Virgin Hyperloop One’s Lead Vehicle Controls Engineer Jon Chaconas spends weeks all around the world – doing what he loves and creating environments to allow others to do the same.
He’s on the board of Make Life Skate Life, a 100 per cent volunteer-run non-profit organisation that works with local skateboarding communities to create free of charge, community-built concrete skateparks. They’ve so far completed projects in India, Bolivia, Jordan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Nepal, and Morocco – next stop Iraq.
We sat down with Jon to talk about how he balances creating community skateparks with developing the next mode of transportation.
How did you get started with Make Life Skate Life?
At the beginning of 2014 I was getting involved in some DIY concrete skatepark projects around California. I had always thought it would be awesome to build a skatepark abroad somewhere that needed it, and I came across Make Life Skate Life from documentaries about work they did in India and Bolivia. I reached out to Arne, who founded MLSL and was pretty much running things by himself at that point, and pitched teaming up to build a skatepark in Jordan to serve refugees. I quit my job, booked a flight to Amman, and met with the local skaters. We were even able to convince the local municipality to give us land for free. We decided to try and crowdfund the project (something neither of us had ever done before) – managing to meet our goal and build the skatepark with a team of only 15 volunteers in December that year. The next year we applied the same model to our following project in Myanmar.
Some people might say you can skate anywhere, why are skateparks so important?
Skate parks help build community through skateboarding. I don't think that, that's a fact.
In a lot of these places where we build parks, there’s a lack of things for kids to do. There are no public parks – they don't really have anywhere to play. In Yangon for example, there's been massive development and it's totally wiping out any green space anywhere in the city. In many places there’s not even a public square where kids can skate – or if there is the cops kick you out. A skatepark is a community space that’s focused around skateboarding; younger skaters can learn from older skaters.
You’ve built skateparks with skaters from around the world – do you see any similarities across different skate communities?
Skate communities are usually super inclusive. You see lots of different backgrounds, even in places where there are ethnic tensions. Whether you’re rich or poor, you’re coming together through a shared experience. And it doesn't have to be skateboarding, you can bring people together for anything but they need to have something, some common ground.
What are the build days like?
Everybody's pretty much there from morning until night every day and that's the only way that we're able to do it. Every project we've done, we've executed from start to finish in under three weeks – from breaking ground to opening day. You can't achieve that unless you're working nonstop.
It’s really a team effort. We have a diverse group of volunteers: professional as well as DIY skatepark builders, local skateboarders and community members that want to get involved. In Morocco, a local agricultural engineer even donated plants to create a community garden at the park. It’s a completely organic effort. If you have enough people that know what they're doing and that are willing to speak up and voice their opinions, then it'll work itself into something really cool.
What’s your role on site?
I work to make sure everything goes smoothly on site. I’ve got to get there before the builders arrive and make sure everything is finalised with the city, find a shipping container to have on site to store tools and materials, procure wood, rebar, concrete, and tools, arrange services like hiring a JCB for groundwork, find a house for all the builders to live, and arrange for on-site meals. For the concrete we have to go to the batching plant and do a test with them because what we need is very specific. It's super important to have a good local contact there who can, at least for the first week of the project, be your right-hand man running around because otherwise, especially in a place where you don't speak the language, it can be really hard to find supplies. I've learned now that it's super important to have my own transportation. On this last project I rented a van and it allowed me to be more efficient in making sure we could get everything we needed. I always have to hit the ATM everyday, with multiple pulls a day depending on the specific country’s daily ATM withdrawal limit. Otherwise we won’t have enough cash to pay the vendors.
What makes you keep keep at it?
I can say for this next project, I’m super passionate about bringing it to fruition. Of all the reasons why we would do a project anywhere - Sulaymaniyah meets all of the criteria. They've got a small developing skate scene and these kids are super passionate about skateboarding. They’re skating down active streets, over trash cans, doing anything to become good skateboarders in spite of having zero access to facilities or any sort of formal skateboarding institutions whatsoever. No skate shops, no access to quality equipment. They’re getting boards however they can. In a place like Suli, a war-torn region, these kids are using skateboarding as a tool to move forward.
I worked at a defense contractor firm and they built weapons – weapons used in places where I am now building skateparks
What was it like taking the leap and quitting your last job?
I quit because I felt like it wasn't doing good for the world – just the opposite. I worked at a defense contractor firm and they built weapons – weapons used in places where I am now building skateparks. I spent the last few years building skateparks because I enjoy it and because I feel like it's making a positive impact. Then I came to work for hyperloop because it seemed like a project where I could apply my engineering skills for good.
Is there a parallel between your work at Make Life Skate Life and at Virgin Hyperloop One?
I get to work with a really awesome team of people and I get to build cool things. I don’t want to do anything unless it has value, and I'm not talking about financial value – good for the world.
As Lead Vehicle Controls Engineer, I work on physics based modeling and simulation of the electrical, mechanical, and magnetic components of our system and how they all interact with controls. The outcome is having a model to be able to design a control system against and evaluate the resulting passenger comfort, power consumption, and structural loads, and ensure the vehicle is reliable and safe.
I've been lucky enough to have managers here who acknowledged the value in the volunteer work I do on the side, and I definitely plan the skatepark projects around critical testing periods. So far it has worked out pretty well. I was here for all of our ‘POAT’ testing where we tested our electromagnetic propulsion system and the DevLoop testing where we integrated all system components and tested at scale at our Nevada test site. I managed to build some skateparks in between.
What can non-skaters learn from skating?
Skateboarding teaches kids how to fall and get back up. I think it toughened me up. You just have to be OK with failure and not fear failure. Failure is a hurdle have to get through for success. When you're trying to learn a new trick, it's psychological. You have to go for it even though you’re scared you might fail.