Makers as Agents of the New Age Global Design Communities

17 min readJun 1, 2020

The role of the maker in the 21st century is at the centre of the considerable and extensive debate, not only within the design profession but also in the creative industries sector. The number and range of new manufacturing tools and techniques have increased dramatically over the last decade, and the growth of online platforms has demonstrated a growing awareness of the new formats for (re)presenting the efforts of makers, ranging from the crowdfunding to the internet of things, from open-source design projects to distributed manufacturing experience.

Since Chris Anderson named his book as ‘Makers: The New Industrial Revolution‘ in 2012, the ‘Maker Movement’ proved that has the potential to affect everyone, radically altering our attitudes towards design, driven by new technology. Also referred as ‘Second Machine Age’, the 4th Industrial Revolution — or industry 4.0 — represents new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies and it is already disrupting almost every industry in every possible scale. Relatively, when Clayton Christensen first introduced his theory of “disruptive innovation” in his book ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’, he described the term as: “(…) displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative.”

And the breadth and depth of disruptiveness herald the digital transformation of entire systems of design, production, management, transportation, and communication. But, what we witness can be the evidence of the disruptive nature of the Maker movement at the moment?

Due to these rapid changes, designers — yet again — feel the need to redefine their roles within a great variety of new domains in order to gain a deeper understanding of how to design for change or transition in complex systems. Nevertheless, I still believe that designers — but mostly makers — have to be possessed with a hunger for knowledge, an understanding of how things are made and how systems work, and crucially a willingness to share this knowledge, passion, and understanding with peers. While we need makers to experiment with new machines and digital tools, we also need changemakers, mediators, activists, disruptors, theorists, policymakers, and connectors in order to reflect exciting insights on discourse, interpret and disseminate the outcomes with the wider audience. Only this inclusion can nourish the holistic spirit of ‘making’ with justice and unlock the true potential of the ‘movement’. As Richard Sennett says in his 2012 book ‘The Craftsman’: “The enlightened way to use a machine is to judge its powers, fashion its uses, in light of our own limits rather than the machine’s potential.”

On the other hand, nurturing these new-age design communities and understand the challenges of makers’ requires an in-depth look at the relationships between spaces, people, time, and context, and how these fundamental factors shape our understanding of contemporary culture beyond disciplines. How can we interpret the global ‘know-how’, translate it, and add value to create a unique approach to the local context? Regardless of time and space, as an individual, you can easily become a part of a global organisation using online platforms but what really makes a group of people a community? Tomas Diez, director of Fab Lab Barcelona, works on digital fabrication tools and its implications on the future cities models. He is also Fab Academy global coordinator, which is a distributed educational model connecting Fablabs all around the world. From one global platform to another, Opendesk is changing the way furniture is made, by connecting customers to local makers. Co-founded by designer Joni Steiner, Opendesk in London hosts digital furniture designs that can be made anywhere in the world through a global network of local makers by sending out digital files to local makers with easy-assembly designs for office furniture built on demand.

But is ‘making’ powerful to change the aspects of design culture? Curator Daniel Charny believes that making is “the most powerful way that we solve problems, express ideas and shape our world”. Charny, also as an educator himself, proves that if museums are to continue to educate the public on design, they need to develop additional ways of presenting design. In 2011, he curated ‘Power of Making’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) of London which was one of the V&A’s most popular exhibitions to date. Later in 2014, changemaker Jasper Visser took the same approach and helped museums to adopt the ‘Maker-in-Residence’ programmes as a part of the ‘Creative Museum’ project.

To understand the notions of global design communities and the impact of makers as agents of change, I’ve discussed the current state and the potential future of the maker movement with a global connector, a curator, a change agent and a designer with a hope that their approach may inspire for more diverse and inclusive future of maker movement in Turkish scene. Having said that, I am aware of inclusion and diversity of the people who contribute this article is limited but it also encourages me to dig deeper about the gender equality, gender pay gap and (white) male domination not particularly in maker movement but the expanded fields of the design sector as well.

Source: Design Unlimited magazine:

Tugce Karatas: How do you describe your role as a change agent?

Jasper Visser: As a change agent, I help organizations, as well as entire industries, change from the inside. More than a consultant or a project manager — roles I also play — I feel a change agent takes personal responsibility for the change s/he wants to see. In my case this means that while I help cultural organizations go through much-needed transformations, I am also personally invested in their transformation, for instance by being deeply involved in some organizations, running start-ups and of course my role as a blogger.

T.K.: What is the role of the makers in museums, why do you think ‘maker-in-residence’ in museums matter?

J.V.: As my friend and colleague, Don Undeen, said last year in Zagreb: Museums are made by makers, and makers make museums matter. I fullheartedly subscribe to this message. Most museum collections are the result of the individual creativity of makers and artists over the centuries, and by returning these collections to contemporary makers, tinkerers, hackers, artists, designers, and other creatives, these collections and their stories can remain relevant. One way to keep makers involved in museums is by giving them residencies.

T.K.: How museums connect maker, designer, and user? Could you talk about your involvement with Creative Museum project?

J.V.: There are many ways in which museums can connect with makers and designers, and through that with other and new audiences and users. In the Creative Museum Project, we explore strategies for success for cultural organizations wishing to connect with the maker communities in their surroundings. One way we explored was by hosting maker events in museums, such as MuseoMix. This proved transformational for the museums involved, and also changed the perception of maker communities about museums. The simplest answer as to how museums and makers can connect is: get to know each other, visit each other’s events, and be warm and welcoming to each other.

T.K.: What are the core values/ strategies do you use in order to create with the global community?

J.V.: Creating with a global community… That is a really difficult challenge! But this is just the right question to ask nowadays. More than ever before, any community is becoming a global community thanks to developments in digital connectivity and mobility. I do not know of a lot of people other than us who do global creation processes with communities, such as we do with all libraries in the world. The strategies are very diverse and need to be flexible, inclusive, and humble in order to work on a global scale. The values of a global design project should be an acute curiosity about other points of view, and the openness and understanding that different people may have very different ideas. Every process we do — be it global or local — is always unique and tailormade to the challenges and client, but these values and underlying principles always apply.

T.K.: Do you think ‘making’ has the potential for disruption?

J.V.: I do not think ‘making’ is disruptive. People have been making since forever, are making, and will be making. What is disruptive are the (digital) tools at their disposal, the awareness of local and global challenges (such as climate change, inequality), and the renewed focus on the agency of communities that are occuring around the world. The result is that activities such as ‘making’ which used to happen in a shed with limited impact, can be turned into global enterprises that change the world. For individuals, this is incredibly empowering. For communities, this is a solution to many challenges. For society as a whole, this is most definitely the future.

Tugce Karatas: What is the role of the designer in distributed manufacturing experience and open design movement?

Joni Steiner.: Distributed manufacturing is, in my opinion, about challenging the 20th-century ‘supply-chain’ model of manufacturing. We all know it well, but to summarise it would be a system whereby products are designed in closely guarded, IP-controlled knowledge centres and copyrighted… prototypes are made and sent to factories many thousands of miles away — and then these factories make large quantities of one-size-fits-all products that are then bulk-shipped many thousands of miles back to the very same places they were designed. Having been stored in warehouses and distribution centres, these goods are heavily marked up and sold — or discounted… or even put into landfill. Made for the least, sold for the most, completely opaquely and with often very little responsibility to people or planet — a system very much in need of a re-design.

So, a shorter answer would be that the role of the designer is to think & design beyond the object now!

T.K.: How Opendesk connects maker, designer, and user?

J.S.: The Opendesk platform aims to connect Makers, Designers and Users as a three-sided marketplace. That’s quite a big task to build, so, for now, we have focussed on connecting the user (client — someone who would like to buy furniture by having it made locally) with a maker; a local craftsperson, a carpenter with a workshop that includes a CNC machine as well as traditional woodworking tools. We’re also working with designers at the same time, just in a more ‘offline’ capacity. There are a few reasons we’re doing it in this way:

Firstly, we had a design for the first (open)desk before we even had the idea for the platform — and we got demand from people in cities around the world — so having got clients/users and with one design ready to go, we needed makers next! We’ve spent some time building the network of local makers and have had a lot of interesting clients — from individuals and startups to major international companies — so we focussed on makers ahead of adding new designs or designers. Now we have a solid (and still growing) network of makers, we can shift some focus to new designs from new and emerging designers, and that’s what we’re planning to do this year.

T.K.: What is the core values of ‘Opendesk’ in order to create a global community yet respecting the local?

J.S.: We have a mission statement that outlines that as a platform, Opendesk is hoping to operate as a new kind of furniture company — one built for a values-driven world. We want to be a platform that empowers a network of independent designers and makers to create beautiful furniture local to where people need it — to build a global platform for local making. We hope to make it viable for people to “replace factories with faces”, and our mission is to build the world’s most equitable & distributed supply chain. We believe in working together to build a healthier collective future, starting with the way we design and make the things we consume. I think it’s important to be as open as possible — we say that we are ‘default-open’ — but also to listen to everyone’s opinions — to avoid being dogmatic or too prescriptive.

T.K.: What is your point of view about ‘makers as agents’ in new-age design communities? What do you think about the disruptiveness of maker movement? Do you think ‘making’ has the potential for disruption?

J.S.: I think that the short answer is… YES! Making has the potential to disrupt many things — if it’s considered a mindset, a way of approaching a challenge, by bringing curiosity and system-design to whatever the subject is. A mindset of “how does this work now, why is it not being done in a smarter, better way that benefits people and planet?” (and usually harnessing the power of ‘open’ technologies). Something like the challenge of: Can food production be made better? Yes — with a maker-mindset. Can waste management in cities be made better? Yes — with a maker-mindset. Can Banking be made better — Yes — with a maker-mindset. Fab City would be a place to look for people starting to apply this to all of the challenges we — as a society — are facing.

At the same time, in some ways, people have always been Makers, and making is a very basic human thing to do, a need even… (from the first basic tools onwards etc). If Making is about building things it’s about creating — and creativity; being inventive and inquisitive, curious. This could be about Food, Fashion.. or Furniture (I have a bit of a problem with the ‘Maker Movement’ being typecast as boys with 3D printers and electronics in the basement!).

A world that’s more aware of Making and the Maker Mindset is a better world to be in. Technology and the connectivity this brings have accelerated the ability of the Maker Mindset to be able to impact in a meaningful way — through being able to rapidly prototype, to fail faster — be that 3D printed parts or lines of code — and to be able to collaborate; to work together in distributed teams, to share learn gins, to build on the work of others — to not have to re-invent the wheel every time. The Maker Mindset has flattened inequalities, brought people together (Multi-authored collaborative projects hosted via GITHUB, schools getting closer to gender-balanced STEM learning, in-roads into making sure there are equal opportunities for all etc) has enabled invention, scientific development and medical breakthroughs.

Digitally-powered making (is this what we mean when we say The Maker Movement?) has been transformative, with young children learning to code, animate, calculate, hack. YouTube is now the world’s teacher and Wikipedia the world’s encyclopaedia — with everyone from first-graders to grandparents able to learn pretty much anything. That’s disruptive!

Tugce Karatas: How your background in design affected your practice as a global connector?

Tomas Diez: I am an urban designer. I studied in Urban Planning and Sociology by the University Simon Bolivar in Caracas — Venezuela. Having an urban design background especially, understand urbanism beyond the space and the aesthetic and concentrate more on the economic dynamics, relationship with the environment and so on. It immediately triggered me the interest in data fabrication as an agent to transform into urban space. I was not interested in designing public spaces or top-down planning. I try to find ways to activate bottom-up processes through local production they can actually change the relationship between us and city also between as and others. What is interesting that to see maybe 20–25 years how digital disruptions are transforming the way we work, play and do almost everything in the city starting from the digitalisation of information. What we see now is a digital fabrication with relocalisation of the production in the cities we will see probably a dramatic transformation on logistics, on the relationship between people. That’s really what triggers me on starting this nearly impossible mission and start to work with the global network in order to make that happen.

T.K: How did you decide to have a global FabLab Community from Fablab Barcelona to FabCity and eventually to FabAcademy?

T.D.: Fablab Barcelona was the first Fablab in Europe and probably the 10th Fablab in the world. Fablab Barcelona is also where the FabCity started somehow. Our Fablab is inside the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) which has a strong relationship with architecture and urbanism but also has been a part of City Administration in Barcelona from 2011 to 2014. So part of our strategies jumped into public policy. FabCity is now one of the public policy as well. We approached Mayor of Barcelona to commit a 40-year challenge of turning Barcelona into a city that produces everything that consumes locally. This is also a countdown started in 2014 which we can be seen how many years left on FabCity. Last three years another seventeen cities, regions and countries joined this challenge.

T.K.: What is the core values of creating a global community yet respecting the local? What makes a global community for you?

T.D: The term of community nowadays use vaguely. A group of people is not necessarily is a community. A community is a group of individuals who share a common goal, ambition and work together to make it happen. When we opened the Fablab Barcelona in 2007 there was no community, there was almost nothing. During the last ten years, we have helped to grow that network into a global movement. We have now maybe 1300 fab labs more or less. Here in Barcelona, we have created the tools for this community to at least recognise each other and use it more to share projects and contacts. But what makes the Fablab network a community is a fact that we share programmes, set of tools and set of values. We also gather together either online and offline (at least once a year). Right now we are a small group of individuals who are connected to organisations like Daniel Charny for example. Group of people contributes the FabCity project also from the Danish Design Center, Royal College of Art, Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab in China and so on. But the ultimate aim is the city as a community which we have a few years away from having the citizens or neighbours working actively for enabling a new digital economy based on local production and collaboration.

T.K.: What is the relation between digital and physical space in FabAcademy context?

T.D: Fablabs are mostly cultural spaces where people learn, experience, practice more than fabrication space. That for me beyond being purely technological or industrial or neo-industrial kind of activity but mostly a cultural experience changing people from all over the world and also with making projects in a different way with these people. One of the examples is FabAcademy. FabAcademy is a distributed educational model providing a unique educational experience. Unlike a typical MOOC, the learning experience happens mostly through making and doing in local scale. Once the online courses finish, people work in groups to develop projects locally, therefore, each lab works as a classroom of a global programme.

T.K.: As a researcher, you also work as a connector between education, design and digital fabrication. How has ‘maker movement’ changed in ten years? And how do you think it will change in future?

T.D.: If you look back in history, the industry changed art and design dramatically. Bauhaus, for example, defined the modern relationship between society and industry. Products somehow worked as interfaces between society and industry, connected the people through a set of values but also through a set of economic rules. ‘Design for industrialisation’ or ‘Design for aesthetic products’ is not working. As Papanek says industrial designers are one of the most dangerous species on the planet. With the spread of digital fabrication tools and the potential of the emerging technologies, I believe that we have started to rethink everything in order to create some sort of social contract between the new society and the new industry.

Tugce Karatas: When you think about the current state of ‘Maker Movement’, how do you describe your position as a curator in contemporary design culture?

Daniel Charny: My biggest interest is changing the topic from ‘Maker’ to ‘Making’. However, what is interesting about Maker Movement is that ‘the term’ or ‘the idea’ has been really useful for bringing people and ideas together by creating momentum and point of discussion to move this along. The title of the exhibition, the one I curated at the V&A in 2011, was ‘Power of Making’ not ‘Power of Makers’. It was about empowering people to make again and celebrating the knowledge of making. If we get to call this era in the future the ‘Making Movement’, I would be much happier. Because the ethos sharing knowledge co-opted by startups or entrepreneurs etc. to sell things or ideas. That was not the intention of most of the people that started to talk about it. What we are witnessing today is the idea of ‘Maker Movement’ used as a cover for a lot of activities that have very little to do with the ethos and the values that it represents.

On the other hand, people use the term of the curator to comment and take a position nowadays. Relatively, in terms of ‘changemakers’, I believe we should split that to ‘perception shifters’ which can be reading what is going on, understanding where things are heading and trying to create an alternative future. It is like the speculative design or speculative thinking. The curators are the changemakers who changes the direction of where things are heading. That part of curating — I think the one that I am part of — is not just saying “this is happening now” but it also saying “what if this was a bigger part of our future”. More than that, it is taking a position towards it. It is not just observation and analysis, it is synthesis.

What is your point of view about ‘makers as agents’ in new-age design communities?

D.C.: The impact of digital making on traditional makers has gone in two ways. Digital has given back to craftsperson the role of gatekeeper so they can connect again with the user. The digital really shifted that for makers. The other aspect is that it merged lots of different communities but at a price that the knowledge of materiality and making itself has been reduced. Because people don’t have the same levels of experiences and the same confidence with tools. And they are working very much with the screen but most of the manufacturing process happens far away. Today, we are trying to regain their relationship with the materials. When you are making it is so satisfying that you are that special zone and it is kind of magic. And being at the maker spaces or hackerspaces wherever people make, they get in touch with the experience itself and they regain the relationship with this potential. There is a really important role in these places. However there is a problem because of the digital, there has been gender, educational, financial and technical barrier.

Is it just another rich kids’ playground or can it be something more? That’s where the cultural role of maker spaces becomes really interesting. Without the cultural role of those making places or programmes, it will collapse and without a community, those spaces simply won’t work. So there are two sides, you can be depressed by this or you can think like this is an amazing tool for a new type of social environment if we understand the cultural role of makerspaces. But if the makerspaces and the people in those makers want to be a part of the change they have to understand the cultural aspects not just the technical. This has been an issue because makerspaces, hackerspaces, fab labs or entrepreneurship co-working spaces — all those amazing spaces we are hearing about — I don’t think they really have engaged properly with the cultural and the community aspect of making which will enable what they want. And in fact, the question is the term of ‘Maker Movement’ still valuable for all these communities.

T.K.: What are the core values/ strategies of ‘From Now On’ in order to create global networks and design communities?

D.C.: First of all, we are interested in ‘needs’. So observing, listening, analysing and then doing something which will prototype strategic directions. So ‘need first, prototyping fast.’ Because I think understanding needs but also trying things out before you fully understand the strategy is where ‘From Now On’ lives. What we trying to understand is what is their purpose. For example, it is not taking the model of a makerspace and open a makerspace in Istanbul or in North Carolina or in Kyoto, but you need to connect to ‘a local need’ and build a proposition that will fit with the local purposes and the business-model should come out of that. Because it has to fit the ‘need’ and the ‘purpose’. This reflects From Now On’s work. We create tools and formats for experimentation that enables people to discover shared values, shared interests, and shared purpose. In order to do that, we actively look for a continuum of creative thinking beyond disciplines.

What do you think about the disruptiveness of maker movement? Do you think ‘making’ has the potential for disruption?

D.C.: Are we talking about the disruption of processes or disruption of results? The way things have been done or the reason things been done? That’s interesting. Because there is a big conversation about ‘maker movement’ and ‘makers’ is just a hype and whether it will last or not. And that’s related the question of how disruptive is it. I think the Maker Movement isn’t disruptive itself but it is part of the change that could happen. And then, it would be fundamentally disruptive.

Note: This article is commissioned for “Maker Movement: Democracy in Design” issue of Design Unlimited magazine in 2018.