as journalist Beatriz Martins, 58, discovered recently. She is a research associate at the Interdisciplinary Lab on Information and Knowledge (LIINC), linked to the Brazilian Institute of Information in Science and Technology (IBICT) and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “I can highlight a few examples: the e-waste recycling project developed by LabHacker, in Santiago [Rio Grande do Sul State]; the public data indexer Peba, which allows access to spending by federal representatives, designed by the Teresina Hacker Club [Piauí State]; the Monitora Cerrado project, created by the Calango Hacker Club in Brasília to measure the relative humidity, which is critical in the region; and the projects for permaculture and alternative cultural production promoted by Baia Hacker, in Itu and Porto Feliz [São Paulo State],” she reports.

New technologies may emerge from these places, but those who frequent a hackerspace are much more interested in the process than in the outcome.

Community lab
Hackerspaces are distinguished from other community lab initiatives, such as makerspaces and fablabs, which are more oriented towards project execution. The boundaries between the two types of space aren’t well defined, which is why Beatriz Martins chose to work with self-identified hackerspaces. “In these spaces there are a variety of discussion sessions in which different themes are deliberated, and not just those related to technology. In six of the spaces that responded to the research survey there are meetings focused on gender issues,” Martins adds.

“When we’re having discussions, there are no limits on subjects. And there are no teachers or students, just a sharing of ideas,” Nobre states, about the Jerimum Hackerspace. Sebastião Santiago Barretto, 64, an electronic engineer who graduated in 1976 from Poli-USP, is one of the participants who alternates between the role of experienced teacher and curious student. A regular at the Garoa Hackerspace for the past two years, he’s had various opportunities to share with colleagues about his experience as a member of the Ugly Duckling project in 1972, building one of the first two computers developed in Brazil. The other, Zezinho, was made at the Aeronautics Institute of Technology (ITA), in 1961. “It’s amazing how much knowledge you can acquire from listening to the conversations in the lab. Even those who don’t have much academic training always contribute. One of the things I like the most about Garoa is being in a corner putting something together while I listen to the conversations that go on there,” Barretto adds.

Léo Ramos Chaves Users without formal links to any research groups, in a space inaugurated in April at the USP Institute of PhysicsLéo Ramos Chaves

Although it’s a place for freely socializing, leisure, and discussion, a hackerspace is still a space for networking, and can generate professional opportunities. Which was the case with Victor Fragoso, 21, a computer science student at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) who was recently hired by the electronics company where he had interned. “I used to go to the ABC Makerspace in Santo André a lot, and one time a friend showed up looking for someone to do an internship at his company,” he says. Now that he has a tighter schedule, Fragoso goes to the WikiLab, located on the UFABC campus at São Bernardo do Campo, in the São Paulo metropolitan area. The WikiLab is a direct consequence of the ABC Makerspace, created in 2014. It has also settled at UFABC, in an area donated by the dean’s office, after previously working out of other locations. The activities have the support of professors Sérgio Amadeu da Silveira and Cláudio Penteado, from the public policy program, and Jerônimo Cordoni Pellegrini, from the computer science department. All three are coordinators of the university’s Free Technologies Lab.

The entire process of creating the ABC Makerspace’s 40-square-meter lab, from initial design to final assembly, was collaborative and utilized free technologies. “We adapted a wikihouse project, available on the internet, that enables you to ‘print’ plywood houses. The design is done on the computer and the code is loaded into a machine that cuts the plywood sheets. Then, we just fit the pieces together,” explains Fragoso. The cost, about R$70,000, was funded through the crowdfunding platform Catarse.

Gabriela Celani / UNICAMP The International Design Center, at MITGabriela Celani / UNICAMP

Other hackerspaces that operate within universities are also open to outside attendees and events. Such is the case of the Tarrafa Hacker Club, which operates in the Department of Architecture and Urbanism of the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in Florianópolis. “Tarrafa was started in the middle of 2012 from meetings of students and alumni—predominantly from engineering—interested in digital technologies, and above all, in a more practical approach to learning, inspired by the do-it-yourself movement,” recalls architect Diego Fagundes, 33, one of the two founders, together with architect Erica Mattos, 32. At the time, the group of around 15 to 20 people had already organized some workshops and lectures, without having a space of their own. Then Fagundes entered the architecture and urbanism master’s degree program and proposed a partnership: the school would donate the space, and Tarrafa would provide support for disciplines engaged in interactivity and digital technologies. It worked.

The most recent of these partnership initiatives with universities is the Hackerspace at the Institute of Physics at USP (IF-USP), inaugurated last month. In order for it to be installed in Room 100 of the institute’s main building, it had the coordination and backing of Professor Alexandre Suaide. “For a long time students lacked an environment in which to develop projects and activities that didn’t have a formal link with research groups or academic labs,” says the physicist.

The space opened with some equipment already installed, such as 3D printers, Arduinos, and computers inherited from a project that had been interrupted years ago, leaving some idle hardware. There are already about 50 people on the group’s email list, but organizers expect that number to reach at least 200. “Our goal is for the group to be open to anyone, including those who aren’t USP students,” says IF-USP student Danilo Lessa, 24, one of the hackerspace’s founders. Suaide supports its autonomy: “The place fosters a possible bridge between the university and people with creative and unorthodox ideas. At IF-USP there are various disciplines and research labs that could benefit from ideas born at the hackerspace.”

Gabriela Celani / UNICAMP A lab at Columbia University, both in the United States: encouraging experimentationGabriela Celani / UNICAMP

Methods of doing science
Envisioning new educational or business models, several researchers have been focusing on methods of doing science stimulated by hackerspaces, makerspaces, and fablabs. In 2014, Cecília Burtet finished her master’s thesis in business administration at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, studying “the knowledge developed through the work practices at a hackerspace in Porto Alegre.” Burtet notes, “My area of ​​research for my master’s was organizational learning. Within this sector, the contributions brought by the hacker collective relate to learning based on practice and the use of disagreement as a driver of learning; environments without rules or hierarchies are givens.” Currently pursuing her doctorate in business administration from the Vale do Rio dos Sinos University (UNISINOS), Burtet is investigating the relationship between the Maker Movement, “which originated in the hackerspaces movement,” and innovation in Brazil.

“My impression is that these spaces have increased and should continue to grow, especially within educational environments,” says production engineer Victor Macul. For him, engineering, design, and architecture schools have a tendency to increasingly value project-based learning, and for that, multidisciplinary laboratories are needed. “In 2017, I was part of the first group of Fab Academy, a training program in digital fabrication developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT], which was formed in Brazil,” he says. “Now there are more people able to provide this training here.”

Architect Gabriela Celani, a professor at the School of Civil Engineering, Architecture, and Urban Design of the University of Campinas (FEC-UNICAMP), is betting on investment in multidisciplinary laboratories as a path towards innovation and entrepreneurship. Having earned her doctorate in design and computing from MIT in 2002, she returned to the US institution earlier this year for a sabbatical semester and was surprised by the growth of maker initiatives there. Among the most interesting are the Manus Project, which refers to MIT’s motto Mens et Manus (from Latin, mind and hand). “This project aims to connect MIT’s various laboratories and enable students to gain hands-on experience,” explains Celani. To facilitate access to any laboratory at the institute a mobile app was created, named Mobius. “With Mobius, students can find out at any time of the day or night which laboratory is open and available for their projects, and schedule the use of equipment and supervision of lab monitors.”

Celani is working together with Maria José Pompeu Brasil, a retired professor from the Institute of Physics at UNICAMP, on the creation of a network of makerspaces in the metropolitan region of Campinas, in connection with the cities’ administrations. “These spaces have the potential for interdisciplinarity, which is one of the keys to innovation,” she says. While waiting for government support to materialize, Brasil is investing in a personal project: she has rented a space with her own funds, near UNICAMP, in order to create a makerspace. It will be managed in partnership with a former student, Claudecir Biazoli, now a high school physics teacher. “It will be a space for disseminating knowledge, and for scientific and artistic production open to the entire populace, from children to the elderly,” she says of her plans.