On Mushrooms and Makerspaces

This text is a provocation and a work in progress. Feel free to comment and correct if you think my understanding of mushrooms or spaces is incorrect.

Collaborative spaces go by many names and support a diverse range of communities. Examples include: Makerspaces, Hubs, Hackerspaces, Fab Labs, Community Gardens, and Coworking Spaces.

Companies and organisations looking at these spaces see exciting new opportunities. They want to replicate the atmosphere and buzz of connection, exploration and innovation. So they visit the space, they look around at the furniture, the machines and the internet access. They look at the structures. Then they go and try to recreate a space.

And they fail.

They fail because they completely miss the true foundations of the space. They are structure oriented. Their perspective is the Factory, so they try to copy the product.

But such spaces are not machines, and don’t function as such.

Recently I attended an event intended to explore how organisations can get involved in these spaces. After hours of space makers discussing the importance of community, a university representative stated.

“We’re preparing a business plan so we can apply for funding to build a fab lab”

“I’m of the opinion that if we build it, they will come”

The tension and frustration in the room from the grass roots spaces was palpable.

Large organisation politicos who’ve discovered a new buzzword are some of the greatest threats to such spaces.

Larger organisations are better placed to interface with other large organisations. So they end up soaking up both money and attention, that would be better directed towards grass roots developments.

When funding does reach a grassroots project it often comes attached to political prerequisites. These restrict growth in response to community need, instead redirecting energy to please the donor. Direct funding of running costs and overheads is addictive. Spaces get hooked on unsustainable streams, and a bias towards grant funding. It leads to inorganic growth that is not sustainable.

I offer the below as an intellectual olive branch, in the hope that such spaces may be better understood, so we might together nurture the ecosystem so spaces can sustain themselves rather than creating unhealthy competition or dependencies.

There is much these spaces share in common with mushrooms. I hope with the lifecycle of a mushroom as a metaphor I can provide insights into how to encourage these spaces.

drawn by Jay Cousins on betabook.co

Spore
A spore is the mushrooms means of reproduction. It is light, resilient and can travel huge distances. It contains the information required to grow, combine and produce a fruiting body (the mushroom).

The equivalent of the spore is the Idea of the space (eg. makerspace). It travels through media in all its forms. Any channel can be the wind upon which the spore travels. The words used to describe the idea, allow for the discovery of the information required for growth and connection .

Soil
For a spore to grow it requires soil*. The best soil features decomposing leaves and wood.

I’ll come to the importance of death and decomposition later. Consider minds to be the soil in which the ideas take hold and grow. They grow through further communication of the idea. Inspiring others and building a small community or “proto-network” around the idea.

The mushroom equal of this budding community are hyphae.

Hyphae mating and mycelium formation
The hyphae grow and branch in the soil, seeking out other hyphae which they can sense at a distance and growing towards them.

Inspired by a shared idea, proto-networks seek out and connect with other networks on local and global scales. They begin to grow together, exchange information, patterns and ideas (nutrients), becoming stronger.

In mushroom terms mycelium forms.

Hyphal knots and fruiting bodies
Mushrooms begin to bud where hyphal knots form. These are places where the connecting hyphae are densely packed. Our own human network connection points are changing over time rather than static. Hyphal knots are periods where connections are frequent.

The hyphal knots of space formation are events. Where connections take place and energies combine to create projects and spaces. Events are critical at each stage of network growth, allowing for early connections. As frequency of events increases, so does the need and desire for own space in which to grow.

In mushrooms a primordia forms and grows into a fruiting body. For spaces a prototype space begins, and grows into a larger space often growing to take up most of the building in which it started.

Word about the space spreads and the idea of the space travels out into the world.

A thriving ecosystem
All plants enjoy the improved quality and flow of nutrients in the soil enabled by mycelium. Trees are even known to use forest mycelium networks to exchange carbon.

Businesses and projects are the plants and trees of the spaces ecosystem. As the spaces thrive so does the surrounding productivity, creativity and economy.

Death and nutrient Cycles
Death is essential to the ecosystem. Yet it’s something we are uneasy with on an organisational level and a personal one. Without death nutrients cannot return to the ecosystem. Without death human resources, intellectual property, and financial resources remain trapped in large organisations.

We see some organisations as too big to fail, but I would argue they are too big to live. They have reached a size where they are sucking up all the nutrients from the surrounding environment, stifling growth or even creating a toxic wasteland. Death is inevitable, but it would be better for us (and them) if they died sooner, rather than after ecosystem collapse.

Likewise it is important that we accept the death of smaller organisations as a healthy part of a growing Ecosystem.

The first space I co-founded — Open Design City didn’t die in name, but it did die in it’s form. The community around it scattered to the winds settling in different spaces in Berlin. A new Open Design City was born, but so also was D-Collective, Trial and Error’s tauschladen, and Berliner Lastenrad-netzwerk space and numerous other projects filled the void. I was free to assist in the development of spaces in Egypt.

Sometimes death can be the most productive thing you can do. You give your nutrients to the spores starting the cycle anew.

So how can you help develop the spaces ecosystem?

I’ve broken the following insights into large organisations, networks and spaces. No doubt there is more to be gleaned, but these are the critical points in my opinion.

Large Organisations

Think of how you can nurture, rather than copy or control.

Do not build a huge space with massive overheads and then try to build a community around it. This does not benefit the ecosystem. You could even destroy it by competing with grass roots initiatives, or drawing attention away from them. Once you withdraw your funding the space will die or struggle to survive scouting for its next funding hit.

Instead:

Help “spores” to spread
Promote the idea of spaces and other connected projects within the areas you want to encourage formation. For example — a video or text in accessible language can inspire others to create spaces for themselves.

Note: Do not build another platform, do not recreate what exists — translate and amplify.

Assist with “Hyphae Mating” and “Hyphal Knot formation”
Encourage and support events where there is the space for exchange of ideas and forming of networks at a Local level. Provide an accessible and comfortable space (consider psychological accessibility). Offer some food/drink and shared context around which people can gather and connect. Assist with and encourage travel to existing spaces.

Note: Do not fill the event with your own agenda led content.

Drop “leaves, seeds and dead wood”
Consider what waste and resource exists in your organisation and how it could help the growing ecosystem. Look at how you can use the ecosystem to develop new ideas and exchange knowledge and finance in return. Don’t just support one space or business but look at how your contribution can benefit the network as a whole. Encourage diversity of growth rather than focusing on one sector. Spin out small dynamic businesses that use the services offered by spaces. Encourage collaborative projects.

Removal of rocks and barriers
There are many legal obstacles to the growth of spaces. For example in Egypt it is not possible for businesses to share one address. Short term projects and collaborations need responsive legal frameworks for invoicing, insurance and taxation. Larger organisations are able to shape policy and law. Rather than seeking to protect your entrenched and dying industry models use your power to help grow the future.

Provide space
Offer your unused spaces, for activity or even space growth. Is your office empty in the evening, your university unused in the summer holidays, your night club empty in the daytime? Then grant access and allow beautiful things to grow.

Growing Networks

Mate and form mycelium”
Look at how you can connect and create a meta-network. Drop the ego of your network brand and ensure that your information is not contained in a social network, but accessible to all. Seek each other out, and refrain from dogma.

Spaces

Accept death as a part of the cycle
This doesn’t mean I think you should die, but neither should you fear death. Death is essential to regrowth. Serve the ecosystem and it’s development even if it means your own space dies.

We have reached a point in our history of huge transition. The Mushroom Metaphor is just one small key towards shifting the narrative away from Factory Thinking. By growing our ecosystems and mimicking nature’s strategies, we can build a new system that can sustain us. But we must be conscientious in our collective approach if we are to do this.

Without the ecosystem there is no future.

*note: they also grow on trees and other places, but i’m simplifying. If you’re thinking the tree metaphor could apply to your organisation remember that Fungi grow best on Dead Wood ☺.