The following is a guest submission by Daniel Shiner, a recent graduate of George Mason University.
In Mountain View California, there is a spark of educational innovation that is under threat of extinguishment.
Imagine a place devoted to developing and encouraging collaboration between a community of creators, people who share a common bond of wanting to build amazing things, and understand how the world works. Now imagine that it were open to the public 24/7, and provided communal space for collaboration between its members.
Sound too good to be true? Kind of like an idealized vision of what you had wished your university experience would be?
Hacker Dojo in Mountain View California is fulfilling this mission, aiming to revolutionize the way education is done. At the moment, Hacker Dojo has more than 330 members, more than 550 alumni, and over 12,000 engaged guests. The Dojo itself is an old warehouse modified to have communal working spaces, mobile labs, event spaces, and areas for classes. It is entirely funded through donations and minimal membership fees to cover the basic costs.
Though targeted towards the tech savvy and startups — the social media platform Pinterest used the Dojo as their main workspace in their early days — Hacker Dojo is open to anyone. The governing philosophy behind the Dojo is that of a voluntary commune. Katy Levinson, roboticist extraordinaire and director of development at Hacker Dojo, explained in an interview by Sebastian Haley with GameBeat, “They say communism doesn’t work. Yes, it doesn’t. But I think the fundamental thing that makes the Dojo work even though we’re always one happy hippie whatever, is that every day, every person has to feel like they get more out of it than they put in. If we fail to maintain that threshold, they’ll leave. And they have the option to leave. I think that keeps us very honest as a community: making sure that we treat everyone well and that we provide value to everyone.”
Everything sounds great, so what is the problem?
Well it turns out that the Dojo is housed in a building zoned for light industrial use, not assembly usage, and the city government doesn’t like that. Levinson explained, “If you want to have strangers together in a building for learning or whatever else, you need to get a building that’s zoned for assembly usage. And that’s basically a school or a church. You look on Craigslist, and you can’t find any of those to rent. So we moved into a light industrial warehouse.”
Though the guests at Hacker Dojo are free to come and go as they please, the government would rather have the Dojo not exist than allow people to voluntarily accept the risks involved with being inside a warehouse type area. In February, the city government of Mountain View threatened to shut down the Dojo if they didn’t comply with a series of safety regulations, and the Hacker Dojo community rallied together and raised the $25,000 to install the mandated upgrades. However, the Dojo recently received another notice demanding a new list of expensive upgrades to fit with zoning regulation, including approximately $100,000 dollars in Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades.
Initially, the city government also insisted on them commissioning a costly traffic study, a parking study, and a noise study, but they managed to talk the authorities down on those requests.
The city has already stopped them from using half of the Dojo’s square footage and if they are unable to meet the demands by the end of the year, the Hacker Dojo will be forced to shut its doors.
“A lot of governments want all the innovation, and they don’t want the risk,” Levinson explained, “It’s just so hard to explain that. Yes, we don’t look like a school. We don’t look like a church. We started from something that was not designed to be…. we’re upgrading it as fast as we can because we want our members to be safe. Safety is important. But the pace that they demand is high.”
“That’s a hard thing for governments, and it’s a hard thing for bureaucracies because when something goes wrong, someone gets held responsible, and that’s hard… I wish the system didn’t work like that. I feel their pain. I understand why they’re scared. I just wish that they had a different method of dealing with that fear.”
Most people want safety and accessibility to everyone, these are good things, but zoning and one-size-fits-all safety regulations create expensive barriers to entry that generally stifle the generation of bottom-up solutions. By enforcing a policy where little risk is tolerated, experimentation gets so costly that it becomes difficult for new models to even be attempted.
Despite the city government’s demands, Levinson and the rest of the Dojo team are holding on to their vision. They are attempting to fundraise the money needed, but it isn’t easy with the inflexible deadlines. They have raised money in a variety of ways, from attempting to harness the power of the individuals in their community by auctioning off their services, to launching a Kickstarter campaign and pursuing corporate donations.
“This is what a university was supposed to be, right?…I really want to preserve that… This is part of a really powerful vision that I think really could change the world. I do want to change the world…”
“We’re on such a trajectory to do it. We’ve just got to get past this. It’s all lining up. We’re learning really expensive lessons. Just being profitable is not enough. You have to be really profitable so you can afford to make all these local governments happy. But we’re profitable enough that we can do that, too. We’ve just got to get past this.”