Moving beyond products to material culture

Prototyping or debating sustainable developments in makerspaces?

In the previous blog I introduced some of the diverse ways that makerspaces are helping cultivate sustainable developments. Admittedly, these initiatives do not represent the totality of makerspaces, where many projects and activities are oblivious to demands for sustainable developments. In this blog I discuss some of the challenges I see in making sustainable developments more prevalent in makerspaces and in expanding the influence makerspace sustainability initiatives have in the wider world.

In my previous blog, I pointed out that my work situates the details of making within a larger picture, sometimes at the expense of the important details. As such, the challenges and questions I set out below are only part of story. I invite you to raise issues in your own blogs and messages, before and after the event, and which can be shared on Twitter via #sustmake.

Sustainable developments: from words to action

What do I mean by sustainable developments? What, if anything, holds together the diversity of initiatives in making and fixing for sustainability noted in the previous blog? The principles for sustainable developments were set down formally in 1987, after a global consultation by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • The concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

Environmental integrity and social justice are at the heart of these principles. The UN is reinvigorating these principles through its Sustainable Development Goals. They require people to develop future-oriented capacities for appropriating technologies and capacities for inclusive social organisation.

These principles may appear dull and academic. Yet they come to life when people design and demonstrate vivid, accessible initiatives. Arguably, makerspaces can develop capabilities and organisational forms for people to appropriate various technologies, traditional and high-tech, for new forms of prototyping, production, care and repair, and consumption. Makerspaces can open new possibilities for exploring sustainable developments.

Tools for people: lessons from history

Although, perhaps not so new? Giving tools to people has been a theme for environment and development movements since their emergence in the 1960s. Examples include, social ecologist Murray Bookchin’s ideas for liberatory technologies; the Whole Earth Catalog’s ‘access to tools’ ethos; appropriate technology sourcebooks for development; and, most remarkably, Technology Networks in London in the early 1980s.


Again, these histories can appear to be of academic interest only. Yet recalling them connects current activity to the deep social roots of grassroots innovation. What we see in some makerspaces today reinvigorates an enduring social reality: when encouraged, people demonstrate inherent creativity and find meaning in making things; when opportunities arise for sustainable developments, then a vibrant burst of initiatives fills that space. But then what? Where to go with these inspiring initiatives?

Sustaining and expanding initiatives

Few makerspaces activities currently are dedicated to sustainable developments. Will makerspaces drift into intensified consumption, through endless, customised fabrication and throwaway making? Or can they be harnessed for sustainable developments in societies? So the first challenge is how to cultivate wider attention to sustainability initiatives within makerspaces and amongst maker movements?

Sustainability initiatives in makerspaces try to inject fun, conviviality and community into their initiatives, and in doing so transform sustainability from dry principles into meaningful activities. But organising initiatives is hard work, particularly for organisers. These are as much emotional matters of recognition, commitment and energy, as they are of materials and finance.

Strategies for sustaining initiatives and recruiting wider participation and support need developing. Promoting sustainability as a core ethos and explicit commitment in makerspaces is one possibility. It might be possible to expand initiatives through support from institutions interested in training, entrepreneurship, or outreach for sustainability, for instance; but might support bring constraining expectations and requirements? Perhaps maintaining autonomy, if that is important, means keeping things small?

  • How to sustain and expand commitment to sustainable developments in makerspaces?

Moving from prototyping to products

Historical reflection offers cautionary lessons. Initiatives can come under some pressure to demonstrate quick fixes for sustainability: to perfect devices or product services that can be scaled-up and marketed widely. The journey from prototype to product is challenging. It requires participants to win considerable financial investment, and sometimes policy help to create markets for sustainable goods and services. As sustainable development mainstreams, however, then incubation opportunities open up that help mobilise investment and moves into production. But this still begs questions; such as, how sustainable developments arising in makerspaces link into manufacturing systems, many of which are increasingly globalised, or how they bypass such systems and build alternatives?

It is possible to align making with wider campaigns for support and attention. Grassroots designers of wind turbines in Denmark aligned with social movements for whom wind energy became emblematic in the 1970s, and collectively this alliance gradually won policy support and industrial backing that transformed back-yard technologies into a world leading industry. Such a strategy requires allies with political and economic capacities absent amongst hard-pressed practitioners working flat out to keep their particular initiative going. Some might be unhappy about such politicisation.

Developing activities into business form means connecting with market values currently, and whose commercial logics still lag behind principles for sustainable developments. Compromises and trade-offs have to be confronted.

When the chief merit of initiatives is that they are fun, creative, engaging, and open to all, then expansion and mainstreaming strategies can raise considerable dilemmas.

  • Should sustainability initiatives scale-up or circulate more widely, and if so, how to retain core aims when moving beyond protoyping?

Moving beyond products to material culture

Limiting attention to developing sustainable products and services risks overlooking makerspaces roles that are more subtle, diffuse and profound. Earlier grassroots initiatives pioneered ideas about materials use, accessibility, scale, and participation. They contributed demands and practices in participatory design, for example, that have became relatively commonplace today. Might makerspaces participants be propagating marginal ideas and practices for future sustainable developments, say in collaborative prototyping, or critical making, and that may come to have wider influence in future?

The immediate task of trying to get past a proprietary screw head, when repairing a product at a meet-up, say, may lead to discussion about the way things are made, and why they are made so poorly. Such discussions are vital for democracy in increasingly technological societies. Why does technology have to be so seamless and closed, and why shouldn’t it be designed for people to hack and fix? Innocent questions may stir revolutionary answers?

At the same time, whilst many people care about sustainability, not everyone is in a position to make it the central organising principle in their work, home or communities. Nor does everyone have the time or inclination to participate in making. Should makerspaces address these limitations? Or perhaps turn them around as opportunities for critical creativity? What kind of social world would enable widespread participation in sustainable design and production? Are such worlds desirable, and how to generate the conditions for them? Makerspaces are weakly positioned relative to a host of powerful institutions, such as those reproducing vested economic interests, or positions of political authority, or cultural norms, or design standards, skill sets, and research agendas.

  • How can makerspaces work with others to generate conditions for sustainable developments in the wider world?

Spaces for debating the doing

Even the most personal projects, sustainable or otherwise, in aggregate have social consequences. Should project participants be encouraged to think about the social meaning of their making activities?

Makerspaces provide unusual, even deviant, ways of manifesting emerging ideas and practices in, say, open hardware, or peer production, or social entrepreneurialism. Alongside the hustle of crowd-funding a prototyping initiative, might there be resources and platforms in makerspaces for wider reflection and social learning?

Makerspaces exploit deeper-seated changes in society (be it in new technologies, shifting cultures, restructuring economies, and new social movements); thereby providing very practical arenas for debating and giving form and direction to inchoate social and economic change and possibility. Arguably, this is a valuable service for societies. Yet, it is a service that is impossible to audit. Do demands from investors or funders for ‘impact’ undermine more open ended roles in social change? Of course, membership funded makerspaces are less exposed to these issues. But for makerspace initiatives seeking to transform the conditions for sustainable developments in the wider world, then the terms of engagement with outside institutions becomes important.

Summing up for the event and beyond …

Makerspaces are helping to cultivate sustainable developments in many ways. Initiatives create a wealth of experience concerning the development of artefacts, methodologies, public awareness, identities, social relationships, networks, organisation, ideas and concepts. However, making the most of the possibilities requires a strategic working out of critical questions, including:

  • How to sustain and expand commitment to sustainable developments in makerspaces?
  • Should sustainability initiatives scale-up or circulate more widely, and if so, how to retain core aims when moving beyond protoyping?
  • How can makerspaces work with others to generate conditions for sustainable developments in the wider world?

Fixed answers to these questions are neither feasible nor desirable. The questions arise from enduring dilemmas rather than discrete tests. People working with these dilemmas need opportunities to share their own successes, struggles, experiences and insight in the face of these dilemmas, and reflect upon working with them more effectively. Please contribute your own questions, dilemmas and experiences via #sustmake. That way we become clued up as well as tooled up.

This is Adrian Smith’s second blog post on makerspaces and sustainable development, which was published by the Sussex Energy Group, and followed on from the first part on ‘Why should we seek sustainable developments in makerspaces?’. Both articles aim to introduce some of Adrian’s observations ahead of an event organised by CIED and STEPS on makerspaces and sustainability.

This workshop will take place at the Machines Room in London on Monday, 26th October 2015, and aims to raise issues and identify strategies for makerspaces in sustainable developments. Tickets for the event have now all been reserved, but you are welcome to join the waiting list by emailing Bettina Zenz.

We would also like to invite you to take part in the discussion, and let us have your thoughts on the role of sustainable developments in the domain of makerspaces on Twitter by using our hashtag #sustmake.

If you would like to read more about fablabs and similar work by the STEPS Centre, take a look at ‘Float like a Fab Lab, sting like a Honey Bee‘ which was published in summer 2015 and may also be of interest. 

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