Science hacking, community, and the Knowledge Society

I was lucky enough to be invited to a round table with the German Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, Andrea Nahles, at FabLab Berlin on Friday. The meeting was organised by Pankower Bundestagsabgeordnete Klaus Mindrup together with FabLab’s Daniel Heltzel and included several other FabLabbers, not least CEO Wolf Jeschonnek, and FabLab-based/associated people, including Julian Vogels, CTO and co-founder of music tech startup Soundbrenner, Nakeema Stefflbauer, founder of Frauenloop (a community for refugee- and local women to learn to code), and Michael Hasenpusch, CEO of R&D at prosthetics and orthotics company Ottobock.

Arbeit 4.0

The topic for the day was #Arbeitenviernull (Work 4.0). I have to be honest, I had to google this… It is a rather German-specific concept, but ultimately it’s a collection of various changes starting to impact the labour market around the world — digitisation, erosion of protections for workers, impacts of automation on the workforce, globalisation, modern styles of innovation, the global knowledge society, work/life balance, freelance economy, and the end of a ‘job for life’ and even a standard employment relationship … The German Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs started a dialog on the topic back in 2015 which will conclude at the end of this year and produced this green paper (below) which outlines the “main trends, changes in values and important areas for action for the working society of the future.”

I took a little time to figure out what the role of the work we’re doing with Science Hack Day Berlin and our Berlin science hacking community could be in this context. It comes down to Germany’s (unfortunately rather awkward) transition to a knowledge society. This is a society where knowledge, rather than just information, is the most valuable asset, informing and enhancing economic and social and cultural development. It emphasises the development of human beings — their personal growth and their individual creativity, experience and participation in the generation of knowledge —rather than just the production of information and technological innovation. Basically I think you just have to imagine something like Star Trek, but in real.

Much the same as FabLab, we offer a platform for people from different backgrounds — in our case scientists, designers, developers, engineers, artists …—, with different complementary expertise to connect with each other and get their first taste of extreme interdisciplinary ideation and collaboration. It’s really a missing link in the current knowledge transfer system. There is plenty of support for new scientific startups, some support for societal and cultural projects (well… that’s a topic for another blog post), but really no good provision for the groundwork needed to build cross-disciplinary relationships and generate the ideas that will later grow into these initiatives.

And just like FabLab, which provides much the same service together with training for professional development and providing the infrastructure around which it can all take place, we have to agree that this kind of interdisciplinary exposure and community building doesn’t happen by itself. It takes a lot of work, and usually relies heavily on volunteers (the SHDB project is entirely volunteer-organised).

{Science Hack Day Berlin 2015 / CC BY-SA 2.0 Hannah Rumstedt

So after I’d managed to explain what ‘science hacking’ was, Frau Nahles asked me why we do what we do. As I explained, our primary motivation for dedicating so much time to build this community is very idealistic. It’s about open science, based on the idea that access to knowledge — in our case primarily scientific knowledge and the scientific process — is a human right.

“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”
- Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We also think that the only way to successfully tackle global goals will be to utilise the best resources available to us, including science, in an integrated and effective way.

Now. It might be a little grandiose to say this immediately after quoting the universal declaration of human rights… (the juxtaposition is accidental — I put it down to me being a blogging newbie) but idealistic goals do not justify the exploitation, or even self-exploitation, of volunteers. As a society we have a responsibility to make sure that this can be done sustainably. If the benefits to society of access to knowledge are potentially so great, the value of the work required to achieve that should be respected and supported.

I think we managed to say as much. We hope she got the message!