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Open World: Important Questions Guide A Makerspace

Open World: Important Questions Guide A Makerspace

In my column, Open World, I’ve tried to write what few truths of the Maker Movement I feel confident in. The longer I’ve spent at this, the less certain I am of their certainty or usefulness. Taking a step back from right answers, I tried to at least identify some right questions: those that characterize mine, and other people’s interest in spaces related to Making.

It’s mostly just a note for myself, an attempt to keep tabs on important issues that ought to be addressed. Now though, I think these questions might be a more useful product of my year than the “answers” I’ve tried to put together.

I hope it might be valuable to other people trying to frame how they think about makerspaces or Making in general— but they have larger implications for how we approach all sorts of related work:

Questions on Spaces Helping People Make Things

Fundamental questions in understanding a space (where “it” refers to the space in question):

  • Who is it by? Who is it for?

  • What does it do? What do the people involved do? At what scale?

  • Where is it? Does it have a where (meaning does it have a physical site)? Where are its people from? Where are its projects from? Where do they go?

  • When did it start? Does it service the past, present, or a particular vision of the future?

  • Why did it start? Why does it continue? In other words, what is its core mission // motivation?

  • How does it fulfill its mission? (eg. funding, people, projects, collaborations, etc.)

  • These questions might have two sets of answers: answers describing a space’s reality, and answers describing its aspirations. Ideally, those answers should converge.

    More complicated // open-ended questions (in no particular order)

  • How does one balance an organization’s needs with the need for the organization? Eg. how do makerspaces whose purpose is to make Making more accessible to people without resources, reconcile that purpose with the necessity of themselves making money? Are compromises necessary? There may be pragmatic answers, but do they differ from philosophical answers?

  • What does a good team//collaboration look like? What is the interplay between collaboration and competition? Star players and teamwork? Honesty and kindness? Etc.

  • What does “Making” mean? Who thinks of it in the context of the “Maker Movement” and who doesn’t? If they do or don’t, does that change how they talk about Making? Do people know about the Maker Movement? Do they think of themselves as part of it?

  • What’s the relationship between a space and the people who use it? Are a space’s users also the people in charge of it? Are they the people who own it? Are they the people who started it? What is their buy in? Eg. what is the cost associated with their using the space and what can they get from it? What do they actually take from it? What does this mean on a micro and macro level?

  • Was it a space first or a community first? What does that mean? I wonder, is one approach always better? Or is one or the other better in specific circumstances? This dovetails with the above question: generally there is a connection between how the space was established and how people take responsibility for the space (or don’t).

  • How else can you encourage people to participate // take ownership? // how do you foster community or individual buy-in?

  • Are projects individually motivated? Or community motivated? Which does the space preference?

  • How does the space create better a) things, b) people, c) community. Does it? Does it focus on other areas of improvement seen as outside these three? Does it only focus on a subset of these three?

  • What are the inadvertent consequences of the space and how are they treated? Is everything intentional or are accidents encouraged? How does the space and its members reflect on their work generally? Is there a culture of intentionality, reflection, and modification? Or does it prefer incidence, spontaneity, chance, etc. Is it unintentional about how it approaches this issue?

  • How does the space gate keep? Or eliminate gates? How does it negotiate questions about access and accommodations? Or does it not? Eg. is it just about collecting the best and brightest, those who can do on their own? Or is it about giving support to people who need it? Usually it’s about some combination of the two— but what is the combination? How do you reconcile different accommodations for different people and notions of fairness// meritocracy? Does the space believe in meritocracy? How do you accommodate people without making them feel less than? Or without making them less than? Eg. how do you give people tools that aren’t proverbial crutches? How do you make sure that only the people who need to know about accomodations know? What privacy should people be guaranteed in regards to accommodations, or is it more important to be open and honest? How do you create policies for individualized treatment?

  • I have a lot of questions about the above. What is the space’s responsibility to bring in different people from different backgrounds and abilities? To foster inclusion and diversity? Is it always a good thing to prioritize access to people who usually wouldn’t have it? Is it good to seek out those people? What has to happen to properly support them once they do have access? To not let them feel othered once they participate, or like they have to represent an entire othered community? What has to happen so that other members of the community don’t see them as representative of another community? Is diversity an ends or a means? What is the ends?

  • What’s the optimal number of people to include? 0 is too few. 1 may be too few. But there’s an upper bound to the number of people that can fit in a physical space, that can fit in your headspace, and that can all share anything. What is that sweet spot? And how to get to and stay at that number? If you have to cap involvement, how do you do that!? How do you choose who gets to participate?

  • What is the relationship between image creation//curation, clout and reputation building and actual action? When is it important to receive recognition and build power and when is it important to use whatever power you have and focus on doing over being acknowledged for doing?

  • How does the space face criticism from or of members or partners? Are people discouraged from criticizing others who help or partner with them? Or are they expected to speak truth the loudest?

  • Are challenges seen as opportunities? Or as things to avoid? Again, are they addressed loudly or quietly? Are they searched out or not? Does the space have a lot of stated problems or few? And again, how are they addressed? How is that response different if they only affect a subset of the space or its membership? What are the space’s biggest challenges? What challenges does the space take on?

  • What’s the interplay of learning and doing? Is it a learning space or a doing space or somewhere in between? Do those things detract from or augment each other?

  • What is the attitude toward making in the space? Is the space all about making? Or all about a particular kind of making? Or does it also celebrate learning // care taking // analysis // non-making in general? Reference Deb Chachra’s why I am not a maker.

  • Is big or small better? Is it more powerful to work in hyper local communities and create very focused, niche things, or to make things with huge widespread appeal or use or effect?

  • What is the relationship between the inside and outside of the space? How bold is that line? This can be interpreted physically // architecturally, philosophically, etc. Does the space try to extend beyond itself? Does it try to bring outside in?

  • If they’re trying to make change outside the space itself, what is the timeframe for that? Are they content for slow, incremental progress (think Hillary Clinton) or do they advocate for radical change now (think Bernie Sanders).

  • Does it have a particular agenda that it pushes on people? Or is it an open resource for people to use however they like? Can it truly be one or the other? What is the role of a mission statement? Does it unite or exclude? Can you have one without the other?

  • What role does assimilation play? Does the space try to mold people into something in particular or celebrate differences? Probably both in some ways— which differences are celebrated and which are discouraged? Why?

  • What role does safety play? Is it better to let people learn by doing and maybe make costly mistakes, or to micromanage them? There is probably a pragmatic answer, but is the philosophical answer different? This can be extended to things like trigger warnings. What is a space’s obligation to keep people safe, and what is their capacity to push people to grow (maybe heal)? This can go back to questions about accomodations, too.

  • How does the space and its members approach Power? Is the culture competitive or cooperative (going back to teamwork question)? Is Power seen and used as domination (eg. capitalist // winning requiring someone else’s loss) or as creative // life affirming (eg. one’s success is seen as better positioning one to uplift others // one’s rising tide lifts all boats)?

  • Especially with regard to the above, but in a whole suite of issues, people and places often talk about things differently from how they do them. This might go back to Q15— do people use language aspirationally? Do they mislead deliberately or accidentally? The differences between word and action can offer insights. What are they?

  • Some things are special because they’re unique and some are special because they’re common. Does the space, people, and projects find their value in being unique or in being part of something else? How is the space unique and how is it part of something common?

  • Which of these questions are irrelevant to the space? What questions does the space suggest that aren’t asked here?

  • As always, I encourage y’all to get in touch if you think I’ve missed something really important, or if it raises thoughts or questions for you :)

    Feature image by Rico Reinhold via the Noun Project.