Reflections on #sustmake

Yesterday I was privileged to attend #sustmake – which talked about “How can makerspaces, fablabs, and hackerspaces help cultivate sustainable developments?”   For HeatHack, this is an unusual topic, because it’s about the wider societal context for what we do – in fact, I suspect most of our contacts aren’t even aware that we’re part of a wider societal trend!   Adrian Smith from SPRU, who organized it, wants to know what struck us most.  There were so points that cut right to some important issue that it’s hard to know where to begin!  For Adrian, this is my answer – although from my early stage vantage point, it’s a bit like the primary school student’s “thank you” letter to the museum after a good field trip, minus the crayoned dinosaur.  For any regular readers, hey, everyone philosophizes sometimes – you can zone out or in as is your wont, but at least try not to slip too far into the academics’ native dialect, High Falutin’.  If you want to understand the context, you can read about that here and here.

I loved Diana Wildschut’s mindset of value models, not business models – and was impressed by the fabulously varied set of models we’re running.  What a wealth of experience there was in the room for everything from providing training and building companies from open source to choosing whether to be a CIC or company limited by guarantee.  How we organize the mooted trade association that spreads that knowledge is beyond me, but spread is useful.  The benefits and drawbacks of funding kept coming up, and it was interesting that it was the drawbacks that got more coverage.  One drawback that came through clearly was that with funding, you lose the flexibility to change approach – vital if you discover what you’re doing doesn’t work.  Another was the time evaluation takes, and how the metrics never quite fit the values. We talked a bit about actual businesses.  And then, just as abruptly, didn’t.  We heard a little about adventures in EU policy setting from Susana Nascimento, and local policies, but only mutterings about the UK that made the situation look intractable.  There are smart people in this community – we need to talk about that more.

And just an aside:  HeatHack has the easiest funder brief in the world – demonstrating that science and church can get along just fine, thank you very much.  I paraphrase:

Me: “We just might be the first makerspace that has theologians interested.”
Diana: “But surely to a theologian, we’re all just part of the Original Makerspace.”

Not just out-classed, but out-theologied as well.  I accept your touché with pleasure.

There was a clear divide between the grassroots initiatives that fly below the radar and the larger ones, often arising (like the Ateneus) from a government initiative.  The larger ones have the connections, but the grassroots ones let the citizens set the research questions.  Despite having one foot in the academy, I’m very sceptical about letting academics do the driving; they’re too invested in their disciplinary silos, just as people in government can’t see around their departmental boundaries.  A few people raised the issue of how rare transdisciplinary interpreters are.  Of course I’d say this, but I think that’s what we need more of – people who can see the grassroots and discern how (and when!) to plug them into the establishment to make innovation happen faster.

I was also struck by the fact that the two approaches doing the most to rethink society from scratch – Fablab Amersfoort and POC21 – come from opposite ends of the money spectrum.  Amersfoort’s approach, rooted in art collectives, is no funding, but with enough oversight to make sure no one loses their fingers. POC21 sounds like a five week mind-blowing, life-changing cross between a social enterprise accelerator and a desert island adventure holiday, but with a pretty hefty price tag.  The former thinks in terms of deconstructing society and building it up again without the useless parts, whereas the latter actually does it, at least for a while.  We need these initiatives to give us the courage to question and steer us in ways that I hope are more gentle than the disintegration and reconfiguration the pessimists fear.

The role of “research parasites” was a recurring theme for the day, so I felt for some of the PhD students present!  As someone who actually likes social science, I found the main benefit expressed a bit depressing; the “academics are always right” imprimature speaks to funders and potential partners, and sometimes helps figure out evaluation measures that match a project’s core values better. Cindy Kohtala argued that makers themselves don’t have time for critical reflection, which I heard as related to the call for “researchers-in-residence” who are prepared to “tote that bale, lift that barge” so that they better understand the experience they reflect on.   I’ve never looked at the methodolology behind action research, but it seems to me that requires a pretty deep kind of embedding in activities that can be fairly chaotic.  No wonder stories and myth-making was a popular approach.

Didac Ferrar from Barcelona made an empassioned plea for “no pongo” makerspaces, and hit a nerve. Makerspaces do risk just adding to consumerism if they print useless fripperies on top of what we already discard.  I worry about this every time we use our HeatHack LED votive candlemaking as a way of getting people to stop and talk to us about our mission.  On the other hand, what if the little plastic bits are the hooks that catch people into a bigger behavioural shift of making and re-use?  I do get Max Wakefield’s approach of using DIY solar panel workshops to raise awareness about energy demand, even if sadly, I think most people require much many interventions for lasting behaviour shift.  On the other hand, guilt’s not one of life’s great motivators.  For my part, I’m trying to take a kind of “engineering approach” to the problem – sweat the big stuff more than the small stuff.  I applaud OpenTRV‘s full life cycle analysis, and Sophie Thomas’ ways of thinking about the circular economy, but also want everyone involved to sleep well at night!

Thank you, Adrian, for organizing such a thoughtful day with such an inspiring bunch of people.  Fun, fab, and worth the trip.

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