Thinking about the past, present and future of the maker movement

Thinking about the past, present and future of the maker movement

A strong thread of reflexivity has run through the maker movement since its birth around a decade ago in the mid-2000s. Neil Gershenfeld, creator of the first FabLab at MIT, heralded personal fabrication as a “coming revolution on your desktop”; Cory Doctorow tempered this with a utopian/dystopian (and just barely fictional) vision of making in the near future; and Chris Anderson lauded the Maker Movement (with capital ‘M’s) as nothing less than the New Industrial Revolution.

These occasionally hyperbolic accounts came largely from within the movement itself, written by maker-academics or writers on technology and new media who were aiming to popularise the potential of maker culture rather than to critically engage with it. As the movement itself has grown and stabilised, more critical works have begun to emerge. Since around 2012, a growing number of academics from outside the maker movement have taken an interest and started investigating whether it can actually live up to the high expectations placed on it by Gershenfeld and Anderson. These researchers – often working directly with makers in hackerspaces and FabLabs around the world – have questioned the inclusivity of ‘open workshops’, the extent to which maker communities actually engage with practices of knowledge sharing and peer production, and what the aims and values of ordinary makers actually are. (For articles engaging with all of these issues, see issue 5 of the Journal of Peer Production which focusses on shared machine shops.)

While this critical engagement has been a key part of academic works on peer production, digital fabrication and shared machine shops, publications aimed at makers themselves are largely not engaging in critical evaluations of the many problems faced by (and caused by) the maker movement. The flagship publication MAKE magazine occasionally dips into social issues related to making – typically around how to engage more girls and women – but it basically leaves it to academia to raise important questions that are essential for opening up a space to think critically about the past, present and future of the maker movement.

Luckily, lots of members of the maker community in the UK already have a deep interest in improving our own community and its engagement with social, political and ecological issues: we talk about how to get more female members and members from disadvantaged economic backgrounds in our hackerspaces; we talk about how to reduce waste through upcycling and repair; we talk about how practical skills aren’t being taught in UK schools anymore and how we can teach kids to be empowered to fix, make, tinker and create. We’re already talking about this amongst ourselves at maker faires, at hackercamps and in our makerspaces.

Maker Assembly

Maker Assembly. Photo by Andrew Sleigh

Last week I went to two events that aimed to open up a wider platform for discussing these issues across the maker / academia border. The first event, Maker Assembly, was organised by producers of the Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire, the Brighton Mini Maker Faire and the Open Workshop Network and took place at the Victoria & Albert museum in London on Saturday 24th October. The assembly gathered together around 50 speakers and attendees from makerspaces, universities, start-ups, community interest groups, design companies, charities, science museums and maker faires who took part in talks and discussions around a range of issues including education, waste reduction, inclusivity, funding opportunities, government engagement and critical making. These activities were useful not so much for coming up with solutions (at this stage) but for raising the visibility of these problems amongst all areas of the maker community, particularly amongst makerspace organisers and members (like me) who often get too bogged down in the day-to-day work involved in running a makerspace to think much about them.

#sustmake workshop

#sustmake workshop. Photo by STEPS Centre

On Monday 26th and Tuesday 27th October, Adrian Smith from the University of Sussex ran an event titled ‘How can makerspaces, fablabs and hackerspaces help cultivate sustainable developments?’ at the Machines Room in London (hashtag #sustmake). The event also featured speakers and attendees from within both the maker community and academia, but also had several attendees from UK funding bodies and research councils with a particular interest in sustainability projects. As a university initiative, the event was more focussed on information-gathering than the Maker Assembly and after an initial day of talks the second day took the form of a workshop with brainstorming sessions aiming to identify the problems and potential solutions that community workshops open up for issues of ecology and sustainability.

Brainstorming at #sustmake workshop

Brainstorming at #sustmake workshop. Photo by Didac Ferrer

Two points particularly struck a chord with me based on my own involvement with the maker community in Brighton. The first was Janet Gunther‘s talk at the Maker Assembly about care-work in makerspaces and other technology-focussed communities, ie the voluntary labour that goes into developing the community itself. I’ve been a trustee of the Brighton hackspace – Build Brighton – for over 3 years now and a lot of the time invested by me and our other trustees has been spent on community development work, from basic jobs like fielding enquiries from potential new members and prodding people to clean up after themselves to more difficult and emotionally draining tasks like dealing with grievances and working to empower our membership base to take the lead on making positive changes within the group. During this time we’ve made big steps forward on tackling these difficult issues: we now have a fully fleshed out grievance and disciplinary procedure and a number of working groups who’re responsible for looking after various admin and maintenance tasks, which has helped us move away from a top-down organisational structure to a more distributed system that lets everyone contribute to making the community better. But sometimes it feels like a hard slog and like a chore that nibbles away at time that I’d rather be spending on making.

Janet Gunther at Maker Assembly

Janet Gunther at Maker Assembly. Photo by Andrew Sleigh

This leads to the second point that really stuck with me: Cindy Kohtala‘s notion of ‘time poverty’ at the #sustmake workshop, an issue that I think volunteer-run makerspaces particularly struggle with. With all the time it takes to deal with the day-to-day tasks involved in keeping the workshop going we often just don’t have time for more worthy tasks like community outreach, or even for scouting out potential funding opportunities that could allow us to improve our tools offerings or to run educational events and workshops for the local community. It’s when thinking about these tasks that fall through the cracks that partnerships with external organisations like local governments, universities and funding bodies look particularly fruitful, as they may open up opportunities for external experts to assist makerspace organisers and members with valuable community engagement and outreach programs that are missing from the agendas of many community-run workshops (though not due to a lack of good intentions).

Cindy Kohtala at #sustmake workshop

Cindy Kohtala at #sustmake workshop. Photo by STEPS Centre

Having such a diverse audience at events like the Maker Assembly and #sustmake workshop is therefore not only useful for fostering critical discussions amongst people with all kinds of different takes on the maker movement – it also opens up new possibilities for forging mutually beneficial links between practitioners and academia and between community groups and funding bodies. If the maker movement does have the potential to influence positive social change, we will all need to work together to unleash it.

Header image by Andrew Sleigh.