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Lasting Change Seeded in Temporary Space

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 20, 2013

Freespace, inspired by Burning Man and experimental civic hacking, is a grass roots effort designed to use empty commercial spaces temporarily for the purpose of creating lasting community change. Freespace co-founder Mike Zuckerman, the director of sustainability for the Zen Compound, which bills itself as the world’s greenest nightclub, got a $1 lease on a 14,000 square foot warehouse in San Francisco for the month of June.


With help from a local real estate firm and the Mayor’s Office for Economic and Workforce Development, Zuckerman, fellow Freespace organizers and several hundred volunteers turned their imagination and energies loose. A FastCoExist story by Ariel Schwartz explains everything at the warehouse property now-desks, couches, paint, art supplies, gardening tools, sound systems, refrigerator and food-has been donated or foraged.

So far, murals-some by well-known artists including Zio Ziegler and Ian Ross-have beautified internal and external walls, plants from a former agricultural education program have been transplanted into a community garden behind the warehouse and people have repaired bicycles and started a bicycle library where bikes can be signed out for as long as two days. Participants have also started a book club and yoga classes and created space where people gather for lectures, speeches, panel discussions, open mike sessions, and concerts. And they have conducted neighborhood tours and a clothing drive.

"We put a weekend hackathon into a 30 day window,” Zuckerman told FastCoExist. "It’s up to people inside to decide what happens.”

Many of the Freespace organizers are veterans of Burning Man, an annual gathering in Nevada where people experiment with shared innovations then honor the environment by leaving no trace. Many also took part in the National Day of Civic Hacking, held the weekend of June 1-2, in which 11,000 participants in 83 cities organized to help governments, computing enthusiasts and ordinary citizens collaborate in using technology to connect people and address local problems. While hacking has conventionally had negative associations, the hackforchange blog explains, "We like to think of a hacker as someone who uses what’s available to improve or enhance our homes, workplaces and lives.”

Schwartz writes that Fortune 500 companies, including Deloitte’s Center for the Edge and Orange Telecom labs in San Francisco, are looking at Freespace with an eye to bringing more creativity and innovation into their own businesses and work spaces.

Zuckerman thinks the experimental nature of Freespace appeals to business. He says it’s interesting to corporate America because it’s emergent and free and has "massively distributed creativity only because there is a container and a context,” A design firm executive tells her corporate clients about Freespace to "get them excited about the idea of experiencing design in a space as a social experiment.”

While Freespacers recognize their experiment is temporary, they are trying to extend it another month with an Indiegogo campaign to raise $25,000 to pay July’s rent. Gentrification in San Francisco and elsewhere often means high paid tech workers displace other residents, and many fear that’s a loss for the community. Freespacers hope many of the new projects will continue to improve neighborhoods and bolster the city’s arts and creative spirit. They also hope Freespace will be replicated in other cities.

image: San Francisco warehouse, before and after, from the Freespace Indiegogo campaign

Tags:  buscell  community  complexity matters  design  emergence  engagement 

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