Human capabilities for innovation in UK makerspaces

by Cian O’Donovan and Adrian Smith

Makerspaces can be a source of human capabilities that benefit people and society. But these capabilities will only lead to flourishing communities if they are accompanied by structural changes to our economies, cities and environment.

Using lasers to precision-cut plywood is not easy. When Toni Buckby began running classes at Sheffield’s Access Space, she didn’t think her students would be laser cutting within the day. “Some of them don’t even know how to turn computers on” she told us during a visit. “And by the end of it they’ve gone away with a laser-cut thing and gone ‘that’s brilliant’. And we do that in five hours.”

Accelerated prototyping using digital laser cutters is just one of the activities that happen in Access Space, a makerspace where people make, prototype and do other things. Makerspaces are community-based workshops full of versatile digital and analogue design and production tools that anyone can use. Often there is a focus on working together and sharing tools and designs. With these, makers can hack, make and re-make anything they want. At least, in theory.

Through teaching new skills, Toni is enhancing her students’ capabilities to make. As researchers, we wanted to find out more about these ‘capabilities’ that are developed in makerspaces. We were curious about what kind of makerspace capabilities mattered, and to whom? Did these capabilities benefit people’s lives outside of the workshop? And were they useful in important areas, such as helping people make a living from their making activities; or making prototyping and production more sustainable?

The story our research revealed is complicated, with implications for how technology access is promoted through makerspaces. We visited 20 makerspaces in the UK and spoke with a diversity of experienced makers – we describe the research process in detail in a research paper, just published in the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities.

Benefits of makerspaces

Poster summarising the research (click for larger size)

We found that all sorts of users of makerspaces valued and developed human capabilities that enhanced their skills, their creativity, and sometimes even their identities as makers, craftspeople or artists.

People also felt they had greater control over materials in the world, and many felt they were part of a transformative community.

Optimistically, some users’ experiences suggested makerspaces could radically redistribute the capabilities for prototyping in societies. This could open up ways to transform how we go about innovation and production – especially when connected to a globally networked communities for know-how capable of adapting that knowledge to locally appropriate solutions. This could have a big impact in how we go about democratising the search for sustainable solutions in industry and beyond.

What’s missing?

But this is not the reality in makerspaces right now. Our research found users struggled to secure livelihoods for themselves from their activities. The possibilities for sustainable development also proved elusive. The most significant aspect of the research were the absences of these kinds of capabilities to make changes in the wider world.

In short, our research showed the potential for makerspaces to develop capabilities in people that might help positively contribute to a transformed, sustainable world – but only if these capabilities connect to economic and and social reforms that value such potential. Simply building more makerspaces or even improving access to them will not change this.

How could cities, research and companies help?

City municipalities, firms and universities around the world have encouraged makerspace development. But such support has to do more than just open workshops and generate photocalls for hardhat wearing politicians.

Makerspaces must be connected with local community development and inclusive circular economies. We found that when makerspace users had to worry about rent-rises and the squeeze on space that comes with gentrification, they had little time left over to worry about cutting back on waste.

How can makerspaces change the way innovation is done?

Intriguingly, makerspaces could provide a common infrastructure and know-how to do prototyping, production and innovation differently.

Done right, makerspaces can mobilise citizen innovation for sustainability… where a diversity of knowledge, motivations and struggles can inform new approaches to investment, training and infrastructure for greener societies. Toni and her colleagues at Access Space, for example, have a long history of environmental action – they’ve been recycling and reusing computers and electronics for years, as well as passing on these capabilities to others.

As Adrian has written before, the search for innovation alternatives is important because these dominant models, popularised in Silicon Valley and beloved of policy elites, have often resulted in the increased concentration of power and resources, and in community alienation. This is all the more important at a time when innovation is seen as an unquestionable good, a cure for all sorts of issues in society, from economic productivity, to global warming, to how we care for the elderly.

We think that a focus on developing individual and collective capabilities is needed. These capabilities can connect communities to economies and the environment and might help root otherwise insensitive top-down policy instruments that emphasise huge scale: grand challenges and societal missions. Developing what we call ‘sociotechnical capabilities’ that can underpin activities like making is important for policy and for democracy, because they expand people’s voice, rights and control in relation to the technologies that shape our worlds.

What this research shows is these capabilities must go hand-in-hand with structural changes to how our economies, cities and environment are managed. Moreover, what’s needed to create the right conditions for such structural changes is not ever-grander societal challenges. Instead, policies are needed that recognise the range of capabilities valued by all of us, and are directed at those areas of society and the economy where capabilities currently don’t exist.

Read more

We’ve created a poster highlighting the most important aspects of the research.

poster – SCREEN VERSION (jpg, 350KB)

Poster – A1 SIZE (PDF, 30MB)

A more detailed account of the research is available as a peer-reviewed journal article (open access).

If you have comments, questions or anything else to say, the authors would love to hear from you. You can email Cian at c.o’[email protected]


A huge thanks to Toni and all at Access Space, as well as the makers, hackers, craftspeople, artists and others who welcome researchers into their makerspaces, workshops, hackspaces and fablabs. This kind of work would not be possible without your generosity and patience. Special thanks also to six participants who took part in pilot activities. This work was supported by funding from the Research Council of Norway (Norges Forskningsråd) under the SAMANSVAR Programme.

About the researchers

Cian O’Donovan is a researcher at UCL’s Department of Science and Technology Studies
ORCID | Twitter: @cian

Adrian Smith is a professor of technology and society at SPRU – Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex.
ORCID | Twitter: @smithadrianpaul

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