Otelo – Open Technology Labs in Austria
By Hannelore Hollinetz and Martin Hollinetz
The development of the Otelos – the international network of open technology labs – is the story of a group bringing together creative people in rural areas and forging a new culture of innovation with them. The idea for Otelos began in 2009 as Martin Hollinetz, then Director of Regional Management in the Upper Austrian districts of Vöcklabruck and Gmunden, contemplated with dismay the regional development strategies of the EU, the Austrian federal government, and the Austrian states.
He saw the existing strategies as rigidly centralized processes dominated by establishment “experts” and hostile to the idea of public participation. There were neither infrastructures nor organizational models to support a culture of creativity and innovation. Martin wanted to develop a culture in which openness, sharing and cooperation could drive new forms of participatory regional development.
When the two of us set out to find solutions to this challenge, we found answers in the community workshops, Fab Labs and hackerspaces in urban areas. These are the spaces where tech-savvy people, hackers, and people interested in science or digital art come together to exchange ideas and produce new things. Unfortunately, these spaces seemed entirely unsuited to rural areas because they are usually tailored to very narrow groups of specialists. Also, a feasibility study for introducing such spaces in rural regions stressed the importance of collaborating with people from various business, education, media, and political communities. We also realized that is would be crucial to create a structure that would allow any projects to be financially independent.
We imagined Otelos as places where ordinary people could find pleasure in sharing knowledge and building things together. The projects could be about constructing autonomous spider robots or building raised beds for gardening. They could be about making soap and crafting jewelry from recycled materials. The people who might wish to participate in the Otelos could be children, people interested in agriculture, cultural networkers, “mechatronics” technicians, do-it-yourselfers, game developers, and many others.
The first Otelos began in 2010 in cooperation with the municipalities of Vöcklabruck and Gmunden. The municipal councils decided that the municipalities would provide the physical spaces and budgets for the Otelos for at least three years (a commitment that many municipalities have since extended to an unlimited period of time).
Those municipal council decisions fulfilled an initial requirement for the independence we desired. In each community, we tried to identify people who were interested in forming a group that would organize and design the individual Otelo venues. In each place, at least five members came together who enjoyed hosting and networking with other people – a model of volunteer organizing that has proved quite successful. This group keeps an eye on new trends and initiates experimental projects of the sort mentioned above.
Soon, the first Otelo jam sessions and “DenkBars” were held – DenkBar being a play on words: “denkbar” means “imaginable” in German, so a Denk-Bar would be a bar or pub for open meetings not dominated by experts imparting knowledge, but by interested amateurs who share a passion for a topic of common interest. We also developed what we call the “node model,” which enables groups to use space in the Otelos long-term, free of charge, and without any pressure to achieve results. The only requirement is that the groups share their knowledge and experiences and provide opportunities for others to participate. The nodes let a creative economy project evolve and do in-depth experiments with public funding support.
The resulting projects have been quite diverse. There are electronics do-it-yourselfers who build Tesla coils for making music, light painters and people developing municipal energy-saving projects. There are people exchanging ideas about innovative educational models and others organizing new forms of consumer-producer partnerships for sourcing food. An important aspect of all of the nodes is that participants come from very different contexts. Most of them would never meet each other in “normal” life.
What began as an experiment in 2010 became the first major challenge for the Otelo Association in 2012 when two new venues were opened. How should they be managed and relate to each other? It quickly became clear that decentralization would be necessary in order to maintain Otelo’s vitality as well as our ability to make decisions.
It was decided to invite individual local projects to start local Otelo associations if they wished. Today, these associations are the governing bodies for local Otelos – with the Otelo Charter serving as a networking element. The Charter outlines our cultural ethic of innovation and formulates the fundamental perspective of all Otelo venues. Today, the associations meet twice a year as a network and participate in activities involving various Otelo venues, such as festivals.
By the end of 2014, there were twenty-six Otelo nodes in eleven locations in Austria and Germany. Otelos are places where people can delve into all sorts of arts and crafts, electronics, 3D printing projects and alternative educational approaches. They are places where people play and dance together, produce free media, design new forms of work, and pursue countless other passions. All of the ideas and projects developed in the Otelos are made available under a Creative Commons license or through workshops or various forms of documentation. This is in keeping with the motto, Knowledge is a commons!
In a few years, the term “Otelo” could be defined like this in the dictionary:
ōtelō, adjective: Welcoming; being part of a diverse, open community; invited to join in actively; keen to experiment; free, touched, inspired and alive; having found one’s place.
Martin Hollinetz (Germany) is a social pedagogue, vocational educator and regional developer. An Ashoka Fellow since 2013, he is a lecturer at the University of Art and Design Linz and was elected Austrian of the Year in the field of creative industries in 2013.
Hannelore Hollinetz (Germany) is a musician and educator. She works as an actress, project developer and facilitator for projects for children and youths, and is a cofounder, with Martin Hollinetz, of the Otelo network and Otelo eGen.