Tomorrow I’m speaking at the Technology Salon, about  technology hubs and innovation spaces for development. Here are my initial notes.

First, here’s what I mean when I use the term “innovation space”:

Innovation spaces are physical environments that promote community, learning, and making. They come in different flavors: Hubs, labs, libraries, hackerspaces, makerspaces, telecentres, coworking spaces. Yet all provide opportunities to (1) engage with people, ideas, and technologies, (2) experience participatory culture, and (3) acquire the literacies and skills needed to prosper in the 21st century.

Libraries are special because they are public innovation spaces that serve learning, social, civic, and economic needs. They have:

  • A mandate to provide free and universal access 
  • Information in all its forms — books, the internet, electronic resources, digital technologies (which can range from photocopiers to 3D printers and more)
  • Sustained government funding
  • An advanced body of knowledge (all things information: storage, access, retrieval, management) and practice (librarianship, infomediaries, developing community services, promoting literacy, physical design of space)
  • A known and trusted “brand” — not just as information access points, but also as safe and supportive environments to engage with technology and each other, especially for women and youth

Libraries are evolving rapidly — shifting from the model of a repository and a focus on providing access to information into spaces where people come to make, create, organize, and exchange knowledge and ideas. This evolution has affected all aspects of libraries — their role in community development, partnerships with others, the design and use of space, the types of programs and services offered, public perceptions, and more.

What happens in innovation spaces that is important to development? Well, it varies depending on the space and the community.

Generally, they provide access to:

  • The internet and other digital technologies (increasingly manufacturing technologies, like 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC routers)
  • Other people, from trained infomediaries to helpful folks ready to lend a hand — or just chat and share stories
  • Events and workshops

And opportunities to:

  • Experience a welcoming environment (friendship, motivation, sense of community, belonging, and support)
  • Acquire new knowledge, literacies, and skills (tech skills, soft skills via collaborating)
  • Be exposed to different ideas, approaches, attitudes, tactics (organizational, business)
  • Tinker — exploration and a sense of play is important
  • Innovate — develop new approaches to solving problems (sometimes by remixing what already exists)
  • Interact with others: community members, free agents, entrepreneurs, and potential mentors, investors, and partners
  • Develop connections with others (friends, co-organizers, partners/coworkers, investors, business people, etc.)
  • Boost self-efficacy, which is foundational to civic participation, advancing livelihoods, and making healthy choices

These notes don’t touch on how I feel about the questions that frame the discussion:

  • So there is serious money now flowing into tech hubs and innovation spaces around the world. But is this a good thing?
  • Are tech-focused collaborative workspaces and incubation centers really effective in spurring innovation and accelerating development?
  • And is donor money, and the rules it brings, enhancing or constraining the organic development and expansion of centers, hubs, and labs?

Have to think on those some more. Obviously, I’m a fan of innovation spaces. But part of what I love about them — especially hackerspaces, and some coworking spaces — is that they’re totally self-sustaining. And they should stay like that because that’s what keeps them innovative. They are prickly and trickstery and messy and that’s part of what makes them awesome. You have to ask even what the procurement/proposal process would do to a closely networked community of tech activists or spaces, with foreigners coming in and trying to get one or the other on their bid. Ouch.

Wayan Vota organized the collective creation of a list of resources on innovation spaces.

Thanks to Hilda Moraa, whose thinking for iHub Research got incorporated into the opportunities section.