Timelab – Experiments with New Organisational Models

When I visited Timelab in 2012, it was a organisation which was working with two distinct communities: international artists, and a mostly local community of ‘makers’.

Since then, the Timelab core crew has taken a bold step further by radically changing the way they operate. The new organisational logic has been inspired by holocracy, alternative business development models, agile software development methods and various other concepts. This change has allowed many barriers to disappear – the artists and makers form one community instead of two, and there is a great amount of transparency in all the activities.

This blog post offers some glimpses to the way Timelab operates, based in the discussions I had with Eva de Groote and Evi Swinnen.

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This is the Timelab manifesto (a rough translation):

Timelab gives examples of small and big changes. These inspire and trigger dialogue, and encourage development of new models. Timelab offers time and space for reflection on a complex society in transition.

In dialogue with the members of the community, Timelab chooses topics to work with, and initiates processes to tackle these topics. The chosen topics should be such that they are complex, they bring people together from different contexts and backgrounds, and that they offer a rich space for reflection and innovation.

The Clover

The Clover is a method developed in Timelab, which can be used to evaluate and formulate new proposals for projects as well as organisations. The four cycles which can be iterated several times are: Principles, Design, Values and Community.

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These are the values of Timelab itself:

1. Sharing knowledge
Share knowledge, machines and expertise
2. Short supply chain
Make everything locally reproducible and repairable
3. Adaptivity
Choose for modular, adaptable systems
4. Combine strengths
Look for complementary skills
5. Reciprocity
Provide equal and mutual input
6. Intrinsic motivation
Connect and strengthen through voluntary contributions
7. Trust
Find support from peers
8. Autonomy
Cherish different views
9. Serendipity
Find something other than what you were looking for

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Instead of the traditional work titles and tasks, each staff member of Timelab has a specific role with a more holistic approach to Timelab’s activities.

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All essential information about how Timelab operates is visible on the walls and available as individual information sheets:

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Here is a wonderful diagram which explain Timelab as an electric circuit:

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The project management has been inspired by the Kanban method, used in software development. In Timelab, physical boards are used to communicate the current status of the project. Progress is made on incremental steps – the focus is on the ‘next first step‘ (rather than on deadlines and budgets).

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As the images above make evident, the physical space of Timelab is extensively used to communicate information that enables everyone to be self-organised. This approach is also used with the available tools in the space. The tools are clearly organised, with manuals, and if something is broken then ‘fix me’ sign can be used.


One thing that I don’t have a proper photo are the shared gatherings around food. The space also has a community kitchen, and every day people get together to have lunch.

Here is one photo of Timelab in action on a Thursday afternoon:

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At the moment there is currently no instruction book available about the Timelab way of doing things and we’ll have to wait for that a bit I guess, since many of the methods described above are still under development. On the other hand, many projects are already moving ahead using these methods, and the staff seems content and enthusiastic about this new direction.

Many of the Timelab methods are a result of many years of research and experimentation, and the core crew offers assistance and consultation for other organisations (governmental agencies, NGOS, startup companies, etc) to use these tools.

To me all this seems very exciting and promising, so I do hope that we’ll get to read the Timelab manual someday ; )

What did I learn at Art of Hosting?

art-of-hosting-title-photoLast week I had a chance to participate in an Art of Hosting training in Otavan Opisto, Mikkeli.

The hosts did a fantastic job in making everyone feel welcome and establishing an open environment for learning. Actually, the first thing that the organisers made clear was that the participants would be the hosts, and we would be learning about hosting while doing it. The different tasks one could sign up for included Harvesting (documentation), Feng Shui (arranging & cleaning the space, organising food & coffee, etc), Check In & Check Out (tuning into learning sessions, and tuning out from them), creating the programme for the evening party and or course hosting the actual learning sessions.

I came to the event to learn some more facilitation methods (and to gain a better understanding of methods I’m already familiar with), but I actually learned something else – various frameworks for getting a better grip of the community learning process as a whole, and to understand the process of personal growth and how human-to-human communication works (or fails to work).


Self-organisation survey

Boxwars @ Pixelache 2008 (photo by Antti Ahonen)

In connection with Pixelache 2008 festival, we made a survey about organisational strategies of some prominent grassroot initiatives. We received replies from these people / organisations:

- Ben Fry & Casey Reas / Processing
- David Cuartielles / Arduino
- Douglas Repetto / Dorkbot
- Damien Deadly / Boxwars UK

The questions were:

* What are the aims of the project you are involved in?
* How is the project organised?
* How do you support the work financially and what impact does this have on your project?
* What do you feel you have achieved, and what are the problems you face?
* Are there any past projects/models which have inspired you?
* What are your hopes for the future?

Some excerpts from the survey:

* How do you support the work financially and what impact does this have on your project?

Casey Reas & Ben Fry / Processing: We’ve made a conscious effort to keep money out of the project. We don’t take donations, sell anything, or put ads on the site. We don’t make money directly for working on it and we hope that sets the example for others to contribute. We both have other jobs to pay for our food and rent. We were fortunate to receive a grant early in the project that was used to pay for a few developers to write key components of the software. Last year, Ben received a personal grant that provided some concentrated time to focus on the project. Our web hosting is thankfully donated.

* Are there any past projects/models which have inspired you?

David Cuartielles / Arduino: Before I was member of a design collective called Aeswad, based in Malmo, Sweden. There we had a pretty anarchic way of dealing with projects, deciding how to be paid, etc. The financial model we had was really thought through and helped me to understand that distributed organizations need of a completely different degree of freedom that corporations do. On the other hand I could learn how to make (a lot of) money making the things I like the most and letting the others do the same.

Distributed strategies for world-wide organizations can actually provide a way of living to their members. It is just that nobody will explain you how to make it happen. There is no business school focusing on that. Corporate is a cancer we gotta eliminate from society if we are about to make this new way of thinking/living/working possible.

* What are your hopes for the future?

Douglas Repetto / Dorkbot: I try to stay kind of neutral about the future of dorkbot. As organizations grow they often develop self-protection mechanisms, and sometimes maintaining the organization becomes more important than the actual activities of the organization. If dorkbot is no longer useful or interesting in a particular city, then we just let it die. Sometimes it comes back in another form, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t try to revive meetings or put any pressure on people to continue meeting. I will keep doing dorkbot in New York as long as it’s interesting and people keep volunteering to give presentations. But there are lots of other organizations doing similar things to dorkbot, so I’m sure that if we go away other things that are just as useful/interesting will take its place.

I’m constantly working to understand how something can seem to be both the most important thing in the world and also completely inconsequential. That’s my primary organizational strategy!

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The self-organisation survey can be found here: