Photo: Phillippa rose

Design for Open Making

Building for building together.

Here’s the story of how children make together. They gather in groups and explore through play. They interact. There’s harmony and shared purpose. Except it is a bit of a story. And we use it to persuade ourselves that adults have strayed from the path of collaborative utopia.

In reality one of the first things adults try and instill in children is the importance of sharing; in fact it’s an ongoing fight. Children quickly learn to protect what’s theirs and as soon as the concept of ownership takes root in their brains they’re all over it.

Ownership over the things children make can be even more territorial. Recently my children built a sandcastle while a boy waited for them to walk away so he could kick it over. What happened to the instinctive social harmony, building on each other’s ideas?

It’s not always combative; my children are often just happy to play alone. They can sit for hours together making things, but in most instances these are independent, personal projects. And in some cases they’re a little competitive.

If children struggle with making things together as much as adults purportedly do then surely we’re incapable of making anything collaboratively? Well, we know this isn’t really true. Things do happen, things get built. In many cases incredible things.

But more often than not it seems as if these emerge against our natural tendencies.

If you went back to every great act of collaborative creation we’d probably soon see the architecture and the conditions that made it happen. In many cases this architecture would be incredibly complex, perhaps even impenetrable, but it would be there.

In most cases what was created through this complex infrastructure was never intended. History is littered with unintended consequences, with grand projects that arrived by chance. Our history of making things is no less accidental.

So if we want to foster Open Making, truly inclusive collaborative creation, then what do we need to do? We have all the technology, brains and resources we need to make anything we can imagine but how do we harness all this to make it an open, collaborative act that involves everyone that wants to be part of it?

The problem with “open” anything is the fact that open is really difficult. It’s hard to define and hard to employ. It’s by no means a default state to uncover. And so, something as utopian as Open Making is a bit of a challenge. It’s not enough to give people the Internet and expect them to get on with it.

I’m particularly fascinated by education. I’ve been watching Sugata Mitra’s Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs) and the attempts to employ them with interest. The whole thing has moved from a specific, simple project to a large-scale initiative. The starting point was fascinating, but reading about teachers’ attempts to implement the framework even more so.

What’s obvious is that a beautiful concept for simple, interest-led education mutates considerably by the time it hits the classroom. One teacher’s account of using the toolkit described how they felt it would enhance the children’s self-directed learning if they established more of a framework and provided a bit of an introduction. And in the blink of an eye the delicate balance is lost.

SOLEs are a real exercise in Open Making. Children are working out amongst themselves how to make their education; how to learn. But to think that this is simply a case of giving children the Internet and expecting them to get on with it would be very wrong. SOLEs are a finely-crafted exercise in design. Every component works together beautifully. And design is as much what’s taken away as anything else.

So, if creating openness is a design challenge then what are the components? In the case of Open Making perhaps we could think about: Spaces, Minds, Skills, Costs and Ends.

Open Spaces

What are Open Spaces? On a recent trip to a fablab I was struck by how closed the space was in contrast to how open it was intended to be. It was up a lot of stairs. It was quite dark. People were busying away by themselves. There was all sorts of weird machinery. It’s fair to say that it would only appeal to a certain set of people.

It may be unrealistic to expect a single space to be open. In reality it’s probably better to consider open space as a number of different spaces in different contexts, online and off. But openness is more than just having an open door. It’s about creating the spaces that make people feel safe and comfortable.

Open Mind

Open Mind is all about a predisposition to making. It’s nothing to do with capability or expertise but a readiness to engage in the physical process of making itself. Openness in this regard is about providing the stimuli to engage people with different perspectives in a making mindset.

This is something children are particularly good at. Adults seem to lose some of the ability to express themselves by making things. How do we re-engage them with this simple act?

Open Skills

How do we make the skills available to the people that want them? This is a broad education question but at its most basic we’re asking how to provide the framework for people to pursue the acquisition of the skillet they specifically need.

Open Skills is a real bottom-up element. Rather than impose a set of skills we think people need, how do we create the infrastructure that allows people to direct themselves?

Open Tools

What does an open framework for tools look like? This is probably an infinite range of analogue and digital tools (not forgetting hands) that fit within a wider architecture of potential inputs. The trick is to ensure that the portfolio of available options suits individual need, want and expertise.

Open Costs

This is an exciting opportunity for open making. A new model of distribution that uses localised capability can bring with it new models of costs. The knock-on effect of this is scalable products that are realised differently in different contexts. There are exciting possibilities here.

Open Ends

Finally, and closely related to the last point, what would infinite personalisation look like? How much would we tailor something to our own needs? How much would we want to?

Open Making is a huge challenge, especially as it overlaps with other models in the course of its development. After all, combining such an incredible social, personal approach with everything we know about economies of scale and efficiencies could create exciting new models.

But the question for Open Making remains: how do we design the infrastructures to make the best of the huge opportunities on offer?

Tomorrow, as part of Redfront, I’m at the RSA FutureMaker Day. We’ll be exploring some of these things further, although we’re not yet entirely sure what will come out of it. Come and talk to us.

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