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Makerspaces 2: The New Industrial Revolution?

Sustainable development. Green buildings. Circular economy – these are phrases that we are hearing and seeing more and more, as city and national governments and businesses around the world rush to meet carbon emissions targets in an attempt to avert climate disaster.

As we wrote in our last Workletter, makerspaces are also a growing phenomenon. Could makerspaces be the 21st-century answer to the waste and pollution of the industrial revolution? Could they cultivate sustainable development? And be good for society in the process?

These might sound like lofty claims, but makerspaces could have the potential be a whole lot of good for people and planet – just as long as all the good intentions behind the maker movement become standard practice, and the sustainability talk is put into action.

The democratisation of industry

Makerspaces are multi-disciplinary workplaces where designers, producers, manufacturers, artists, coders, freelancers and entrepreneurs come to learn, share and… well, make.

This growing network of people moves mainly in the digital space and many identify as ‘prosumers’ – that is, they consume the products they make themselves. Production is often organised in distributed facilities, including makerspaces such as London’s Maker Mile or Fab Labs and repair workshops and open studios.

Access is usually public, which means anyone can get their hands on a 3D printer or a laser cutter, and anyone can attend workshops and network. This “open-source” philosophy helps spread the knowledge, skills and tools that support localised production. And it gives access to people who would normally be left out of, or at least less engaged in, production, manufacturing and commerce.

Take KreativWerk, a project that we are working on, as an example. Housed in the former Pushkin high school in Henningsdorf, near Berlin, this socio-cultural and commercial centre gives particular support to women who are, or want to be, building a start-up, self-employed or freelance.

So it sounds somewhat dramatic, but makerspaces can both democratise industry and make it have less of an impact on the environment.

Too good to be true?

The societal and environmental benefits of ‘self-fabrication’ have been widely promoted. Making only what you need instead of passively consuming more and more stuff, and cutting the long supply chains by producing locally – these are considered to be much better for the planet. And it’s assumed that this growing band of makerspacers are well aware of how important it is to use responsibly sourced raw materials and re-use, recycle and reduce as if they’re lives depended on it.

According to the limited research into makerspacers, however, the reality is somewhat more nuanced. This study, for instance, found that there are maker subcultures, each with different levels of environment awareness and practices, and that there is a gap between the environmentally friendly intentions and real-life practices.

Do it now or regret it later

It seems that not everyone who is a maker thinks sustainability is a pressing issue, and not all of them have the knowledge and know-how to address those issues.

There is clearly work to do before the makerspace’s Utopian vision becomes a reality. And more research now could help prevent regrets later, as the maker phenomenon moves from the sidelines into the mainstream.