Why Belfast Needs a Hackerspace

Andrew Bolster

Researcher at the University of Liverpool, Founder/Director at Farset Labs

I was sitting in Sinnamon on the Stranmillis Road, enjoying a coffee, a sausage roll, and my Kindle, reading the latest 2600. One article immediatly stood out to me, ‘A World Spinning’. The main focus of the article was the world-changing domino effect, toppling regimes across the middle east, all caused by one, little textfile. The textfile in question was a US Embassy cable highlighting the indemic corruption in the (ex) Tunisian Government. As most know, this leak was from WikiLeaks; a rag-tag loosely knit chaotic alliance of hackers across the globe, all with the the same general aim to allow open and plain discourse and stopping governments across the globe from hiding secrets from their citizenry; big secrets and small… Of course, as with most things to do with hackers, the aim isn’t that simple; having spoken to some of those involved, it was abundantly clear that some elements within Wikileaks purely want to screw with governments that (they feel have) wronged them, but others are simply motivated by the cat-and-mouse challenge of acquiring, validating, securing and releasing information in a hostile environment.

Its this kind of spectrum that makes me wish that I could just fastforward a year or so (or much longer), to a point where Belfast Hackerspace is established, stable, self-funding, and growing. Innovation only comes from discourse, and the best innovations (in my opinion) come from differences.

Northern Ireland has been so bogged down in its historical arguments, as well as social segregation and stratification, that quite often, the normal social and technical groups are fairly homogenous; QUB guys have an idea working on a shared module, turn it into a product, get QUBIS funding, and make a tidy sum from licencing and patents; UU guys develop a revolutionary web-app in the York St campus cafe, release it, get InvestNI funding for growth, and move out to ‘The Valley’, but get stuck on the usual web-app-fad lifecycle and, while being comfortable, make a continued living consulting.

What about if I said that the (hypothetical) QUB group built a cheap, light, reliable, and secure contactless inventory system, and the (hypothetical) UU guys made a inventory management app? Due to their development paths, these two complimentary products never met, never cross pollinated/merged, and never took over the world with a multi-million dollar NYSE IPO.

These silos of development that have been established in Northern Ireland; where innovation is caged and occasionally trumped out to some government to show “Ohh, look how entrepreneurial we are!” is, frankly, fine.

Yes. Its fine.

No, thats not good enough.

At TEDxBelfast a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Sinclair Stockman wax lyrical on the possibilities of Belfast, and Northern Ireland in general, becoming a new media and new technology hub in Europe. Recent financial events that have slaughtered the Celtic Tiger seem to indicate that there’s going to be alot of industries that will need a new Western-Europe base of operations some time soon, and with rediculous connectivity and transport, Northern Ireland is perfect.

But for this to work, home grown innovation is needed. To do that, we need to mix; we need to argue; we need to meet. There needs to be a melting pot like the Hackerspace for ideas to be made, prototyped, and fail QUICKLY. We need to be comfortable with failing fast, and bouncing back, and this is very hard to maintain when working alone.

TLDR;/In closing

Northern Ireland needs a Hackerspace to act as an early stage-incubator for innovation, as well as to provide bleeding-edge technology training and consultancy, and finally, to let geeks be proud to be geeks.

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