(This was originally written for and published in last month’s in Andrew Sleigh’s beautiful zine Hot Glue)
I’ve worked for all sorts of businesses: large, medium and small and they all share a common aspiration: to be more like start-ups. You can’t swing a cat without taking part in a meeting where organisations wonder how to become more agile, fun and disruptive like start-ups appear to be. The maker movement has created a whole new set of aspirations.
To make means to invent, to be engaged in the manufacturing of new ideas and products. It means to act in the world, with your hands and with tools which are cheaper and easier to access than ever before. This is such an important idea even Obama announced a National Day of Making. “Makers” describes the collective notion of people solving problems together but alone too. The ideology of making is very much about learning step by step, using new tools and trying things that have never been tried before. This makes a lot of business sense. By building a maker-friendly environment a business can increase their competitiveness, support employee training and identify talent among the various layers of management. It supports the idea of organisations as meritocratic environments of innovation and not political or bureaucratic ones. More often than not though there is a little bit of cargo culture happening inside already creative businesses who get on the maker bangwagon.
Someone buys 3D printers only to have them sit there being unused. They build “workshops” which are essentially a meeting room turned into a storage unit for the latest gadgets on Kickstarter. They run hackathons where more post-its get used than solder. They have curated showrooms to show other people’s work. In short they don’t end up making at all. Building a maker-friendly environment is a holistic exercise of redesigning your own internal culture. Here are some easy first steps to help you do this.
Building a maker space
You have to create a space that is going to be both useful and used often. This may be tricky when you may be running out of meeting rooms, but control the urge to make this anything other than a dedicated space for work that isn’t meetings. This space shouldn’t be “bookable”. It should be open for people to use whenever they like. If they want a meeting, they can go somewhere else. A lot of indirect value is derived by working next to someone building something quietly. Make sure this space isn’t anywhere near people working on laptops as the noise of laser cutters and 3D printers, sawing and generally making is going to be disruptive to them and you don’t want to create a culture that says that the noisy people aren’t working as hard as the others.
Buy tables and chairs on wheels that can be moved around easily. Have power sockets on the floor and avoid carpet (no one likes to vacuum random chips and cables). Make sure you have lots of natural light coming in (don’t set this up in the basement, this isn’t the 90s) and whiteboards everywhere. Add some lockers and shelves so people can leave projects nearby or stored safely out of reach. The visual accumulation of work is how progress is felt on a project and in a space. This is good. You can clean things up when you get to the end of a project.
When you’re not sure about what to put in your maker space, let people bring their own things, you might find out your organisation is full of secret tinkerers. Let your organisation shape the type of making you do, don’t let yourself be influenced by visual lifestyle maker culture. Most of the 3D printers you see in offices never get used.
Train & hire well
When you’re making a maker space, the first challenge is to not create a knowledge gap inside your organisation between people who don’t know how to make things and people who have been tinkering on weekends for years. Instead of creating ghettos of geeks, you want to train your entire organisation in using the tools you end up working with. You’d be surprised how many people can’t even work a power drill. If every new staff gets an induction in the space and gets an hour or so with someone who is using the space to make something, you are creating a link between your day to day job and the act of making. You’re allowing people with no technical experience to understand the creative and innovative potential of making rather than rule it out as “a waste of time”. You are also creating champions for the space whose work can be seen as it grows and changes. Keep the space really organised, and if you can afford it, have a technician take care of the space and ordering things as ideas emerge so you can keep the tools in the space relevant and interesting.
Champion the work
This could be out of a text book on social media, but championing the work you do inside the maker space has to start with very small everyday actions. A good way to start is having demo times once a week where the business comes together in that space and gets an update on what is being built. People can ask questions of the maker and propose projects they might want to work on to find collaborators. This meeting has to happen in the space as it gives it credit and says that this is part of doing business. Building a visual history of the work done is important. Starting an Instagram account for the space which people can post to and use the same tag is a great way to spread the word across staff and the outside world. Printing out pictures of new tools and posting them in the kitchen means people can share the progress and improvements at their own pace. Not everyone in your organisation is a maker but they should know what’s going on too. Avoid long newsletters, no one reads them now. If the work done isn’t mission critical, create a blog for the space which has a different identity to the rest of the business so employees can create their own voice through it and can gather interest from the wider community and potentially present it at tradeshows and conferences.
Making is as much about a process of interacting with space and tools as a way to produce new ideas. Ignore the people aspect of this and you end up with a glorified meeting room. Apply too much pressure on the space being worth the investment and you strangle good ideas before they have the time to blossom. These types of spaces are crucial to organisations who want to foster a renewed sense of identity, creativity and fun in their team, but they are hard work. On the other hand, nothing ventured, nothing gained. You’ll find that if your maker space is successful, new ideas will be brought forward, prototyped well and people will collaborate with each other more, a real maker community.