This is the eighth post of a series of profiles on GOSH community members who were featured in the GOSH Community Events Framework. You can access the framework, along with this profile in its original format, on the GOSH website at https://openhardware.science/gosh-community-events-framework/.
By Marcela Basch, independent journalist, Argentina. Twitter: @marbasch
Profile on Ji Li, a biologist with a background in animal genetics, focused on the intersection between open science and sustainable development goals (SDG) by training.
Since 2015 he is the lab manager and engineer of Open FIESTA (Open Faculty for Innovation, Education, Science, Technology and Art), the innovation lab of Tsinghua University in Shenzhen. He was also part of the team that designed and built Open FIESTA’s interdisciplinary labs. There he hosted several international events, including the third GOSH meeting, in 2018.
“It was a privilege to meet all kinds of different people being host and organiser for the last GOSH gathering. I’m always quite interested in interdisciplinary things, and find that open science and open source movement are fascinating, especially the culture of openness. I always believe that open source is the future. In China we don’t have that culture yet, so it was quite interesting to host the GOSH event here”, he says. “François Grey introduced Open FIESTA to GOSH, because we had common interests. Open Fiesta was a new education programme where we were trying to do something different, including taking students from different backgrounds and emphasising openness. We had done some workshops on open science hardware and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). GOSH organisers were looking for a venue and they found Open FIESTA perfect. Shenzhen is a key city for hardware, and we have connections with maker spaces, hardware ecosystems, and open hardware projects. We also have a bond with the people of the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, who were kind of co-hosts, and helped a lot.”
“As I’m the lab manager in the Open FIESTA, we enjoyed a lot of freedom. It’s a place where you can set up DIY equipment in bios labs, make full use of every small room, draw or break things, anytime, anywhere. It seems quite chaotic and disordered but it was what a GOSH event venue looks like”, says Ji. “Some people came one week early and they prepared their workshops for several days. They really made full use of the place and the equipment”, he remarks. “If you rent a fancy place, like a conference hall, you’ll probably have more restrictions. As we kind of owned the Open FIESTA, people could stay anytime. The last day people danced there, it was a great moment”, he recalls. “We also had this party in the X Factory, which is also a perfect place, where people brought their projects, showed them and played music. I also remember that many people explored unique things of the Chinese culture, like Chinese street food at night. So I guess that happened probably due to the freedom of the space, showing that Open FIESTA was the perfect venue for GOSH.”
“The biggest challenge was the cultural differences. We had to pre-think everything, like the food: some people don’t eat pork, some don’t eat beef, there are vegetarians and vegans. There is some sacrifice in being the host, because you have to deal with many people who come and say they need help with different situations, due to the language barrier and cultural differences. As in China Google and Facebook are blocked, many people had difficulties, and needed a VPN, and installing WeChat to communicate. Luckily we counted on a team of volunteers, mainly university students. Also Besar Zasella [who joined GOSH as an intern of the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab] was really helpful, as he had a foreigner’s perspective, and that helped him to put together guides and materials to publish in GOSH forum and prepare the participants to be ready for China”.
Another challenge was the documentation process. “I think one thing very special about GOSH is the unconference format, and that can be hard to document”, states Ji. “When you see a traditional conference it’s quite easy to do it, you can set up the cameras, there’s one speaker, then you probably will record everything. But this format is different, it’s not easy to keep records, because each group, each session, needs a person to register it”, he remarks. “We tried to document as much as possible, but still there’s probably something we failed or didn’t do after all. It was really challenging, you need to summarize the whole conference”.
Looking back, Ji regrets: “The worst part was the issues with visas. Some people couldn’t attend the meeting. We didn’t prepare well for that, it takes a much longer process for some countries to get a visa to enter China. I joined the organiser team ten months before the event and helped prepare the programme. I thought it was very early. But we should have started working one year before the date of the gathering. That way we could have selected people early enough to give them time to deal with the visa processes and set up their schedules”.
Creating a culture of openness
“The very key element of GOSH is the active community from different backgrounds, from all over the world. Generally in conferences the people who join are those who work in a certain area, you hardly see a community so diverse, with gender balance, people from developing countries, giving more opportunities for those with less resources”, says Ji.
“I think that it’s quite important to create this culture for people to try different things, to explore the different cultures, and to communicate with people from a different background. That’s something I find quite fascinating from GOSH: that we created our environment”, he highlights. ” I remember, for example, that there was a biology group and other people who have never done biology before, and they tried something new. Some of the people tried to eat insects, they had never tried before and then they did it in the GOSH event. Also putting together these people from different cultural backgrounds makes great communities, as community innovation abilities currently depend on diversity. So it’s very important for future organisers to create and promote a culture of openness, encouraging people to explore new things and communicate with different kinds of people.”