Access Space, A New Model for Individual and Community Development

Based in the heart of Sheffield, Access Space is the UK’s longest-running free internet learning centre, with thousands of participants making use of it every year – and it has achieved this without spending a penny on computers or software. Its model has inspired centres across Europe, while MetaReciclagem – a Brazilian initiative directly informed by Access Space – has now grown to a network of almost a hundred centres.

I founded Access Space in 2000 - but I had the idea in 1996 - when I started an arts project called “Redundant Technology Initiative”. I’m an artist, and I wanted to use my art practice to show the true situation in Sheffield, the city where I live. Sheffield has suffered structural problems from massive industrial change - the city used to be based on Coal mining and the Steel industry. Now the coal mines are closed, and the Steel mills are manned by robots. There is a very high level of unemployment in the city, and much of the employment that there is is in the public sector - most adults work for the government!

Working as an artist, I saw that the city was failing to adapt to the emerging information economy - South Yorkshire had the lowest uptake of information technology in the UK. Meanwhile, I was making art from trash that I found in skips. Not only was the trash free (yes!) it seemed to me to be the most suitable material with which to make art about urban decline.

Then I started to find computers in the trash. I collected them, with the idea that I would make robot sculptures and other crazy artworks. I was amazed to discover, after some experimentation, that most of the PCs I recovered actually worked! I started to think about why people were throwing these machines away - when the city had a low level of engagement with information technology.

So I started an arts group, “Redundant Technology Initiative” with one rule - we would be the people who would be creative with trash computers. But ONLY trash computers! We would refuse to pay for any technology, and only use what we could get for free. (This was lucky, because me and my friends were unemployed or unpaid artists, and thus completely skint.) We had a few exhibitions, and each time we exhibited, people brought us more computers. Being artists, we made them into “an art installation”. (Other people might think, with some justification, that what we had made was was just “a huge pile”.)

By 1998 we had rented a warehouse which was scheduled for demolition. One good feature of industrial decline is that space is cheap. We had more than 1000 computers (!!!) some of which worked, some of which could work, and some of which were broken. We made a HUGE installation for a digital arts festival… and then more and more people gave us computers. After a few weeks we had more than 2000 machines.

We started to realise two things:

(1) We didn’t have any shortage of computers.

(2) We did have a shortage of skill, expertise and creativity.

We learned how to rebuild and reprogram computers really fast, and we found students who also wanted to help. A local college sent us their trainees on “work placement” - and they learned as they helped us to repair the massive numbers of machines. But we then had a very embarrassing problem for an art group. We just weren’t creative enough. We couldn’t think of cool things to do with more than about 100 computers - we needed to think of cool things to do with 100 computers PER MONTH.

So we designed “Access Space” - a digital lab where people can walk in and show us how they could be creative and productive with trash technology. It took 2 years to raise enugh money to start, and after we started, we managed to get ERDF funding to match our initial funds. (NOTE that there was no way we could have accessed ERDF funding with our levels of experience. We came in as a minor delivery partner, insulated from the frightening bureaucracy of the project by more experienced lead partners. This was very lucky for us - and could start a whole new conversation.)

So, in 2000 Access Space opened. We believed it would be a good model to help people get engaged with technology. We invite every visitor to define their OWN objectives with trash technology - it could be making images, sounds, music, robots, websites, designs, photo galleries… It could be building a business, making new networks, rebuilding computers, or whatever. Our key test is that people THEMSELVES set their agenda. We don’t work with a curriculum. And we don’t have teachers. Instead, we ask participants to help each other - and because they’re all working on “cool stuff” not “boring stuff” then people are usually happy to help - and maybe gain ideas, skills and expertise from the experience.

We provide a free, open access digital lab, doing all sorts of things, from computer analysis, repair and recycling to art exhibitions, workshops, peer-learning activities, enterprise incubation, social support and more. We set up this lab as a response to unemployment, urban decline and the transformation of the job market. What we’ve established is an innovative methodology to invest time, not money, in ICTs. This has huge potential to address worklessness and lack of opportunities. It’s worth reflecting that many of our participants in Access Space experience the kind of precarity which you are investigating with Edgeryders.

Access Space has a very wide range of participation.

  • If you split them into three groups, <25years, 25-50years, >50 years, then those groups are roughly similar in size.

  • Roughly 1/3 of our participants are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

  • Around 1/3 of our participants have a university education.

  • Almost 2/3 of our participants are unemployed, or under-employed.

  • Around 1/5 of our participants have some form of disability or long-term illness - particularly learning difficulties, like Asperger’s Syndrome (associated with high intelligence) and mental health difficulties, such as depression.

  • 1/10 of our participants have a serious problem with housing. Either they’re homeless, or they are living in insecure, or temporary accommodation.

We had more than 2000 people use the space in 2011, which added up to more than 12000 hours of usage. Helping and facilitating this number of people, particularly when some of them have difficulties, is a huge job.

When it comes to funding, the significance of Access Space’s budget is how small it is for the outcomes it delivers. Access Space principally sustains itself by saving money. A typical annual budget is only around £100K. We have survived by raising funds, and by saving money. We save around £30000 each year by only using recycled computers and free, open source software. We have a very small core team (now usually 6, now 7 people, mostly part-time) who are on short-term contracts.

Our special power with funding is the huge range of benefits that Access Space brings. We help people:

  • Make creative progress - by engaging with digital creativity.

  • Make technical progress - learning new high-tech skills.

  • Make social progress - by helping each other, and by working together, people learn crucial soft skills, and develop more useful networks.

  • Make progress with employability and enterprise. (These we see as the ultimate extension of all the types of progress people make.)

This means that we have a wide range of stakeholders. We have been funded to:

  • Increase high-tech skills for local enterprises.

  • Get people involved with the digital arts.

  • Help people become “digitally included”.

  • Research and test new models for peer learning.

  • Develop and incubate micro-enterprises.

  • Develop high-tech skills with innovation potential.

  • Help people to become included in mainstream society, and become more employable.

What do we want? Funding, of course! However, we are aware that models based on funding are becoming increasingly under pressure. So we have started a “Friends” scheme, to ask our participants, and anyone else who thinks that the free opportunities we deliver are a good thing, to contribute.

But we also need more participation by people who understand the challenge, and want to help. We want people who are interested to help us facilitate the community, build functioning social and economic networks, and experiment with how we can mobilise the talents and skills of the larger and larger number of unemployed people we encounter.

We realise now that the most valuable technology that is being discarded by our society is PEOPLE. We are seeing talented, skilled people unmobilised, and we think that this is a criminal waste. We also see deeply uninspiring, value-free jobs (like working in call centres) as the only structural answer put forward by mainstream business and industry, and we want people to work with us to develop more inspiring, creative, engaging, and socially valuable jobs as an alternative.

We need:

  • More volunteers who are interested to work with a wide range of people, and are interested to challenge social exclusion and division.

  • Enterprising people who are interested in starting their own business and can see the potential to work in a social, creative and technical context.

  • Open source software enthusiasts who want to help us spread the word. We have a number of specific software and hardware challenges which we could use help with.

  • Other spaces across Europe who would like to collaborate with us to develop a network of social, technical and creative spaces. We have contacts already, but many spaces are just “technical and social” or “creative and technical” or “social and creative”. We are looking for groups that want to be “technical, social, AND creative”.

This would be the gist of what we’re doing with this project. If you are passionate about techs and open source software, let me know and maybe we can collaborate. Also, if your’re around Sheffield and would like to visit our establishment, also drop a line; We’re currently working with x volunteers, but would be happy to take you in if you’re up for this!

Find us at:

Finally, to see our work in action, I leave you in the company of this video of the Recycle Mid-Weekend we organized in March last year:

Now with added pizza! - Timelapse Video of Access Space Mega Recycle Mid-Weekend, March 2011 - V2 from Richard Bolam on Vimeo.

1 Like

Amazing stuff

Hello James, I am Alberto and I actually used to run a nationwide community of 3.000 creatives working on 400+ projects  - while working for the government in my country, Italy. All I can think of is how cool would have been to have you in there!

This is great, really. And replicable! And the attitude makes so much sense:

Working as an artist, I saw that the city was failing to adapt to the emerging information economy
I suppose most people would go "Say what?" when they read this line. :-)

As an economist, let me go through what I love about this:

  • (social, in your case) innovation is in seeing the world with new eyes as opposed to making a gizmo. You noticed an abundance of old computers in the midst of a failure to ramp up with the digital economy in Sheffield; the whole things grows out of an art project, then of a training program, so you think way out of the box with respect to how, say an innovation economist would.
  • cheap space enables trying out stuff. There is a clear conflict between the interest of innovators and those of real estate owners. This is surfacing in other mission reports on Egderyders as well.
  • skill, expertise and creativity are the scarce resources of development.
  • fundraising is painfully slow.
  • European grants actually helped (WOW!) but only because someone sheltered you from a "frightening" level of bureaucracy (BOO). 
  • peer-to-peer help beats the living daylight out of top down teaching.
  • communities with a purpose are very diverse.
  • the video is great :-)
I am very unimportant, but I will help you if I can. Meanwhile, let me ask you this: how much did you have to raise to get the warehouse going in 1998? Who did it, and how? And the same again for the next step of opening Access Space in 2000: how much, who did it and how?

join us!

Hi James! This project is great! And I’m happy to read it and find you now because on Edgeryders we want open a space to discuss about how we can translate the intangible social, cultural, creative value to a tangible market one?

look at this link to read more about the proposal

There a lot of Edegryders who have similar experiences with collaborative processes, free and open culture, research of financial aid for creative and social projects often defined “cool, but too innovative”, with a poor market value also if the cultural, social, creative value is very high.

Are you interested? I hope so! :slight_smile:

Ahead of its time

This is what I like about the art that takes the shape of “pile of stuff” etc.: it makes people think, provokes them, calls them to action, like to add another computer as they did. And finally something very useful can emerge from all this that is ahead if its time: hackerspaces and fab labs weren’t much around in 2000 when you founded Access Space, were they. The arts people found a way to start such a project even when the idea wasn’t ripe for “regular”, business and technical type innovation. Thanks, folks! :slight_smile: