from making to maintaining

Yesterday was a reflective workshop for the Maker Assembly community. I was inspired to organise an event to celebrate maintenance and maintainers (more about this below), but we covered a lot of other ground too.

Maker Assembly’s tweet and photo of the event

A lot of maker culture is about making new things, and in many Western contexts, that’s making gadgets and gizmos that are fun for a while but generally then gather dust until eventually thrown away. Making and fixing useful things happens, but often in less visible places — farmers repairing and modifying their equipment, making and fixing in rural areas, and around the world local manufacturing and hacking and reuse where it’s the only option to save and sustain life. (We used to do more of that here, making do and mending, but of late that’s declined as consumer goods became more affordable, and often cheaper to replace than to repair — or even complex items designed to be thrown away.) We felt that making and local manufacturing of essential items would be valuable, even here in the UK, whilst imagining both dystopian and utopian possible futures.

Makerspace sustainability is also unevenly distributed. There are makerspaces being set up with great ambition from above (governments, universities, and occasionally industry) without much thought to how they will sustain beyond an initial injection of capital. The measures used by many funders of makerspaces focus on economic benefits and growth; social impact is harder to assess and seems less valued, and the timescales of funding programmes don’t always match realistic delivery timetables. Some spaces have been open for years and continue to thrive (Makespace Cambridge is coming up to its fifth birthday!), others are in reflective mode as their environments change, and some have closed. It’s not clear how the ecosystems will work in towns and cities with multiple spaces, addressing different needs (education, workforce skills, hobbies, community, entrepreneurship, coworking and manufacturing). On the other hand, the move from a vague idea of “makerspaces for everyone” to makerspaces addressing specific communities and needs seems a useful one, making it easier to explain the purpose of a given space, and to focus effort on what’s needed most. There is greater awareness and acceptance that communities and local areas have different needs and cultures, and that makerspaces and maker projects need to be match these.

One of the recurring themes in the Maker Assembly discussions was manufacturing, and our shared desire for more repair/reuse/recycling — and the challenges to achieving this, despite the many potential benefits. It was interesting to hear that “circular economy” is something of a weak term, perhaps dominated by vested interests, and so wasn’t the creative, breakthrough idea one might have hoped. (Although Ebay is perhaps an unsung hero of the circular economy, reuse and repair movement :) There were stories of useful projects with no obvious way to resource setting them up or secure support from potential beneficiaries. We talked about whether it was better or easier to make changes and improvements at incumbent businesses, or to start new challenger businesses (but didn’t reach any conclusions!). Despite the huge potential for local manufacturing (to support a community’s skills, agency, economy and well-bring), and for repair, reuse and recycling (in conserving materials, energy and effort, and valuing human endeavour), there’s just a lot less of it around than there could be. How could we change that?

We need to change today’s systems.

There’s something about business models, organisational forms and types of capital, and what we value. The values of repairing and reusing, and building products for long life rather than replacement, don’t easily align with venture capital models, for instance. Starting a new innovation project as a company following a high growth business model is easy, compared to starting a social enterprise or co-op, building public or commons goods, sharing intellectual property openly, or improving and sustaining something. Perhaps we can do better at creating and sharing rich and useful case studies of what works, and what doesn’t work, so that it’s easier for entrepreneurs to create organisations and systems which value different things. (These examples need to reflect ongoing learning and the evolution of the space — just as with makerspaces, yesterday’s poster child is not necessarily still around today. Books such as Benyayer’s Open Models may date quickly. If you know of good references, especially open access (not paywalled) and accessible (more actionable than deeply scholarly!) please add them in the comments below.) With good, understandable examples, we also stand a better chance of influencing investors and others that there are alternatives to the status quo, as these ideas become more familiar and there are templates to follow. This could help overcome the confusion around these new ideas which doesn’t help people develop practical approaches, and reduce risk by providing useful templates.

There’s something about culture, too. Today we don’t value maintenance the way we value invention. We don’t recognise maintainers the way we do makers. That might mean updating and repairing infrastructure; fixing things that break; finding places where older items might still be valued; matching recovered parts of broken goods to needs for spares elsewhere; stewarding shared resources so a community can continue to benefit from them. Responsible technology development isn’t a one-off creation, but an investment of resources and time into something that lasts (even if it’s risky at first and may not succeed — because if it does succeed, it should sustain!). We need to design products and systems for maintainability.

There are amazing individuals and projects striving to maintain, to repair, to reuse, to sustain, to steward, to remanufacture and to recycle things of value. Hardware, software, data, infrastructure, communities. They work in the public sector, the private sector, at charities and non-profits, as volunteers, in co-ops and collectives. Too often, they are invisible to those who benefit from their work. We should celebrate them, learn from the different forms and practices of maintenance, and the ways organisations are finding to support these, and figure out how to build and manufacture more sustainable products and systems — because some of the most important activities in the coming decades will need to bring together the physical and digital and social.

So I’m going to organise a Festival of Maintenance to bring together and celebrate people working to maintain things in all these different ways. If you’d like to help, contribute to this Google Doc with ideas, or get in touch. It will be in 2018, in the UK, and will include both pioneers experimenting with new ways to build and maintain physical and digital goods, and established maintainers, repairers, and stewards.

Others are thinking about maintenance too. Check out Aeon’s Hail the Maintainers, the Ford Foundation’s report on the unseen labour behind digital infrastructure, SustainOSS for open source software, or the NYT exploring “blue collar” and “white jacket” maintainers as well as white collar ones. The Festival should be more about practice and lived experience than The Maintainers events (as well as being in the UK not the US).

(Finally, a nod to my colleagues at Doteveryone who have been thinking about ethical decommissioning. Not all things should be maintained forever; sometimes, renewal and change doesn’t mean creating a new thing, but stopping an old thing.)