i3 conference held this week at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland. Todd Richter presented a paper coauthored with Laura Muir, Inviting Communities to Create: The Impact of Scottish Makerspaces. In his introduction, Richter talked about the development of makerspaces (a global movement), and the importance of 3D printing for that. He gave emailing a spanner to 3D print on a space stateion, and a Chinese company 3D printing a house, as current examples. Makerspaces themselves were positioned as "democratising creative tech", being hands on and potentially involving a community.
Richter looked at makerspaces as agents of change, aiming to assess impact and identify lessons and best practice.His sites were a public library (Dundee Central) and two other makerspaces, and data collection included interviews. At Dundee they particularly encouraged less advantaged groups, for example making their own assistive technologies like cup holders for wheelchairs. One group are behaviourally challenged children and things like using books which provide the information so you can print out the characters from the books (so the children can hold the characters as they hear the story). Changing digital to physical objects can also help the visually impaired. There is a press release at http://www.leisureandculturedundee.com/node/2331
The next site was the Glasgow Maklab, which includes a programme aimed at children. They use e.g. children's interest in Minecraft (printing out objects from Minecraft). They have workshops etc. on different maker topics, and startups are able to use the facilities (e.g. to laser cut handmade jewellery). In the interviews, it was emphasised that the people who use the makerspace learn from each other. The third space was Make Aberdeen
Challenges of makerspaces included staffing (it's not good to depend on one person), training staff and users, space (it's not good if it is tucked away in the small available space), demand (it's difficult to keep up with demand, bearing in mind that things can be very slow to print), equipment maintenance (and coping with problems in printing). Obviously funding is a potential solution, but for libraries can be the major problem (the Dundee initiative had funding from the Scottish Library and Information Council, for example, rather than immediate core funding).
Success factors included evident community need being met, knowledge sharing, fearlessness, and willingness to experiment. To assess impact, you need to look at the effect on individual lives, so this can be pursued through qualitative case studies. However, just from this study, there had been impact on people who needed additional support (they had more confidence and/or improved quality of life), new communities of practice were being created, people were learning skills in making, there was incubation of entrepreneurs and artists.They also had economic impact, in enabling people to have new ideas which they could follow up more quickly through 3D printing.
Richter identified areas of future research included the longer term impact of makerspaces on libraries, issues of intellectual property and the issue of how patterns for 3D models were catalogued (and whether they were open access). He felt that there was potential for makerspaces to "instill a love of learning", and address local problems - but (as emerged also in the questions afterwards) there is a need for empirical research.
Photo by Sheila Webber: out of the RGU window, June 2015