The picture shows a small room with extensive technical equipment. The room seems to be a repair room. In addition to computer, there are also wires, diverse tools and measuring instruments, all neatly stowed away on a small work surface. The photo gives an insight into the activities of the Copincha-Community in Cuba.

Hacker-Space a lo Cubano

Many resources in Cuba are scarce, so locals find creative ways of substituting them. At the Copincha Lab CCP alumnus Maurice Haedo Sanabria offers workshops and space to share technology, create new ideas and learn from each other – from open source to 3D printing.

"Let's pool money, buy a 3D printer and see what comes out of it." That was one of the first projects which Maurice Haedo Sanabria and his colleagues initiated in Havana. "Before that, people talked a lot about 3D printers, but it was more an abstract idea." In Cuba, buying a 3D printer in a shop or ordering one from an online retailer is impossible.

"So, we told a friend who had the opportunity to travel abroad: bring a 3D printer; we'll give you the money," Haedo tells us. The now 38-year-old industrial designer has spent years designing forklifts for state companies on the island, always focussing on repairs and how to make maximum use of the country's limited resources. That got him thinking about other possible spaces, he says.

When the 3D printer arrived, we held an event and started it up together. There was a lot of excitement.

Maurice Haedo Sanabria

And that's how Copincha Lab came into being in 2018. Haedo arranged his small apartment in Centro Habana as an open workshop and invited friends to share technology and learn from each other. "Pincha" is the Cuban slang word for work. Copincha therefore means co-working and stands for collaborative, collective work.

"When the 3D printer arrived, we held an event and started it up together. There was a lot of excitement," Haedo says with a laugh. Even though an electronics workshop had been held before, in some ways the 3D printer was the founding act of Copincha Lab. "People put money together, one person took the printer through customs and we assembled the individual parts." All this has made people feel part of a bigger picture, Haedo says.

Creating knowledge together

The photo shows a group of people looking at the laptop screen while one person in fron of the screen is explaining something. People are all standing in a room which seems to be a workshop room with technical equipment on the desk. The photo is part of the "Café Surprise" meetings which take place within Copincha Lab.
The "Café Surprise" - Discussion about 3D printing from the recycled bottles © Copincha

Over time, they systematised the open workshop. Now they hold regular meetings which they call "surprise coffees" (cafés sorpresas), where they exchange ideas on various topics. Usually, 10 to 20 people take part and just as many virtually. Among them are programmers, engineers, sociologists, doctors, carpenters and visual artists. "We invite different people to the chats to talk about a particular skill or project." This could be a shoemaker or someone who has a complex project at university. "We are interested in the technological experiences. Together we then decipher them in a socio-technical sense: what are the technological keys? What effect do they have in society?"

Haedo explains this using the example of the shoemaker who has developed certain skills or techniques over the years. He can present this technique or a problem in his work process. The community then looks for a solution to that problem, which may be a problem different shoemakers might face. Or the community says: the technique you have developed is a solution or an inspiring approach for other fields.

"Using the knowledge of the community or creating new knowledge" is what Haedo calls the principle. Copincha is, in this sense, a hacker space, a laboratory to improve experimental practices with technology aimed at social or community benefit, he says. What do you want to achieve? What avenues have already been explored? What tools are available for your endeavour? The Lab works with the open source principle: the open participation of people and the sharing of information so that people can use it. Technology not as a linear but as a rhizomatic process, says Haedo. "Our meetings create points of contact between different knowledge; these points of contact in turn create spaces to potentiate these connections. This creates projects which lead to concrete solutions or workshops to expand knowledge."

Making 3D jewellery

A Copincha group has formed around the 3D printer, for example. Using the model they bought together as a reference, they started to build their own 3D printers. Soon other projects were added, because 3D printers require filaments. Filaments are plastic threads that are melted down by the 3D printer and thus processed layer by layer into an object. The material usually has to be imported at a high cost. So how they could produce their own material for printing was one of the questions. "We have recently been building machines to recycle plastic (PET) from water bottles into plastic filament to feed 3D printers, " says Haedo.

Another problem: printing generates plastic waste. How can this waste be used to produce new printing material, i.e. to create a cycle? Haedo therefore started an initiative for recycling plastic, which he worked on with government support "for practically the whole of 2022". The project has allowed him to bring together a group of actors - governmental, formal, informal - who share knowledge and practices. That's another principle of Copincha Lab: an idea is hatched and developed in a designated space and then taken into a larger context.

The picture shows people sitting in a semicircle and paying attention to the notes on the blackboard. A man is standing in front of the blackboard, writing on it. In the small room there is a long table on which laptops and extension cords can be seen. The photo was taken from above and also captures the distinctive green and red pattern on the floor tiles.
Workshops organized on the initiative of members for the transfer of knowledge © Copincha

"3D a lo cubano"

Various projects have also been tackled with the 3D printer itself: one of the members is a jeweller who has used it to make jewellery. There are medical professionals who use it to make medical prototypes. Another Copincha-derived group, called "3D in Cuban" ("3D a lo cubano"), is primarily involved in building their own 3D printers and exploring the possibilities of different materials such as wood, plexiglass and metal.

Haedo's main work at the moment is to systematize the lab and develop a better infrastructure, he says. Currently, the information is stored on a contributor’s server in Amsterdam; it serves as a collaborative platform for the contributors. "Like Google Docs, but based on open source software," Haedo says. He adds that this makes it possible to work collaboratively on joint projects. "In addition, there are wikis, collaborative webs which allow us to put information online, and people can contribute from anywhere." Wikipedia works on the same principle. But the idea is to have a national server so people don't necessarily have to use the internet (and expensive mobile data) to access it, Haedo explains.

There are often low-tech solutions.

Maurice Haedo Sanabria

He sees Copincha primarily as a place for joint experimentation, to create and share collective knowledge and develop solutions, especially given the Cuban context, which is characterised by a scarcity of resources in many basic areas. "At the same time, it is a context in which you always have to look for solutions."

"Often there are very simple, low-tech solutions that can also help many others." Haedo cites as an example the Cuban car mechanics who keep finding creative solutions for the decades-old vintage US cars still on Cuba's roads.

The picture shows three men working together on the repair. They hold various wires in their hands and check them with measuring instruments. The repair takes place on a table, on which there is also a laptop, a pen and a ruler.
The "Café Reparación" meetings teach and promote creative repair methods. © Copincha

"Spaces like Copincha can translate these practices into other contexts," Haedo says. "For that, it's necessary to rethink the way we share and exchange information, how we design projects together, how we learn." You can watch instructional videos on Instagram or YouTube, he says, but it's about internalising practices through practice. "What I'm looking for is a future where people share ideas more and collaborate - that can give us a lot of answers to problem sets we have today, be they environmental or social."

Editors and Authors
 Portrait of Andreas Knobloch
Andreas Knobloch

Andreas Knobloch has been living and working in Havana for ten years. He writes as a freelance journalist for German newspapers and magazines on political and economic issues in Latin America.