In hacker communities, tech-savvy pioneers collect and share information on nascent technologies. The pool of information shared among users reduces uncertainty about digital technology, but, first and foremost, it reveals entrepreneurial opportunities to users in the community, which is a central tenet of innovation commons theory. In this paper, we are first to explore the role of local hackerspaces for digital entrepreneurship in German counties using cross-sectional time series data. We find that longer-lasting hackerspaces are strongly correlated with the level of digital entrepreneurship in regions, particularly in agglomerations and urban contexts.
Hackerspaces are “community-operated physical places, where people share their interest in tinkering with technology, meet and work on their projects, and learn from each other” (Hackerspace.org, 2021). This definition encompasses a variety of third places of similar nature in terms of their characteristics and external features (van Holm, 2014), such as hacklabs (Maxigas, 2012), makerspaces (Smith et al., 2013, Hatch, 2014, van Holm, 2017), and fablabs (Gershenfeld, 2005, Walter-Herrmann and Büching, 2013). Hackerspaces bring together communities of tech-savvy users around the use of nascent technologies, “engaging them in collective action and developing rules to generate, share and govern innovation resources” (Cohendet et al., 2021 p. 2). A growing number of hackerspaces have been founded worldwide (Guimarães Pereira et al., 2017) and there is an ongoing debate about their economic significance (Anderson, 2012, Williams and Hall, 2015, van Holm, 2017, Svensson and Hartmann, 2018, Boutillier et al., 2020), in particular with regard to their impact on entrepreneurship (Mortara and Parisot, 2016). The relevance of hackerspaces for innovation and regional development is supported by anecdotes from Silicon Valley, where many successful entrepreneurs were born out of hackerspace environments.2
In this paper, we are first to explore and provide quantitative evidence for a weak positive correlation between hackerspaces and digital entrepreneurship in regions. In a series of fixed-effect Poisson panel models, we find that the existence of a hackerspace can help explain some of the variation in start-up rates observed between 2001 and 2014. The longer a local hackerspace exists, the higher is the digital start-up rate as measured by the annual number of newly founded firms per civilian worker. Results continue to hold once we correct for some of the plausible treatment selection and omitted variable bias in our data using propensity score matching methods, as hackerspaces are not randomly assigned to regions but are more likely to emerge from larger population of tech-savvy users and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Still, tentative findings point to the great importance of hackerspaces as a prime example of innovation commons structures and, potentially, a novel explanation for new firm formation in regions. Hackerspaces as supporting facilities help generate and reveal valuable, complementary information on nascent technology and entrepreneurial opportunities that is otherwise dispersed and privately held by users. With more empirical research on the horizon, a new generation of regional and entrepreneurial policies might also want to consider the support of hackerspaces. This could potentially bring in an alternative set of innovation agents in the ‘middleground’, previously not accounted for by most policies. The findings of this paper suggest that hackerspaces, at least in urban contexts, have been instrumental in fostering digital entrepreneurship in Germany and expanding the range of commercial opportunities.