Maker Assembly 2015 at V&A, London
Maker Assembly 2015 at V&A, London

REFLECTIONS ON MAKER ASSEMBLY 2015


28 October 2015

On Saturday 24th October, we held our first Maker Assembly event, at the V&A in London. Put together rapidly by a networked group of organisers from Elephant and Castle Mini Maker Faire, Open Workshop Network, the V&A and Lighthouse, it is a response to the growing need for critical discussion about maker culture. These are my personal reflections on that day. By Andrew Sleigh, Creative Producer at Lighthouse.

LOOKING BACK

We started by looking back to previous ‘maker movements’. Adrian Smith traced a history back from current day fablabs and hackerspaces to the industrial upheavals of the 1970s, and the movement for ‘socially useful production’, which itself emerged from the Lucas Plan – a response to 1000s of job cuts at Lucas Aerospace. The threatened workers suggested that they could turn their manufacturing skills and resources from military contracts to work of greater public service. While this plan failed, it led to the formation of Technology Networks in London. As Smith writes in a Guardian article:

“Technology Networks aimed to combine the ‘untapped skill, creativity and sheer enthusiasm’ in local communities with the ‘reservoir of scientific and innovation knowledge’ in London’s polytechnics. Hundreds of designs and prototypes were developed, including electric bicycles, small-scale wind turbines, energy conservation services, disability devices, re-manufactured products, children’s play equipment, community computer networks, and a women’s IT co-operative.“

40 years later, and much has changed, but as Smith revealed, we can draw inspiration and a sense of alternate possible futures from these ambitiously progressive makers.

Next, the designer Dean Brown talked about his project, the 7 Lamps of Making, which was also on display at the event. This was his working through of John Ruskin’s text, The 7 Lamps of Architecture, which prefigured both the Arts and Crafts Movement but also many principles we hold true about making today. I interviewed Brown ahead of the event, and have written about his project and the enduring relevance of Ruskin previously.

For me, this session showed how much we draw on past movements often without realising it, and how important it is to understand the past in order to be genuinely innovative in the future.

LEARNING FROM OTHERS

Next, we turned to diversity and equality in making. Who’s invited, how do we get more diverse people into makerspaces, and how do we hear more voices in the conversation?

Phoenix Perry talked about her experiences bringing gaming and technology workshops to women, and people of colour, and how even in what we might consider the progressive world of makers, these groups are still under-represented in the media.

Janet Gunter, co-founder of The Restart Project (a London-based social enterprise that empowers people to use their electronics longer, by sharing repair and maintenance skills) talked about the gendered roles people take on in makerspaces. She referenced Mel Chua’s writing on the forces that push minority groups to social and community roles in tech environments. And she shared her own experience of taking the Restart Project out onto the streets (literally) to meet new makers, and the value of dialogic learning in which the roles of teacher and student are softened.

There followed a lively debate, and for me these ideas came together after a provocative question about who’s job it is to look out for diversity in making communities. Many of these communities (which may take the form of makerspaces, publications, or online networks) are self-selecting, sometimes run explicitly for the benefit of existing members. So there can be tension felt here between getting on with what you want to do, and reaching out to engage more diverse people. But the benefits of diverse communities are enjoyed by everyone; it doesn’t have to be a charitable cause. When we work with other makers who are different to us, we learn from them, and develop our own practice.

MAKING IN THE CITY

In the afternoon, we turned to the city, and the fragile existence of makerspaces in a dynamic urban environment.

Tomas Diez took us through the tumultuous history of Fab Lab Barcelona and the Fab City project. Barcelona has one of the most ambitious networks of fablabs in the world, but is still subject to the changing winds of political power, with city officials running hot and cold on the project as their fortunes rise and fall.

Liz Corbin, who co-ordinates the Open Workshop Network (and was also one of the producers of this event) gave us the view from London. She delved into the nitty gritty of Meanwhile Use Leases and city planning agendas. As our work at Lighthouse increasingly turns to the precariousness of spaces where new ideas flourish, this feels like urgent territory to explore.

The message was driven home by Rebecca Ross, of Central St Martins, who talked about the changing, socio-economic conditions in the capital, but also pointed to hopeful developments elsewhere which suggest that makers of all types can claim space in the city even if they’re eventually subsumed into regulated private space. From squatters in Caracas taking over the Torre David tower, to New Yorkers co-ordinating efforts to reclaim vacant public land through Living Lots NYC, people are embracing transient opportunities to build their own temporary autonomous zones. She finished with a call for makers to go further than just DIY, but to also consider how we can feed our work back to neighbourhoods, cities and the ‘broader human project’

ARCHITECTS OF THE FUTURE

Our final session was led by James Tooze and Nat Hunter, who asked us all to consider what principles we would like to pass on as guidance for future makers. Looking at making through a lens of sustainability, we were able nevertheless, to fold in concerns raised throughout the day: from the intentional use of materials, to the embracing of diversity. A fitting way to end the day.

Of course, conversation continued in the pub, and online. (See my Storify of some of the social media for a taste). There was a sense of urgency to the day, and a depth to the issues that we could barely do justice to in the time available, so I hope that we can continue the conversation in many forms, and maybe even assemble again soon.


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