SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Workshop on Makerspaces and Sustainable Development

Over the last decade, hundreds of community-based design and fabrication workshops have opened around the globe, and their continued growth attracts increasing attention. Known variously as makerspaces, hackerspaces and fablabs, these workshops allow people to access tools for designing and making things, as well as lower the barriers for people to engage directly in areas typically beyond their reach, such as questions about design, manufacture, and the production and consumption of goods and services.

One area where people see potential in these engaging spaces is for the promotion of local sustainable developments, principally through the localisation of manufacturing, repair, and increased awareness of the material and social causes and consequences of consumer goods.

In order to discuss issues and identify strategies for makerspaces in sustainable development Professor Adrian Smith organised a two-day event on “How can makerspaces, fablabs and hackerspaces help cultivate sustainable developments?”.  

Professor Smith published two blog pieces on the topic leading up to the event:

Why should we seek sustainable developments in makerspaces?

Moving beyond products to material culture

On the first day, a wide range of speakers from established makerspaces, from educational and research institutes and community-building initiatives presented different experiences of making and sustainable developments. They all shared a determination to combine technological innovation with social consciousness and empower communities in a way that is also committed to sustainability. Critical reflection appears to be a missing element in these spaces, yet it was highlighted that a possible way to encourage it is through cooperation with academics.

Speakers included:

Makerspaces: Diana Wildschut and Harmen Zijp from FabLab Amersfoort, Richard Clifford from MAKLab,

Educational and research institutions: Susana Nascimento from the European Commission Joint Research Centre, Cindy Kohtala from Aalto University in Finland

Community-building initiatives: Trystan Lea from Open Energy Monitor, Didac Ferrer from Tarpuna Co-operative and Janet Gunter from the Restart Project.

The second day was an invite-only workshop where attendees worked in groups to reflect on the following three questions (building on the conclusions of the previous day):

  • How to sustain and expand commitment to sustainable developments in makerspaces?
  • Should sustainability initiatives scale-up or circulate more widely, and if so, how to retain core aims when moving beyond prototyping?
  • How can makerspaces work with others to generate conditions for sustainable developments in the wider world?

Professor Smith’s research focuses on the relations between societies and technologies, and how the pursuit of sustainable developments demands changed relations between the two. 

He summarised the discussions saying that "The workshop really demonstrated the innovative possibilities that arise when people have the opportunities to access tools, networks, and share ideas and activities; but also the centrality of meeting and working face-to-face and hand-by-hand on difficult issues. Sustainability does not arise spontaneously in makerspaces, nor in society. What I took from the event was that the most immediate opportunities lie with engaging with groups already interested in sustainability, and demonstrating how makerspaces can help engage others in thinking about the material world, the social consequences of how stuff that gets made, and what we can do about it."

Participants from both days were encouraged to tweet using the hashtag #sustmake. To catch up on the event read the Storify.

The workshop, which took place in the Machines Room, a makerspace in London, on October 26-27 2015 was funded by the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) and co-organised with the STEPS Centre. It was held as part of a research project on Grassroots Innovation in Low Energy Digital Fabrication and will lead to the publication of a report by Professor Smith.

See more stories about the workshop:

-          The Guardian

-          The Restart Project 

-          SciDevNet 

-          HeatHack 

-          STEPS Centre