Walk into the mural-covered 14,000-square-foot space in San Francisco’s Central Market district and you’ll see a flurry of seemingly organized activity: people manning desks in the front, a day-by-day schedule scribbled in chalk on the wall, someone sweeping the floor, a family examining the makings of a slide (soon to be set up, but no one yet knows where) a cake being cut in the kitchen, and people tending to the large garden out back. This isn’t some quirky new startup: it’s Freespace, a monthlong experiment in civic hacking.
Mike Zuckerman, the director of sustainability for the Zen Compound, secured a $1 monthlong lease for June in the warehouse-like space, with a little help from ReAllocate and the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. He didn’t have a specific agenda for the space, which was inspired by the National Day of Civic Hacking (June 1 and 2)—an event that asks participants to use technology to solve pressing civic issues.
"We put a weekend hackathon into a 30-day window," he says. "It’s up to people going inside to decide what happens." Instead, Zuckerman let news of Freespace spread by word of mouth, giving participants the opportunity to figure out what exactly it would look like. The first night it was open, hundreds of people came through.
Everything in the space is donated or foraged: the couches, the desks, the refrigerator, everything inside the refrigerator (much of that has been donated by the Facebook Causes office), the aforementioned slide, the art, the gardening supplies, and even the giant 12th-century Buddha sitting on the second floor, donated by Christian Armstrong, the founder of the Buddha Preservation Foundation.
The experiment has piqued the interest of people in the business world, including members of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge and Orange Telecom’s labs in San Francisco. It’s a way, Zuckerman says, to explain the Burning Man spirit of innovation to people who have never experienced it in person. And in fact, many of the main Freespace organizers come from the Burning Man community.
"[The business world] sees grassroots innovation and what it can look like. It’s much easier to have a conversation with them about emerging trends in society and technology if it’s an experiential thing," says Zuckerman. "This type of thing that is emergent and free and has massively distributed creativity only because there’s a container and a context is such an interesting message for corporate America."
Leah Hunter, the AVP of Insights and Innovation at innovation and design firm Idea Couture, adds that she’s been pointing Freespace out to her Fortune 500 clients "to get them excited about the idea of experience design in a space as a social experiment."
I can’t tell you what you’d find in Freespace today; it changes every day. But here are some of the things (and people) I saw when I visited on June 11th:
- Incredible murals painted on the side of the building and in a big lot space in the back of the property. Some of the most awe-inspiring pieces were created by big names in the art world, including Zio Ziegler and Ian Ross. The murals are part of Artspace, a Freespace-supported project aiming to get more art into the city by connecting artists with landowners.
- A "park-cycle" sitting near the garden space. The pedal-powered vehicle was left-over from a Parking Day project years ago, and was set to be trashed before the Freespace crew rescued it.
- A makeshift bikeshare initiative spawned from the Yellow Bike Project, which turns old bike parts into fully functional bicycles. The Yellow Bike Library bike-sharing program had lent out over 10 bikes by the time I visited.
- A sprawling community garden filled with plants from the former Hayes Valley Farm—a temporary farm that closed down after over three years in the community. "We were originally just going to do a parklet," says Zuckerman.
- Marc Roth, a formerly homeless Tech Shop instructor who was visiting the space with his family. Even before Freespace emerged, Roth had planned to create something called The Learning Shelter—a combination Tech Shop-like space and shelter centered in a 40-foot shipping container, built for the city’s homeless population—in the Freespace parking lot. Roth doesn’t think he’ll be able to get the Learning Shelter up and running in June, but he’s grabbing onto the Freespace momentum. "This might not be the timeframe in which I can accomplish this, but it’s the time that Freespace is open," he says.
- A Hindu fire ceremony, intended to cleanse the space for its new, temporary inhabitants.
And then there were the many activities happening every day that I didn’t get a chance to witness, including an infographic hackathon, yoga classes, a book club meeting, a book-making party, concerts, and a flower giveaway for the surrounding neighborhood.
All of the things happening in Freespace are temporary, but the ultimate goal is for them to continue even when the 14,000-square-foot incubation space is gone. "It’s a temporary space that creates lasting change for the community," says Hunter.
While the Freespacers realize and mostly seem to accept the ephemeral nature of their experiment, they’re still trying to keep it going with an Indiegogo campaign attempting to raise the $25,000 monthly rent required to extend Freespace into July. As Zuckerman explains, half of June was spent just getting the space set up, so an extra month could do wonders for the projects that are being incubated.
The collective conversation in San Francisco these days tends to focus on the city’s rapid gentrification—how high-paid tech workers are pricing everybody else out of the city, and how the city’s creative spirit will get lost in the process. It’s one version of a problem faced by gentrifying cities around the world. But that creative spirit isn’t lost, at least as long as initiatives like Freespace continue to pop up. And they will. Freespace organizers are already in talks with other cities.