A Space for Research That Encourages Curiosity and Creativity by Abandoning Traditional Rules

After ten years in a research lab, Luc Henry started questioning the very structure he was working in. “I realized there were a lot of unspoken rules about how science should be done,” he says. Henry, a trained chemist from Switzerland set about creating a new place for research that could encourage curiosity and creativity by abandoning those traditional rules – a “DIYbio initiative”. Today, that place is known as Hackuarium.

Organizing a Community without Rules

Henry, who now works as a science research policy advisor, and his co-founder, Yann Heurtaux, opened Hackuarium near Lausanne in 2014. It remains a community and environment without competition, which is what Henry says “kills curiosity the most.” 

“I think Hackuarium is about asking what happens when you try to remove the constraints of the traditional science environment. Competition was the first one we wanted to get rid of.”

Hackuarium’s nearly 50 members come to the space in their free time, whether they have a background in science, art, engineering or none of the above. “The goal is not to perform. It’s a hobby for everybody,” Henry says. Anyone can apply to join the free association, attend events and discussions and have 24/7 access to the lab filled with equipment donated by the region’s many tech companies. 

“The only thing we ask,” he says, “is that people fit with the philosophy of being curious and open-minded. We offer a community, and we want people to contribute to this community.”

 Person touching moss   Person touching moss

Organically Growing a Curious Community

He explains that he believes there is sometimes a distinction between curiosity and creativity in professional research, but that Hackuarium offers people a chance to maximize both freely. 

“I think being creative is being able to recognize value where it emerges,” he says. “As a scientist you often get something unexpected; using that result and turning it into something is creativity, it doesn’t necessarily require curiosity. You need to be mentally agile to see what it means. Being curious is having the luxury to dig deeper into different things.”

Being curious is having the luxury to dig deeper into different things.

Luc Henry

Lift Conference

Hackuarium offers that luxury to its members. “People who come have regularly said, ‘Wow, I have never been so stimulated before.’ Individuals who work at the research institutions next door come to us to do projects in an environment where everyone is more open-minded,” Henry adds. 

However, just like the research happening in the Hackuarium space, the community itself is evolving and changing. “Every day, I’m thinking, how should we do this, how should we do that, should we change the way we do that,” he says. 

“The idea is to let the community grow organically, but the environment evolves as well,” he explains. This is true all the way down to the physical space and what equipment enters it. 

“When somebody arrives and says they want to do something, we show them an empty space and say, 'Do it'.” However, the association “can help them set up the space and adapt it to their needs and help them get everything required to get their project off the ground,” he says. 

The projects at Hackuarium have ranged from topics like “Beer DeCoded,” which seeks to digitize the molecular composition of beers to help predict what brewers and drinkers might prefer, to “Living Instruments,” which was a collaboration with a London-based musician that put on a musical performance using instruments that generate sound with bacteria, yeast and other living organisms. 

“This whole thing is an experiment,” as he puts it. “I’m still a researcher in that sense. I want to understand the limits of what’s possible when you remove the institutional top-down approach to science.”

You can learn more about Hackuarium at www.hackuarium.ch

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