What Makes A Makerspace?

by Clint LeClair, MD
River City Labs, NFP

Makerspaces help a community to think, imagine and collaboratively create the future we want.

Makerspaces are riding high on the hype curve lately, with many looking for some way to harvest an economic darling out of the chaos. Prototyping shops advertise themselves as “makerspaces” like a commercial wolf in sheepskin. Businesses look to externalize the risks of research and development. And education systems are rebranding “fab labs”—a research stalwart of engineering departments—into “makerspaces” for the slight edge in grant funding selection.

Elected officials from President Obama down to our own city council members know that makerspaces mean future money. But our leaders are generally at a loss as to just how a motley band of (mostly) guys with soldering irons, video games, toy drones and computerized shop tools will get from the proverbial here to the economic promised land.

And so, as the president of River City Labs, NFP—Peoria’s makerspace—I’ll lay it out for you as best I can.

A Creative Sanctuary
A makerspace, in its purest form, is a sanctuary in which a creative and curious mindset is given the freedom to explore new technologies and arts—to test and determine the inner workings and interchanges among different natural laws (physics, chemistry, electricity, etc.). The tools are the means by which to explore those technologies and arts—but it is the mindset that is the defining characteristic.

A case in point: there has been quite a bit of press coverage for Nest—a digitization of a “dumb” device, the thermostat. But let’s say you wanted more functionality, more flexibility and more security than the $250-plus device. This very conversation occurred in River City Labs when the weather turned cold last fall.

An Arduino, an open-source alternative, can perform most of the primary functions that the Nest can—at nearly one-tenth the cost. It can interface with a computer to relay commands to the furnace and store directions if the sensor registers the room too cold or hot. But it can also control motors to shunt the heat primarily to your bedroom at night, so you only heat the room in which you sleep. This is called zone heating—and none of the local hardware stores carry thermostats with this ability. (I checked back in November.)

Creating the Culture
The value of the makerspace is that open-source technology (like the Arduino) is exclusively taught in open-ended classes… and enthusiastically explored. Learning how to program is not a college-level endeavor anymore, as course developers learn how to teach core concepts simply and concisely. Indeed, six- and 66-year-olds alike are showing proficiency through the same lesson plans. A makerspace is a place in which the smartest statement said is: “I don’t know, but I want to.” We learn through making errors in the application of a concept. Only in not succeeding in the abstract application, do we become experts.

In a makerspace, if you succeed at your selected project, that’s wonderful. But to gain insight from your failed experiment (or lesson plan) is inspiring! This concept of “valuing the process” is counterintuitive to our achievement-oriented education model. But through this specific learning process—by setting up the lowest-risk parameters to expose assumptions and uncover cognitive dissonance or deficiencies in knowledge base (in a safe environment in which being supportive is of core importance)—we fail, and learn upward. Now, allow those teachable moments to come in projects that the makerspace member finds—or wishes to collaborate on—and learning actually becomes fun!

Why Open-Source?
It’s actually pretty simple. All professions are evolving because of technology. Those that aren’t being replaced by automation are being augmented to increase productivity. Nearly all of these technologies are built on top of platforms, most of which are open-source. Our members value learning open-source tech because it grows in security, reliability, connectivity and utility at a logarithmic rate. They value open-source because with every platform they learn, they become the problem solvers in their offices, their factories, their schools. Rather than buy a one-size-fits-all solution and cater to it, our members learn how to put together a customized technology. Our members learn to make technology serve their will—they become irreplaceable.

Beyond job security, learning open-source technology makes our members better stewards of the future they wish to create. Computers, robots, software and even the open-source platforms they were all built atop eventually become obsolete. It’s the nature of Moore’s law. But by understanding the fundamentals—by playing around in the root code—members learn the overarching theme of how different technologies evolve; then they can contribute back to the open-source community. The more contributions our members place in web-based libraries and code repositories, the easier the learning process becomes for the next maker. A literate maker is an empowered maker and teacher, sustaining a growing cycle of digital literacy that advances society’s quality of life as a whole.

...Raises all Boats
Consider how far a ripple can spread, with the introduction of every pebble cast into a still pond. Consider each pebble a new skill, taught from one member to the next. Imagine how tech can be bent to the will of an entire society of makers. Imagine the problems we can tackle as a city, letting technology carry the heaviest of the proverbial load.

A makerspace does not intentionally create the milieu for which the next Google or MakerBot golden goose will be born. (But it has.) More so, a makerspace is where our members explore what makes them curious with tools designed for relevancy. They learn skills that might help them be promoted, or just create a more comfortable bedroom in which to sleep while the elements outside freeze. But in the end, these protected spaces increase the quality of life of all who are in and around them, and even allow a community to be wowed by their creations. (Did you see the LED-laden kites being flown last summer’s nights, or the acrobatic drones, or the dancing 3D printers?)

Makerspaces help a community to think, imagine and collaboratively create the future we want. The people are the inspiration. What would you like to build? iBi

Clint LeClair, MD is president of River City Labs, NFP. For more information, visit rivercitylabs.org.


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