Making Room for the Community-Based Circular Economy
If you are not making locally, you don’t have a circular economy.
If we are serious about re-engineering our linear take-make-waste economy into a circular economy, we need to be making locally, and providing spaces where anyone can learn and maintain relevant skills to effectively participate in such activity.
A circular economy requires a local production capacity, else it remains a bury, burn or bale-and-export linear economy.
Creating a circular economy requires an industrial-scale response, but this can be complemented by a community-based response and associated physical infrastructure, such as makerspaces, fab labs, community technology workshops and any other community-based form that falls under the umbrella of ‘shared fabrication spaces’.
How Community-Based Production Can Support a Circular Economy
The maker/hacker community has some points of confluence with the circular economy and the environment movement more broadly — for example, both are seeking to tackle planned obsolescence — but in general, they have arrived at this point as a result of different motivations:
- the maker community is challenging planned obsolescence through the ethos of right to repair, expressed in documents like iFixit’s Repair Manifesto, which reflect the position ‘if you can’t repair it, you don’t own it’. Access to spare parts, availability of repair manuals, the need for nonstandard parts or special tools, materials and design that is not durable are all motivations for the DIY/maker community pursuit of the right to repair. This push goes far beyond the maker community — in rural USA, farmers are organising for the right to repair their tractors. While environmental concerns are a factor, the primary motivation is challenging the proprietary right of corporations to control the ability to disassemble, repair, and upgrade their products.
- the environment movement is challenging planned obsolescence through a lens of wasteful consumption, and the understanding that capitalism depends on the ongoing use, throughput and waste of material in order to perpetuate economic growth.
In terms of a circular economy, community based shared fabrication spaces have the potential to deliver much more than providing people with the ability to tackle planned obsolescence.
They can enable and encourage:
- reducing resource consumption through sharing — as shared, open, peer-learning spaces, they enable use of shared access to equipment, along with the potential for expanding this more widely into the community via initiatives such tool/equipment libraries.
- repair and reuse — these spaces also provide opportunities for fix-it clinics/repair cafes and other initiatives that promote the circular and collaborative economies — reusing, repairing and fixing things, and transmitting the knowledge of how to do so.
- avoiding consumption — digital fabrication techniques — which are often a key element of these spaces — enable productive activity with more precision in the use of materials, creating less waste that needs to be salvaged in the first place. The ability to design to order, customise, and produce in small batches also avoids the wasteful over-production aspects of existing manufacturing.
- recovery and recycling — at the other end of the materials life cycle, digital fabrication techniques in workshops offer new opportunities such as RecycleBots, FilaBots and Precious Plastic (itself an open source machine that can be fabricated in a makerspace) devices for converting 3D printer and other plastic waste into new filaments for reuse of plastics as 3D printer ‘ink’. In their operations, these workshops can also be exemplars of source-separated waste and recycling systems and resource management focused waste contracts, which reward service providers for how much material they recycle, rather than just a fee for emptying bins.
- convening events and activities — to challenge designers and suppliers of surplus materials into thinking creatively about how their waste resources could be used in projects by others, and develop a platform for discussing and experimenting with local circular economies. Identifying and supporting infrastructure projects that encourage local production and economic activity, extend the life of materials and things, and foster innovation and skills development, will contribute to establishing a circular economy.
What is needed to help such spaces establish and flourish is a range of ingredients, including:
- people with relevant knowledge, skills and availability, including technical skills such as training people to use equipment safely; strategic skills to help build the networks of supporters and members, the funding base and communications plan of the space; business and administrative skills, such as ensuring insurances are in place, regulations complied with, and reporting (including financial reporting) to funders/sponsors
- a community of interest to get the dynamo spinning — it will be easier to secure a range of support with a community ready to activate the space, help get the word out, and pull in other resources
- an amenable or receptive ‘authorising environment’ which is willing to work with the community across a range of areas, from providing or securing funding, in-kind support, and helping navigate the regulatory and legal frameworks (planning, insurance etc) that might not have been formulated with such spaces in mind
- a variety of equipment and consumables, including recovered materials
However in my research and experience, the major barrier to getting established is access to capital, and specifically space. The cost of rent can make or break civic assets such as these.
Make Media in the US produced a series on the business case of makerspaces, which undertook extensive investigations into this issue. Artisan Asylum outside Boston cited rent as the largest ongoing expense, initially 75% of their income, and still at 25–30% after years of being established.
The issue of rent is central to whether such spaces can survive and thrive.
This opens a broader question of who and what the city is for, and whether affordable spaces for uses that cannot compete in a purely commercial sense have a role in the city — if so, there needs to be support which will include paying for space, as unless a suitable space can be donated or purchased, rent will be an ongoing and major cost.
Interestingly, ultra-libertarian Silicon Valley titans such as Peter Thiel, Founder of PayPal, have also identified this issue:
One thing I’ve been thinking about as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley is the vast majority of the capital I give to the companies is just going to landlords. It’s going to commercial real estate and even more to urban slumlords of one sort or another.
Makerspace/workshop revenues are subject to some estimating, contingent upon available space, as it is the availability of space which generates the forward momentum that allows other revenue streams (subleasing, workshops, memberships) to flow.
In many arenas, nonprofits, not for profits and community groups have realised the dangers of depending on government funding, which is subject to the vagaries of political changes and shifting priorities. Years of work can be destroyed or set back in a very short space of time as a result of a change in personnel or policy.
These organisations have increasingly moved away from the charity model, and towards as great a level of financial self-sufficiency as possible. A business model derived from assets, skills and offerings of the organisation can help generate revenue, and this is already a feature of many existing spaces/workshops. Key revenue streams (depending on the space) could include subleasing, storage space, prototyping services, memberships, corporate team building sessions, events and more. Further, a not for profit business model, where there is a legal requirement for surplus to be reinvested into the organisation’s mission, is being explored in the forthcoming book How On Earth by the Post Growth Institute.
Even for spaces which intend to move towards financial self-sufficiency, generated through enterprise as much as possible, this goal may not be achievable in the first years, and ultimately may not be completely achieved.
This would be a concern if the space itself was considered solely a business, however a makerspace differs from a social enterprise in that it serves many purposes, including as a community asset (a ‘common asset’, like a library which offers services to the community) and an incubator (ADX Portland has incubated 100+ businesses), where people with expertise provide training, mentorship and space for others to develop and build enterprises.
Both common assets and incubators are regularly supported with government funds.
If there is need for an ongoing subsidy from a municipality or government or philanthropic entity, perhaps fluctuating from one year to the next to meet any shortfall rather than a fixed amount, this could be set up under a service level agreement, where a for-benefit entity which provides a range of programs and services on behalf of the funding body.
It is in the interests of the organisation that any ongoing subsidy is sourced from a diverse range of funders to insulate it from the impact of losing one major donor or sponsor.
There are many other options for funding civic infrastructure including Community Land Trusts, where community assets are held in a trust and stewarded by a nonprofit entity on behalf of a community.
Making the Case: Highlighting Opportunities
Highlighting the range of potential benefits from shared fabrication spaces can help decision makers to see their value and the opportunities they offer.
Such benefits may include:
Employment: governments everywhere are dealing with the vexed issue of how to create jobs in an era where more traditional forms of employment are disappearing, becoming casualised, freelance, moving offshore, or automated. Investing in community development can support economic development, and foster 21st century industries and livelihoods where people are more empowered than ever to MYOJ (‘Make Your Own Job’). This will be critical in a world where more people are not in traditional employment, and are seeking to build a livelihood around their passions and skills.
Health and Wellbeing: open access, community based spaces founded on principles of diversity are welcoming to anyone who wishes to participate. In a community based lab/space, people who cannot access spaces restricted to commercial or enrolled tertiary users have the opportunity to have their skills and knowledge valued, with these facilities providing an outlet for creativity, social connection and self-directed activity. For those whose social ties have been lost or are fractured (loss of job, retirement, loss of partner/family members or friends), becoming part of a community that does things together opens up a range of new personal and working relationship possibilities. Community workshops contribute to what Asset Based Community Development advocates call ‘associational life’, acting as ‘third places’ to bring people together in the spirit of exchange and collaboration, which contribute to physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Entrepreneurship: providing access to community based shared fabrication spaces, equipment and communities of practice can enable people to take their idea from the shed or kitchen table to commercialisation and the world. They are the bridge between great, innovative ideas and creating a working prototype — especially for people who might not necessarily identify as an ‘entrepreneur’ or fit the mould of a typical startup incubator.
Local Economic Development: such spaces can serve as local economy engines as well as the basis of building capacity for distributed manufacturing, on-demand manufacturing and micro-factories. There is an economic value and multiplier effect when production returns to a city. By encouraging learning, experimentation, collaboration and invention, the economic potential of such spaces emerges organically. While pathways to support for commercialisation and entrepreneurship should certainly be apparent and available, if there are expectations placed on such spaces to become production lines of commercial products and entrepreneurs, their creative force will be more likely to dissipate.
Industry: by providing the physical space to connect and collaborate, spaces enable maker movement creators and pioneers to ‘cross pollinate’ with business and industry leaders, opening up opportunities to transform the way products are conceived and made through collaborative and open source processes. These spaces can help seed the new forms for reindustrialisation and distributed manufacturing at a micro level, to reduce waste associated with over-production and carbon emissions associated with shipping materials and products, and — combined with the right business models — to generate employment opportunities associated with re-localising production.
Education & Skills: community technology spaces provide a focus for formal and informal STEAM (Science, Technology, Arts, Engineering, Maths) education and skills, which can continue to be developed throughout life, rather than ceasing once no longer a student or employee.
Environment: the spaces can support initiating the bigger shift needed at the front end of the materials life cycle, in changing the culture of how we make and produce, first micro, then at scale; how we bring industries that ‘make’ back to the city, how we are going to provide people with work and income while automation — including in the recycling industry — is rapidly advancing. Spaces can embed sustainability in both their operations (resource efficiency, reuse, recovery and recycling of materials, energy and water efficiency, procurement practices) as well as the focus of their activity — Valldaura in Barcelona is home to the ‘Green’ Fab Lab with a focus on food, energy and local manufacturing. Scaling local production can also support carbon reduction objectives.
Making the Case: Addressing Barriers
In terms of barriers, authorities and funders may struggle to grasp the difference between community based, open access spaces and other facilities that offer 3D printing, or which are only open to employees of a company, or only open to staff and students of an educational institution. Spaces that are inclusive and open access create more possibilities for innovation from a much wider and more diverse base. It is critical to be very clear on the benefits of an open access space, and highlight those which are most likely to be of interest to funders.
In a context of budget cuts or fiscal constraint, it may be harder to convince decision makers and funders to undertake what might seem to them to be a risky experiment in innovation. However community technology workshops are not new — among many prior incarnations around the world, they were successfully established in London in the early-mid 1980s with much the same ethos as contemporary open access makerspaces, though they were undermined by a central conservative government, and seem to have been largely forgotten in a kind of collective cultural amnesia. Studying history can provide some insights into potential pitfalls and how to buffer such spaces from threats.
Planning regulations can help or hinder spaces. Most planning authority development plans are unlikely to have specific provision for ‘makerspaces’, and because of the activities undertaken in them, they might not fit under existing definitions, such as community centres. Being able to clearly convey what these spaces are, and what the noise, safety, traffic implications may be, will assist any approval process. Under some planning systems, a change in land use may constitute ‘development’ and require approval, even if no major works are planned to retrofit the space.
Grants and funding often preclude the use of funding for the biggest financial barrier — rent. Community grants tend to be too small to secure a space. Philanthropic funds may tend to favour ameliorating the effects of our current economic and power systems, and be oriented towards tackling their symptoms, such as homelessness, poverty and other forms of disadvantage. One way to make the case is to present these spaces as infrastructure — budgets for infrastructure are often much bigger. The concept of community technology workshops or makerspaces can be framed a type of ‘enabling infrastructure’. If infrastructure is defined as that which enables an activity to occur, then space, and the rent required to access it, is infrastructure. If a municipality or regional authority has budget for waste and recycling infrastructure, make an argument for ‘transplanting’ some of that funding to activating the upper part of the materials hierarchy.
Community-based shared fabrication spaces offer ways to help people develop materials literacy, reconnecting people to the origin of their material lives, and can serve as sites of cultural transformation, enabling and demonstrating changes to the way we design, make, use and dispose of materials.
They offer people a means of actively participating in provisioning for themselves, rather than being passive recipients of an often impenetrable supply chain and associated invisible environmental and social impacts scattered across the globe.
They offer potential to challenge the primacy of consumption and culture of disposability, and they invite people to remember and (re)discover they are citizens, not just consumers. As such, they are a signal interruption to the prevailing economic operating system.
These wider cultural shifts are critical in order to meet the objective of creating a circular economy.
However a circular economy of materials is necessary, but not sufficient, for the systemic change we need to get us on track for a secure future.
Any approach which is aligned with or dependent on an economic system based on perpetual growth and the pursuit of more, or one where value is created by many but captured by a few, does not offer the structure that can deliver the changes we need to address our environmental and social challenges. A truly circular economy would mean that the circular ethos is also reflected in our social systems, including our financial and business structures, and the political frameworks and cultural norms that influence human behaviour.
A real circular economy would expand the definition of the circular economy to one where its operating system is regenerative not extractive not only towards nature, but people; one where wealth is equitably circulated and shared.
Making room for community based production and circular economy initiatives is one way of seeding change in the substrate of cities to bring about a circular, regenerative economy and society.