The dark matter of makerspaces

Here’s an excellent written version of a talk given by Adrian McEwen (in 2015), one of the co-founders of DoES Liverpool, which is “(sort of) a makerspace (and more) in Liverpool.” His talk, The Dark Matter of Makerspaces, covers quite a bit of ground and offers some great tips and insights, not only for people running makerspaces but any kind of community space, or even many community-focused organisations.

An important part of what we set out to do was to grow and encourage the tech and maker community in the city, and help it prosper through more tech and maker businesses. It was one part software-is-eating-the-world, with another part the workers owning the means of production – initially as software engineers, but increasingly with digital fabrication tools, and a dash of being the change we want to see in the world.

It’s not all that common to see places combining a diverse coworking space with a makerspace, often the coworking aspect is largely aimed at makers. Not so for DoES who know that “successful businesses require all sorts of skills, and the more diverse our community, the better the things that will come out of it.”

One thing that often comes up with the running of such spaces is that people refrain from starting them because they want them to exist but don’t see themselves as the people to run them, or they do open one and then realise it’s not for them. In an interesting twist, the team at DoES do know they aren’t interested in running the space but have been deliberate in finding ways around that. “As a result, our aim is to minimise the amount of effort required to run it, and one of the ways we do that is by engaging with the ‘dark matter’ surrounding DoES Liverpool.” This is where we get to one of the broadly useful bits of the talk when McEwen introduces a concept that any project that operates in a city needs to keep in mind.

It is all the stuff that affects the organisation but that you can’t see or touch. If the matter is the building and the tools, the objects produced and the businesses founded, then the dark matter is the culture of the community, the rules, regulations and policy – and not just in the space, those surrounding the space from the council or the Government.

To connect with their surroundings they have used ideas like “cake as currency,” making sure they have good coffee, and stealing from their coding background for optimisations like tracking the ins and outs or what needs doing around the space. The team also decided to not do much, which seems like a great basic rule to foster participation.

The only things that happen are those that the members are committed enough to make happen. And we try not to expand into things that the community could make a living from – we exist to support it, not absorb it.

It’s not possible for everyone or every project to do the same, but they elected to go without funding, because that would have forced them into a tighter focus, perhaps pushing away people instead of being very open. Instead, this has let them filter by interestingness, whether that’s interesting people or (and this is a great twist) interested people. The first might prove exclusive or biased, the second doesn’t. Which is part of what has let them guide their culture towards a very Fab City like vision.

[I]f we engage with the dark matter in the wider context, we have an opportunity to nudge our culture away from consumerism, away from the bankers, and towards a more productive future.