Making new worlds together

How could we end up in this world nobody ever wanted? This question, posed by Justyna Swat from POC21 during her talk at Monday’s event on makerspaces and sustainability, has no short answer. It also implies a further question: if you could shape the world you wanted, what would it look like?

Shared workshops – makerspaces, hackspaces and FabLabs – are one way to do just that in a limited way, within particular places, and with particular people, materials and skills.

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These might take many forms. Of those represented at the meeting, POC21 was a temporary camp on the grounds of a castle outside Paris; MAKLab operates on a relatively large scale with several sites in Scotland; Amersfoort FabLab was set up with very little money and became part of an international network; and so on. All had different experiences and insights to share.

Makerspaces open up the activity of repair, design and making through access to digital (and other) tools, space and expertise. Whether small or big, well-funded or shoestring, anti-commerce or more commercially-minded, they’re increasingly popular places to experiment, learn, create, recreate, share and repurpose stuff.

objects-250As such, they have two kinds of lessons for anyone committed to seeking sustainable pathways. The first kind is the technological innovations that can be born from them. The second is the social insights they provide: that is, they can show us what happens when people co-operate, struggle and construct things together.

I don’t want to summarise the whole discussion at the event (which will be written up more formally later), but here are some things that jumped out at me.

Boundaries can be useful for makerspaces. The walls (visible and metaphorical) of a makerspace can encompass fragile communities and ideas, and allow them to flourish, protected from commercial and political pressures. There’s sometimes a desire from outside to harness the energy in makerspaces to make political capital, or, well, just capital out of it – which can drain people’s resources.

Academia is not neutral. In fact, there seemed to be optimism among the makers to working with some researchers – but on the right terms. This means researchers have to be prepared to get out there, visit spaces and get their hands dirty. It also helps if they can show how their research will help makers who are trying to make the most of limited resources and time. But they can help – for example, in providing opportunities and methods for critical reflection, and in helping to present evidence of success.

Making in grassroots spaces is not automatically sustainable. In some cases, it can replicate or add to mass production or over-consumption, creating throwaway objects (expressed in the memorable word ‘crapjects’ or the equally-memorable Spanish slang ‘pongo’). So one of the rules has to be ‘no pongo’ and being aware of cycles of use and reuse. New products can be designed to be ‘circular’ by thinking carefully about how they can be disassembled as well as put together.

There is an understandable impulse to ‘scale up’ good ideas to make them available to more people. But not everything should be ‘scaled up’ all the time. In fact ‘diffusion’ might be a more helpful concept, as it encourages thinking about how new technologies can be shared and adapted for local contexts.

Offering spaces for making can be ‘empowering’ as they can help people to develop skills and make relationships that benefit the wider community. But there are still unanswered questions about the relationships between makerspaces – often highly experimental places where new technologies are tried – and more traditional manufacturers and tradespeople. In some places I’m sure these connections have been made, but in others, there may be a missing link that should be explored.

Making and sustainability

swat-250To sum up, technology alone will not save the world, and doesn’t deserve half the expectations heaped upon it most of the time. But those interested in sustainability should be prepared to engage with the material world, and with how things are made, in new ways.

Collective and shared making, adapting, taking apart, reusing and fixing can be one way to take this task more seriously. Makerspaces and the like can offer a way to do this that allows us to experiment and challenge accepted ways of doing things. And this experimentation can be enhanced by asking critical questions about what is being made, why and who will benefit from it.


See the main page on this event for more blog posts, a Storify & background details. You can also read our digital story on different forms and histories of grassroots innovation around the world.

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