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From the Design Quarterly: Old idea, new form—makerspaces make it big

August 30, 2018

By Gretchen Diesel and Gwen Morgan

Makerspaces are coming to the library, university, and workplace near you. What inspires and defines the contemporary makerspace?

The term “makerspace” may be new, but the inventor’s workshop has been with us for some time. Thomas Edison experimented with the telephone, recording the human voice and other technological breakthroughs at his laboratory and workshops in Menlo Park, New Jersey—an early North American example of a research and development facility. In the 1800s, libraries hosted dedicated spaces for quilting, crafting, and sewing.

But why has the makerspace trend emerged recently?

WeWork in Washington, D.C.

In 2001, MIT started its FabLab digital fabrication facility with a class called “How to make almost anything.” But something special happened in 2005, a perfect storm of conditions which made it possible for makerspaces to flourish. That year, the bible for the do-it-yourself maker launched, and Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods, kicked off. The economic crash of 2008 gave DIY solutions and belt-tightening a boost. Online platforms for how-to and lifehacks flourished. The dawn of the iPad and information at our fingertips spurred a sea change in education—toward skills and innovation and away from memorization.

Makerspaces aren’t this generation’s foosball table. They’re an asset that taps into a defining characteristic of our humanity.

Maybe the appeal of makerspaces is our DNA? Mark Hatch, the founder of TechShop and author of The Maker Movement Manifesto, argues that making is fundamental to human nature and today the tools are more accessible than ever. Access to tools, he theorizes, lets us engage with actions such as sharing, learning, and participating that bind and support our communities.

Our team (Gretchen Diesel, Amy Martinez, and Michelle Judy) traveled the US touring and gathering data on all kinds of makerspaces, including in projects designed by Stantec. From our research, four categories of spaces emerged as essential to today’s makers.

The Lab School of Washington in Washington, D.C.

Discovery labs

Discovery labs engage people and get them comfortable working with making things. They expose people to simple technologies or tools—to see what happens. They are dynamic, energetic, and colorful with ample space for finished project display. They contain simpler tools and materials, like LEGO blocks, yarn, felt, popsicle sticks, paper, scissors, and glue. They can be mobile, for example, held within a wheeled cart.

Who: Makers of all ages

Where: Elementary/middle schools, public museums, and libraries

When: Short-term projects, sometimes just a few hours

Fabrication labs

Fabrication labs support specific curriculum such as mechanical engineering, project-based, or career and technical learning. They’re outfitted with robust technology (3D printers, laser cutters, routing, painting, vacuum molding, small-scale robotics), overhead-accessible cord reels for power, and extensive storage. They often partner with local industry and require a staff to support the educational program. Posted instructions remind students to reset the space for the next user.

Who: Students

Where: Middle schools, high schools, career and technical schools, universities

When: Semester-long projects

Genesee Career Institute in Flint, Michigan.

Industrial labs

Industrial labs have bigger, more advanced digitally-controlled tools and are often connected with industry partners who perform product development. They are spaces where industry can cultivate a skilled workforce through mentorship and training. As tech-heavy spaces, they use a lot of digital design hardware—clean areas for computers and design, and dirty spaces for printing, fabrication, etc., which requires full-time staff to maintain and monitor. They can also have vigorous user training programs and require protective equipment.

Who: Product designers

Where: Large companies, membership-based hubs

When: Long-term projects, 24-7 access

WeWork in Washington, D.C.

Co-working and incubator spaces

Incubator spaces are creative, collaborative spaces where big ideas can be tested and shared. These spaces (like co-working spaces) are not so much about making physical things as the ideation phase of creativity. They facilitate connections between experts or investors to advance an idea and help devise a strategy to bring it to market. Membership supports full-time staff, reception, and IT or AV services. Larger incubators can include conference rooms and auditoriums for presentations.

Who: Start-ups, independent creatives, and entrepreneurs

Where: Urban centers

When: Membership tends to be monthly/yearly

An evolutionary cycle

Makerspaces are not new but rather have an evolutionary cycle that can be driven by innovation or space design. A new kind of space can initiate the cycle—in education, for instance, new spaces can drive a change in curriculum and projects.

The contemporary workplace is experiencing a cultural shift toward creativity and innovation over the completion of rote tasks. To do so, companies require spaces that inspire and promote collaboration. Likewise, education will continue to emphasize the skills that employers desire in collaborative and project-oriented settings. Workplace needs and expectations shaped in higher education will continue to reshape the makerspaces in the future.

The challenge will be for the workplaces of the future to reflect and engage those educated in these environments. In creating a setting for makers for today’s office, we must ask “What are current and future students going to have exposure to, and therefore demand from, their workplace? What do we need to stay ahead of on that cycle?”

Predicting the future of makerspaces

Where do we see makerspaces going? To the virtual realm, for sure. We also predict a rise in partnerships between educational institutions and start-ups around makerspaces. As live, work, and play blurs in our society, we also wonder how makerspaces will adapt to a society where working at home is increasingly an option. We’re also curious to see if maker culture and small-scale production will result in more retail outlets for goods and crafted items from independent producers and designers.

Makerspaces aren’t this generation’s foosball table. They’re an asset that taps into a defining characteristic of our humanity and differentiator for companies and education facilities—and because of that, they’re only going to gain prominence in the future.

PwC Digital Services in Miami, Florida.

Who needs a makerspace and why?

Education: Technology made information on anything suddenly available at the touch of a button, prompting a shift in educational approach away from memorization of facts and figures. Rather, schools are striving teach students how to find the resources they need to collaborate and problem-solve, often through project-based learning. STEAM environments, career and technical education institutions, and universities are revamping themselves with makerspaces that help match students with the skills their future employers are looking for: problem-solving, working with teams, creating, evaluating, and validating new ideas.

Increasingly digital, libraries now need less space for stacks. To engage users in the community and connect them with knowledge, they’ve made themselves popular sites for community makerspaces and classes in crafting.

Residential: Multi-family dwellings are getting in on the maker action, too. As smaller urban dwellings become popular in multi-family housing, property developers can offer makerspace for assembling furniture or crafting as a shared amenity.

In the workplace, makerspaces are emerging as crucial elements in fostering a culture of creativity and innovation to engage that younger generation that looks for personal fulfillment at work.

Workplace: In the workplace, makerspaces are emerging as crucial elements in fostering a culture of creativity and innovation to engage that younger generation that looks for personal fulfillment at work. In the war for talent, top firms think investment in makerspace is critical to drive corporate culture toward innovation, creativity, and “intrapreneurship” (internal entrepreneurs). Recent graduates are comfortable studying in collaborative environments, and the workplace makerspace has much to offer for continuing this trend, but it must be carefully aligned with company success goals.

Healthcare: Nurses have been hacking their own solutions to suit their technological needs for years. More recently, we’re seeing makerspaces added as a custom shop where these hacks can be made, tested, and even manufactured.

Essential aspects of makerspaces

Display: Displaying work, sharing projects with others, and getting feedback can be important in a makerspace.

Flexibility: Movable furniture is a critical component that supports independent work at various scales and teaming up.

Sharing: Makerspaces allow users access to a variety of tools that they likely don’t have themselves (3D printers, laser cutters, CNC routing, specialty equipment, and, in the case of co-working, office space) in one place.

Materials: Makers need materials to make, and the space can stock its own free materials, charge users for what they use, or allow users to bring their own supplies.

Storage: Storage needs vary with the scale and duration of projects. For example, long-term projects may require a secure space to keep prototype designs.

  • Gretchen Diesel

    A licensed interior designer and LEED green associate, Gretchen leads projects and teams from conceptual design through furniture selection and art and wayfinding programming.

    Contact Gretchen
  • Gwen Morgan

    When designing interiors, Gwen focuses on promoting occupant health and wellbeing. She aims to translate client needs and expectations into designs that will influence and benefit users for generations to come.

    Contact Gwen
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