Maker Assembly Summit

The Institute of Making workshop

How can you measure the impact of makerspaces better? Can they be part of the solution to the UK’s productivity problems?

These are some notes about the Maker Assembly Summit I attended at the Institute of Making at UCL. I’m not myself deeply embedded in the maker community, but it is one of a range of alternative forms of cooperation that I’m interested in — I have a familiar but perhaps slightly external perspective.

The ecology of makerspaces seems to be at something of a formative moment, attendees reported various symbolic turning points — laser cutter suppliers Just Add Sharks have gone bust, as have TechShop, a US-based chain of maker spaces. Several participants described a shift from the struggle of keeping a new makerspace open to longer-term questions about their purpose and goals. It seems that a makerspaces’ third birthday is often the time the excitement of managing to keep the space open wears off and founders start wondering where to take the venture next.

Dale Dougherty, the CEO of prominent makerspace-oriented magazine Make, has been on a misogynistic social media campaign against Chinese maker Naomi Wu. For many makers, the ethical and social aspects of making are as important as the physical outputs, so watching an established figure in the community behave so badly has triggered a moment cultural of reckoning.

At the same time, makerspaces are integrating into the establishment. Makerspaces at universities are starting to compete with traditional workshops when it comes to building prototypes or experimental equipment; they allow a permissive and iterative process that contrasts with the prescriptive style of departmental technicians. Makerspaces are attracting sponsorship from big corporates. Indian manufacture Godrej has an internal makerspace to which any employee can be seconded to if they can demonstrate they have an innovative idea that needs prototyping. Makerspaces are deployed by local government as part of regeneration initiatives, a model the Assemble collective have demonstrated effectively. The Crafts Council has programs exploring educational and social aspects of Makerspaces, while Innovate UK is exploring commercial applications.

It’s in that last contrast that the complexity seems to lie: are maker spaces about building individual’s capacity, teaching them skills and building social connections? Or are they about applying the ‘gig economy’ model to the manufacturing sector, providing manufacturing services to small-scale companies and startups?

If it’s about the latter, then perhaps we could just trust the market to provide makerspaces. Small companies can pay to use manufacturing tools in a shared workspace — no need for intervention, entrepreneurs will see the profit opportunity and provide the service.

But, if the people I spoke to are anything to go by, many in the maker community don’t see makerspaces like this at all. They describe their institutions as analogous to gyms or libraries, services that are not well provided by the market.

Many of those running makerspaces have been given funding from the public sector, but, unfortunately, not on the basis of a social contribution, instead on the basis that they will demonstrate an economic return — Liz Corbin captured this frustration with the (I presume) satirical question “How many unicorns will come out of your makerspace?” This is an unhappy mixture of social and market-based perspectives.

Funding bodies do have a responsibility to maximise the benefits from the money they allocate. They will necessarily have to make tradeoffs and compromises, so it’s right that they ask the projects they fund to report metrics that capture their effects. There’s often resentment about the types of metrics that are deployed, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest a sensible alternative to evidence of some kind.

What can be improved is the types of measurements that are attached to funding. In making her point about billion-dollar tech startup ‘unicorns’, Liz suggested more attention be paid to the formation of smaller companies, which makerspaces actually do create.

There are so many other kinds of social contribution that makerspaces can make. Laura James described her role at the Doteveryone think tank, where prototypes are not just precursors to production runs, they are communicative tools. Making a demonstration software tool can be far more effective than writing a report. The ability to make physical or digital objects can be about communicating a message as much as it is about a marketable output. We are surrounded by a material culture that remains mostly opaque, understanding that culture is a kind of literacy, a literacy that we can only acquire by disassembling, fixing, and creating.

Makerspaces are educational. Kate Mulcahy described how housing developers had approached her looking to find trainees for skilled trades like bricklaying and plumbing, who are apparently in short supply. The recent budget introduced T Levels to address exactly this issue, but similar programs have been tried before and often produce lacklustre results. Perhaps Makerspaces are an important supplement to vocational training.

Makerspaces are social spaces that shape social networks. In turn, social networks influence our health, well being, and are profoundly important for fostering innovation.

All these benefits are just as important to the economy as creating tech unicorns, they are just a bit harder to measure.

I’m interested in the idea that measurement techniques that are used to measure the benefits of spending in international development might be applicable at home too. Development programs often measure the formation of small or informal, businesses, the diffusion of skills, the development of literacies of different kinds, social capital and the teaching of skills outside universities.

Makerspaces seem somehow to be naturally allied with questions about global economic equality. On the one hand, their imagined capacity to truncate supply chains and onshore production seems insular. On the other, small-scale, local, manufacturing stands in contrast with the sweatshops of the global south. On this level, it makes sense that the British Council has been working at connecting UK makerspaces with similar institutions in India and China. So perhaps makerspaces offer a perfect testbed for the application of measures from development economics to domestic policy.

Given the UK’s burning need to sort out it’s productivity — which lags terribly behind other European countries — it would seem logical that spaces literally dedicated to production and catalysing the capacity to produce might have been in the recent budget. Unfortunately, AI seems to have eclipsed all other policy ideas. Perhaps the current reconfiguration of the makerspace ecology will lead a broader recognition of it’s relevance.