Why should we seek sustainable developments in makerspaces?


Why should we seek sustainable developments in makerspaces?

Adrian Smith, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex

Community-based workshops like hackerspaces, fablabs and makerspaces, equipped with design, prototyping and fabrication tools have spread rapidly in recent years. Interest in the social, economic and environmental possibilities of these spaces has grown too. Amidst the claims and aims people bring to this collaborative flourishing of tool-based creativity is an argument that makerspaces can become experimental sites for the pursuit of sustainable developments. Which begs the question,

What strategies exist for makerspaces to promote sustainable developments in society?

An event within a wider discussion …

In this blog I introduce some observations motivating an event CIED and STEPS are holding on makerspaces and sustainability at the Machines Room in London on Monday 26th October. The aim of the event is to raise issues and identify strategies for makerspaces in sustainable developments.

What sustainable developments are already arising in makerspaces?

Still more of an aspiration than a widespread reality, there are nevertheless growing varieties of activity aimed at environmental sustainability and social justice in makerspaces, and which include:

  • Prototyping sustainable designs and systems
  • Exploring issues of sustainable energy through hacking solar panels and building DIY home energy systems
  • Incubating upcyling businesses and furnishing creative hubs for closed loop materials cycles
  • Hosting Repair Cafés and Restart Parties
  • Building communities interested in making, repair, repurposing and sustainability
  • Hosting citizen science initiatives and building environmental monitoring systems
  • Critical making that connects people to the political economies and material realities of production and consumption, and that explores alternative, more desirable futures
  • Organising workshops for the social innovation of local sustainability
  • Outreach activities that connect other sustainable development groups, and mobilising new thinking and action about technologies, sustainability and people
  • Cultivating post-consumer identities, values and material cultures

Collectively, speakers at the event pioneer all these activities.

Some speakers come from established workshops committed, amongst other things to grassroots involvement and sustainability, such as Diana Wildschit and Harmen Zijp from FabLab Amersfoort, and Richard Clifford from MAKLab. The RSA Great Recovery initiative for the circular economy chose to locate at FabLab London, and we have Sophie Thomas speaking about links between the two.

Other speakers create temporary facilities for rapidly prototyping low carbon innovation, such as Justyna Swat from POC21 and Max Wakefield from Demand Energy Equality.

We have speakers located in education and research institutes, such as Susana Nascimento formerly of Vitruvius FabLab in Lisbon, where she ran a summer school on makerspaces and sustainability, and who now investigates citizen science for the European Commission. Liz Corbin comes from the Institute of Making at UCL, whose outreach activities include education in sustainable materials.

There are speakers whose initiatives try to build specific communities, such as Trystan Lea from Open Energy Monitor, and Janet Gunter from the Restart Project. And we have Didac Ferrer from Tarpuna Co-operative, whose work with neighbourhood groups in Barcelona opens public fablabs to local sustainability issues.

Finally, providing her reflections on the day will be Ann Light, Professor of Creative Technologies at Sussex University. Ann brings longstanding experience in community design, sustainability and technology.

But I hope others will provide reflections too, whether through Twitter or blogging, on the day, afterwards, or beforehand, as I do here.

It is clear from the initiatives that the event uses a wider notion of makerspaces than usual. In addition to fixed makerspaces, busily creating communities of users, the event includes initiatives that go out to communities and neighbourhood meeting places, and set up temporary making spaces. The latter includes running workshops in community centres or in schools, or holding repair activities in workplaces and shopping centres, as well as nurturing online communities. The broader point – whether building communities around tools or taking tools to communities – is whether and how making can engage people in sustainable developments?

In a related blog I discuss some strategic challenges for makerspaces doing sustainable developments. That discussion raises the following questions:

  • 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?

My work researches relations between societies and their technologies, and how pursuit of sustainable developments demands changed relations between the two. My perspective tends towards the bigger picture. It overlooks some of the richer and vital details, including practices in design and fabrication, environmental life cycles, project management, users relations, entrepreneurship, community building, and more.

Such oversight is both provocation and invitation for different viewpoints. The presenters at the event bring important variety, and I invite you to raise questions and issues in your own blogs and messages, before and after the event, and which can be shared on Twitter via #sustmake. If you have films, websites, projects or anything relating to the event, then please do bring it to participants’ attention via the hashtag.

To read Adrian’s follow-up blog article on ‘Moving beyond products to material culture’, please click here.

By Adrian Smith, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex

September 2015

Prof Adrian Smith, CIED, SEG

Prof Adrian Smith, CIED, SEG


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