The maker movement: how hackerspaces, makerspaces, and fab labs are revolutionising the way we make and live

For as long as human beings have been, we have made.

Made tools. Made objects. Made things that keep us alive. Things that are beautiful to us. Things that get us around. Things that help us to express ourselves.

The studio of Valerie Restarick from The Design Files

But never before has the rate of human making been so rapid and widespread as it has since the advent of The Internet — the most powerful, expressive and proletarian tool of all.

Access to the internet is access to the world. And if your ideas are strong enough, it doesn’t matter how isolated, inexperienced or unfunded you are — the internet’s billions-strong global community will inevitably slot you and your ideas where they belong in its meritorical order. It’s a powerful notion for a species that has, in one shape or another, always been inclined towards organising itself within fixed, top-down power structures. Such an increase in the free dissemination of ideas has brought us truly into The Age of Information — a time where anyone can learn, and make, just about anything.

Map of the Internet

Among myriad other resources, open-source learning kits, electronic development kits and digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing have enabled millions to become makers of not just traditional, everyday tools and objects, but of products that were previously reserved for big industry production only. The shift has created an entirely new global paradigm — what is now known as ‘the maker movement’.

Today, we can have almost any product on the planet delivered to our door within hours, without ever having to know much about it at all — including its origin. We have reached the point where a huge portion of the human population are so conceptually disconnected from most of the things we use everyday, that often we have no idea about how our possessions were made, or even how they actually work.

The maker movement seeks to change this — to put the power of understanding, conceptualising and making back into the hands of the consumer and user, be they designer, artist, inventor or tinkerer.

The rise of the makerspace

But a movement isn’t a movement unless individuals come together. One of the defining aspects of the maker movement is the way it speaks to our species’ primal urge to be social. Armed with this unprecedented access to information and equipment, makers of all kinds across the world have been gravitating to one another, creating spaces where their collective learnings, skills, passions and tools can be shared and developed.

Over the last thirty-odd years, hundreds of these new creative spaces have cropped up around the world, allowing more people than ever before to design, prototype and make their own products. The fact that companies like Arduino and Raspberry Pi are providing enthusiasts with open-source hardware and software at low cost means that getting the tools you need has never been easier. What started as a kind of ad-hoc, grass-roots smattering of collectives has now, in 2018, become a movement that doesn’t just promise to bring about huge economic changes and benefits, but to revolutionise the way citizens think about themselves as students, educators, creatives and consumers.

But what is a ‘makerspace’, exactly? And how does it differ from a ‘hackerspace’, or a ‘Fab Lab’?

Makerspace Web 2.0 Connected classroom

Hackerspaces

Born in Europe in the mid 1990’s, hackerspaces began as places where computer programmers and software hackers could come together to socialise, pool resources and share skills.

One of the first was c-base, a German organisation that began in 1995, and that is still going today. American visitors to c-base took the idea back to the US and three significant hackerspaces popped about around the country — NYC Resistor, HacDV and Noisebridge.

c-base

As the idea spread, it evolved. Moving beyond programming and traditional hacking practices, hackerspaces began to encompass electronic circuit design, classes, training, prototyping, manufacturing, repurposing hardware and doing other kinds of physical, electronic work. And though hackerspaces generally sprang (and continue to spring) from a political angle — often collectivist, radically democratic or even anarchic in nature — the spaces have also sought to distance themselves from some of the traditional, largely negative associations with the word ‘hacker’ by allowing their definition of the word to change over time.

Circuit hacking days at Noisebridge

Where the rest of the world might still think of the word ‘hacker’ as being a rather exclusionary one, relating specifically to pirate-y types who mess with computers, most hackerspace members think of themselves as individuals who undertake “a specific subset of activities that involve making existing objects do something unexpected”. Think ‘Ikea hacking’ and ‘life hacking’ — terms we use when referring to clever adjustments someone makes to ordinary, everyday things, usually to make those things work in a way that wasn’t originally intended by the manufacturer.

These days, most hackerspaces charge a membership fee, if only to keep the spaces functioning, but the true force that powers them is their very niche community. By centering on the skills of their particular groups, without being attached to any industrial or academic bodies, hackerspaces are fuelled by the connections formed between their very specific kinds of members.

Makerspaces

The term ‘makerspace’ didn’t really exist in the public sphere until 2005 or so, and its usage is largely attributed to the launch of Make: magazine — a publication aimed at actively empowering and rallying makers of all kinds by coupling its informative content with events where makers meet and learn in person.

Make magazine

The greatest distinction between makerspaces and hackerspaces is openness — where hackerspaces exist to bring like-skilled people with a particular interest in software and electronics together, makerspaces seek to cater for designers and makers with many different skills, from a diverse range of backgrounds. Unlike the more politically inclined hackerspaces, makerspaces are structured like traditional businesses, with the proceeds of their membership fees paying for equipment, energy usage, staff, training and other expenses. But even though there is no set political agenda at the heart of the makerspace, they are dedicated to democratic ideals, prizing accessibility, egalitarianism and all that is open-source. It’s this attitude of openness and social welfare that attracts institutions like schools, governments and corporations to associate with makerspaces, if not become involved with them directly.

Open Works Baltimore makerspace

The main objective of a makerspace is to give more people an opportunity to make — whatever shape that making might take. The spaces themselves are usually very intentionally laid out, with carefully considered offerings to cater for professionals, hobbyists and everyone in between. To keep things as organised and efficient as possible, a makerspace needs to have a proper floor plan, with different areas allocated to different making processes — fitted out with everything from traditional hand tools and woodworking, metalworking and sewing machinery, to computer controlled, digital equipment like 3D printers, CNC routers and laser cutters. Because of the power requirements of the machines, makerspaces need to have high voltage electricity, and with so many different kinds of makers in the space, they also need to have proper ventilation, fume extraction and robust safety protocols and procedures.

Because they are inherently community-serving institutions, sharing is essential to the functioning and prosperity of makerspaces — the sharing of tools, ideas, skills, knowledge, space and equipment.

Fab Labs

Though you may have occasionally heard a hackerspace or a makerspace referred to as a Fab Lab, a space only qualifies as a Fab Lab if it is part of the Fab Lab network.

Fab Lab Oulu, Finland

Started by MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld around 2005, Fab Labs refer specifically to a network of spaces which subscribe to a common Fab Lab charter. The Fab Lab charter outlines the specific machines that the space must have such as digital fabrication tools, milling machines, cutters, CNC machines, etc as well as the common processes. The idea is if someone makes something in a Russian Fab Lab, they should be able to send the files and documentation to a Japanese Fab Lab, and reproduce it there, fairly painlessly. You should be able to do the same things in Nairobi as you could in a Cape Town, Delhi, Amsterdam or Bangkok. Beyond common tools and process, every Fab Lab is required to have free and open access to the public, and it must be an active participant in the network.

Fab Lab Berlin

Today, there are over 1000 Fab Labs in existence, and they are having a significant impact. From devices that help farmers monitor the quality of milk, to food dehydrators that preserve perishable food, to ‘vein finder’ tools for doctors, the inventions coming out of Fab Labs are inspiring examples of what can be achieved when information and equipment are made available to more people.

The power of making

The maker movement is about changing our relationship with production. Penetrating the fog of exclusivity that has formed around industry, and reclaiming the right to make the things we use and enjoy. It’s a reclamation that carries so much promise — promise to engage citizens, create jobs, reduce waste, unlock growth, transform city landscapes and revolutionise economies.

And on a deeper, social level, this movement promises to bolster and energise communities in a way that speaks to a very deep desire in us — the desire to belong. Belonging to one of these organisations — or any other kind of space where people come together in a spirit of open-mindedness to share and create — means connecting with others in a way that is empowering, uplifting and life-affirming. Be it in a hackerspace, a makerspace, a Fab Lab, or any of the other kind of the creative spaces rising to prominence, the maker movement is about celebrating diversity, while championing the fact that we are stronger together.

New Lab

Article authored by Genevieve Callaghan from research conducted by Ying Zhang, for FAB9.

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