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Hackerspaces are becoming centers of liberal arts in Asia: NUS prof

Shiwen is a part-time freelance writer, aspiring entrepreneur and overall generalist interested in exploring, researching and writing. Disclosure: The writer is a community member of Hackerspace.sg.

denisa kera

Prof Denisa Kera drinks from a LED cup at a Tokyo hackerspace. Photo: Chris Wang

Tech startups in Southeast Asia are getting acquired, and more investors are looking at investing in the ecosystem. As such, the need to develop innovation capacity is more crucial than ever.

An answer to this is the open-source technology movement, consisting of hackerspaces, makerspaces, and DIY Biology (DIYBio) movements. Concerned with innovation and bringing the benefits of scientific and emerging technological developments to the public, these avenues are used for public participation in science and for meeting needs beyond the scope of for-profit enterprises.

Assistant Professor Denisa Kera of the National University of Singapore (NUS) has made it her career to study and participate in these movements. She is a faculty member of the Department of Communications & New Media and her research covers issues in philosophy and design.

She follows and supports science community labs and alternative R&D places, such as hackerspaces, makerspaces and fabrication labs across the world, with a special focus on DIYBio movements, consumer genomics and various citizen science projects. She looks at issues in science communication, of making science understandable by the public and accessible where it is not traditionally available.

Tech in Asia: What brought you to NUS?

Denisa: I was curious. I’ve spent most of my life in Europe and the only place I visited in Asia was Japan before moving to Singapore. I also had friends engaged in art and science projects in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. On a personal level, I was running two non-profits and worked at a university in Prague. I was burnt out and wanted to take a new direction.

What is your involvement with the open source science movement?

I travel to visit and work with hackerspaces, DIYBio labs and various other forms of grassroots citizen science movements around the world. As a researcher, I’m curious to understand what’s the best way for a society to interact with, adopt and integrate emergent technologies, and as an open science advocate I’m looking into ways we can support research and development in the Global South, consisting of Asian, African, and Latin American countries.

What is so unique about the hackerspace movement that makes them relevant to society?

They let science amateurs like me understand and get involved in the process of designing, tinkering and playing with various ideas and technologies. I’m also excited about their potential to support research in the developing countries, such as Indonesia or Nepal.

The hackerspaces attract some of the most interesting people you can meet in a city; the pragmatic visionaries who are not afraid to take on any challenge, but jealously protect their autonomy and freedom. They actually preserve the original mission of the universities, which is academic freedom.

Most people think it is about the freedom to do research, but it is more than that. We need a space or an institution which will enable citizens to develop skills necessary for taking an active part in the public life of their communities.

The so called “artes liberale”, or liberal arts, refers to knowledge that sets you free. It doesn’t mean humanities as people misinterpret today. I dare to say that nowadays the liberal arts mean not only law and rhetoric, but also knowledge of science protocols, programming and hardware hacking.

Hackerspaces are the best place to gain such knowledge and skills on your own terms. Then you can make informed decisions on stuff like Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), or be able to set up ad hoc, secure and independent networks during acts of civil disobedience.

So hackerspaces help to foster self-reliance in societies?

Rather than expecting the government or some NGO to protect your rights, you’re part of a small, resilient and independent community which can deal with various situations, such as the ones we saw in Istanbul in the summer, but also disasters, such as Fukushima.

Groups of geeks can empower everyone to get independent data, and you can see such projects not only in Japan with radiation, Europe with CO2 and dust monitoring, but also in Indonesia with water. One of the first responses to the dangerous haze conditions in Singapore in 2013 was a project by a group of geeks from Silicon Straits to build a hazemeter.

I admire these projects as they enable people to build sensor networks for sharing data about their environments, but I’m personally exploring more of the artistic and less serious themes.

What have you been working on recently?

With friends from Fablab Yogyakarta in Indonesia and Hackteria.org, we hacked a mobile food truck and turned it into a molecular gastronomy lab, creating posh cuisine on the streets of Indonesia, testing and showing how simple equipment, such as webcams, can become microscopes. It is developing into a project supporting open hardware solutions for cheap lab equipment, but who knows, we may just continue in our mobile food truck obsession.

Last year, I also scanned my brain in London and uploading the images over Dropbox and Facebook to use these Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) data in Prague for a workshop on data liberation for a citizen science project. I will soon meet a really cool scientist from Singapore who is trying to build cheap MRI scanning devices.

I am interested in such bio data, because I think it is important to set up services and support for people to own such information and decide on the terms of how they will share it and with whom. I guess in this I am curious about the future of personalized medicine, but also how to support crowdsourcing of data and research. Here in Singapore, we have Ivan Zimine, who is creating a really innovative cloud service which will enable sharing of such MRI and other data.

This year I was twice in Shenzhen, China, where I followed the open hardware scene thanks to several hardware gurus; Bunnie Huang, who is working on many interesting projects, David Li, who runs a hackerspace in Shanghai, and this amazing young muse and researcher, Silvia Lindtner, who infected me with a love for shanzhai phones. These are creative, DIY, cheap and pirated mobile phones which shows a different model of “open source” from the West. Together we’re planning to organize an exhibition of these phones to show them in a pop-art light.

In Tokyo, together with Jan Rod and Charith Fernando from open hadrware market Inmojo.com, we are about to launch the Totematons.org Project, where we are trying to look into how to support traditional artisan techniques with custom-made printed circuit boards (PCBs) and open hardware, as well as define some form of hardware artisanship which will support old rituals with new technologies.

A project at Lifepatch combining art with science. Photo: Lifepatch

A project at Lifepatch, a makerspace in Indonesia, combining art with science. Photo: Lifepatch

I’m also preparing a workshop on open hardware for farms with Sakar Pudasaini from Karkhana.asia, an amazing hackerspace in Nepal, and I’m also trying to be in Yogyakarta as much as possible because of the DIYbio science movement happening there thanks to HONF and Lifepatch. With them we will organize a month-long workshop in April 2014 on open hardware for science. Another thing which is appearing thanks to Pepe Sepulveda is a workshop on the issues of open source hardware and expiring patents and how to support such hybrids.

I’ve also been helping to run a small DIYbio group here in Singapore with Kate Lu in Tembusu College where we merged with the local Arduino group and we are also regularly attending and supporting the large meetups.

What exactly are Totematons?

When you put together totems and automaton you get an object which partially belongs to the past, but also the future. It seeks to bridge modern technology with traditional craft, creating a dialogue between them. We took old Russian geiger tubes and traditional Kyoto wind chimes and connected them into a device that reacts to radiation. We impart functionality and relevance to old objects by hybridizing them. They become like protective charms or wind chimes, but made with actual sensors.

What do you like about Shenzhen?

It’s got a diverse community of people from all over the world coming to innovate and work with local companies. It’s a wild place for hardware innovation, officially they describe it as a special economic zone, but I think it is more like 1940’s Casablanca, where all connections are possible.

It’s almost like a geopolitical experiment. You have the large, established manufacturers like Foxxconn operating side-by-side with factories producing pirated goods and innovation factories churning out new prototypes and test versions of a product, all in one location.

So with your background in researching the impacts of technology, what are your views on new technologies like 3D printing and their impact?

Well, 3D printing is becoming mainstream and I’m excited to see the silly stuff people do with that, but I hope to use it to build cheap laboratory equipment for research in places with no infrastructure.

Where I really want to see more involvement by the public are in research of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). This area of research needs to be made accessible to the public, and not only the science part, but also the present policy and economics related to patenting of genes, food security and food diversity issues. I really hope more people play with green fluorescent protein (GFP) in bacteria or plants to understand how this works and then move into discussions about how we want to use these possibilities.

What can you say about the Asian hackerspaces and maker movement?

Hackerspace.sg and Sustainable Living Lab are definitely my second homes in Singapore; they were always supportive of my projects and I like hanging out there, especially now when so much is starting to happen and there are so many fantastic makers you can meet on these Arduino meetups at Silicon Straits. I think now is the right time for people that are curious to join and start some projects in either of these places. I admire the work of William Hooi, and I really think he is the guy who did most for the makers movement in Singapore.

The hackerspace I’m most attached to in Asia is the Yogyakarta one. I feel as if Yogyakarta is the spiritual or cultural centre of Southeast Asia. It was born in 1999 and was called the House of Natural Fiber, later it divided and now we also have Lifepatch.org.

It always works closely with the local universities, and Yogykarta has many of them, but also with the villages and the various communities. They also created the first Fablab in Yogyakarta, as well as public science labs. Lifepatch is working with the University of Gajah Mata and supports various community-related research. It is attempting to use soil bacteria at Mount Merapi to help villagers grow crops on infertile land. They also create art installations based around community science and are always open to inter-disciplinary projects.

Indonesia may perhaps be a chaotic country with many issues, but the hackerspaces are incredibly vibrant and the creativity you see there is mindblowing. My other favorites are the Shanghai and Shenzhen hackerspaces and Karkhana.Asia in Nepal.

Given your background and experience, what do you see as areas for improvement in the R&D and entrepreneur ecosystem in Singapore?

I would like to see Fablabs and Makerspaces established in the universities and also set up in local neighbourhoods. It would be best if we can combine them both, so anyone can come and learn some skills but also have access to tools needed for some small startup project.

Ideally, universities should be integrated into the cities and communities that they exist along or within, and that is why I like such Fablabs set up jointly by universities and cities. I would love to see our first Fabcafe, where you can start, develop and then sell various design in a network of such places around the world. Universities should seek to use the hackerspace model, rather than incubators or accelerators, which are too much investor-driven and do not provide enough time nor space for projects to start small, mutate, interact, and develop.

Hackerspaces grant members more space to define concepts, but also to simply find and discuss important issues related to science and technology. It creates a community space that engages and empowers people rather than another rat race, which never benefits more people than a few investors. Accelerators are important, but right now I feel it is overdone, and we really need to see more socially responsible innovation, sustainable and more complex projects.

(Editing by Terence Lee)


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