Back in 2008, I was an architecture student in England living a blissful student life of beans on toast, late nights in the studio and keeping myself awake with Red Bull. Okay, in retrospect "blissful" is probably not the right word for this. Perhaps "responsibility free"? I remember experiencing my final year as a student: the anxiety, fear, and dread for the future. I was about to graduate into a world that had collapsed on itself economically, and anything connected to the construction industry is typically fast to get hurt and last to recover during economic downturn. At the time, I had dismissed the housing market crash as nothing more than overblown sensationalist news. How wrong I was...
When I graduated, reality hit me so hard that I literally landed in another country. The job opportunities in the UK were so scarce that I upped sticks and moved to Paris where I managed to find work as an architectural designer.
The ROCO co-working space in Sheffield UK / Image via Roco
But then, something magical happened. The millennial generation, pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. Instead of rolling over, those who could drew the line in the sand and picked the economy back up by simply making their own jobs.
From 2008-2016 an explosion of start-ups came onto the scene and managed to created an entire slew of satellite industries to cater to their needs. In this time, the makerspace as we know it came to life, and it was a glorious time to be a creative who needed and wanted to make physical things.
Makerspaces, incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces—whatever you want to call them—encouraged a culture of "me too!" With legions of professional designers and those not formally educated in any kind of design process joining these spaces. Differing points of view, unique perspectives and collaboration flourished. We flirted with sharing economies, pushing prototyping tools to make final products, and we came so close to making a dent in capitalism.
Fab Lab London introductory video
I myself owe nearly everything to one co-working space, Makerversity. At that time in my life, I had returned to the UK, and was suffering from a deep depression. My friend suggested that I use design as therapy, so I channeled my issues into creating things. This eventually led me to join the group of people at Makerversity who had grand ambitions and who infected me with their unwavering positivity, love, and encouragement. I joined Makerversity in 2013 with $0 to my name and was granted a desk in exchange for managing the digital shop. I went modeled ideas for fun and payed my rent by making props for cosplayers. Cut to nearly three years later, and the company I had grown caught the attention of Autodesk. And here I am now!
My story here is not unique by a long shot. Makerspaces across the globe have done miracles for demystifying manufacturing and process, enabling the curious to explore ideas and massively increasing the popularity of making with an entire new generation.
So what happened? In the last few years, I have received email after email from various spaces across the globe informing that they are closing their doors, including The ROCO in Sheffield UK, Fab Lab London and the Hacktory. Of course, a big contributor is just the natural beat of the drum—people lose interest, move on, or just grow tired of what the have. Then there is the other side of the coin too—spaces that got greedy and tried to expand too fast or just failed as businesses, but that doesn't need to be retreaded here.
I hate to admit it, but one way or another, makerspaces are dying out, with today's biggest challenges being finding spaces large enough to keep all of the equipment, affording rent, and drumming up demand from prospective members.
So why then, aren't designers flocking to these spaces? I always hear from freelance designers or early stage startups that they can't afford an office and equipment for prototyping or that they they simply don't like their home office anymore. Every single time I recommend a makerspace, I am met with apprehension, "aren't those spaces kind of crap?". Well, they can't be worse than your IKEA desk at home, mate.
A learning program being held at Makerversity
Designers and creatives all over seem to have forgotten that these spaces exist and offer relatively affordable membership, hot desks and sometimes even permanent desks, not to mention the easily accessible internal networking opportunities. We need spaces like this more than ever to help the next generation flourish in the same way we have, and we even have the opportunity to future-proof them to our needs. With the weakened state these spaces are in, designers could come in and not only help them stay open by using them, but also improve the spaces with their input, crafting them into what they themselves specifically desire.
"But how?" The answer is actually quite easy. All it takes is a group of people to band together and pool their collective resources to get a space up and running, and frankly where your makerspace is situated is not as important as how much demand you can generate for it. The principles for creating a makerspace are so well documented at this point that very little unique work would need to be done to make it happen. Imagine then, if we could reignite that brief and wonderful moment in time and make it last? What would that look like? Can we design a future of affordable, desirable space to work and collaborate together, or are we going to resign ourselves to a future of home offices and dependency on others to deliver on our ideas?
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I thought about TechShop many times. Financially, it would have made sense, but in practice it was just too frustrating. It require constant planning on when things would be available, a difficult environment for iterative runs/manufacturing, and people with not enough respect for machines that weren't their own. The lathe/mill were always left untrammed, chips were left out, BYO tooling, dull chisels, the list goes on. Pretty much only maintenance free stuff like the lasers were usable on showing up, everything else needed some prep work that ate into your working time. If there was a community way to manage individuals actually taking care of community assets it might work better. But, I also get that its hard to manage/insure a bunch of equipment in case people make genuine mistakes.
The Maker Movement hasn't ended, it's just begun. My guesses are that:
This article seems so short-sighted and altruistic. It didn't even answer the question in the title, why are makerspaces dying?
What about this business side? Cost of tools, rent, utilities, maintenance, employees, expendables? How can a makerspace even exist? With such a high start up cost and low returns, they really don't make any sense.
I discovered Industrial Design through Techshop, a makerspace here in the states. Through networking, I was able to land my first two jobs related to design and making. Not to mention freelance work I took on along the way.
I think reinvigoration will come from an audience that is more permanent! The drop off in spaces today is partially from the markets stabilizing and so less start ups are getting into hardware, and also the number of people who jumped on the craze losing interest. Filling these spaces with professionals would be a logical step in my opinion to giving these spaces more permanence, online communities are great, but nothing beats being in the trenches with your colleagues in a physical space!
A big part of the problem could be that makerspace operators are just bad at running a business. This was true in spades for TechShop, they were really good at hype but really crappy at mundane operations. Dreamers need to team up with accountants and bureaucrats to achieve success ;-)
I shared space with Paul in the early days at Makerversity. We're still members, but have moved out to our own factory unit for most of our work (both design and production).
There clearly is an element of hype in maker spaces, 3d printing, crowd funding etc. but there definitely is an intrinsic demand and it is surely growing. So closure of maker spaces could only be a correction in the supply.
It probably depends on the reach of the spaces and their ability to find people that understand the value of the workspace or their ability to convey the value of that workspace and the value of networking through that workspace. I personally just work from home myself and the spaces you describe sound like my college days where we had a studio space a large architectural desk with a locker and locking drawers next to a bunch of other desks we shared a room with other students. And there were quite a few similar rooms throughout the building so that every student had a personal workspace they could call their own. We also shared the computer labs and the wood and metal fabrication shop as well. Ah, the good old days. LOL - www.ExtremeFlyerDesigns.com
Eric Joseph van Holm