What is a makerspace? How does it promote community development?

By Laura Paonessa and Arianna Orozco from the Knowledge and Learning Sector at the Inter-American Development Bank. This blog post was originally published in the IDB blog, Abierto al Público.

Makerspaces have proved to be key for promoting community and city development. The whole purpose of these places is to unleash the potential of projects. They are physical spaces for open collaboration where people have access to resources, knowledge, professional connections and tools that they share in order to develop projects with the aim of creating products or services.

Every makerspace is different. Each physical space is adapted according to its purpose. No matter the industry being worked in, all makerspaces share the characteristic of promoting open collaboration, idea creation and prototyping. All makerspaces connect people with each other to provide support, share lessons learned, and at the same time provide tools to boost projects that have a social impact.

After participating in the civic makerspaces tour organized by Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation (Washington, DC, USA), we’ve highlighted some characteristics demonstrating how makerspaces promote community development.

They create social capital.

Makerspaces brings together people who are interested in a specific topic or activity. Since they are open spaces where members share available tools and resources, natural interaction promoting open collaboration begins to occur. Members start to be interested in and draw inspiration from their peers, creating a support network that is key to the success of any entrepreneur.

For example, Mess Hall is a makerspace in Washington, DC which promotes local food production, with the aim of addressing the District’s high rates of food insecurity. The space has four industrial kitchens, refrigerators, collaborative offices where entrepreneurs can do business, and an expansive event space which aims to bring together people interested in promoting local food. Mess Hall has 35 members, each representing a different food business. They share not only physical space, but also cooking ingredients, experiences, and lessons learned.

They promote innovation.

The Maker Movement Manifesto begins by declaring that by nature, we are all made to create. This is why makerspaces are spaces that encourage new ideas without any kind of judgment. They also tend to be inspirational spaces where you can find books, board games, and comfy chairs, among other things, coupled with the fact that they constantly offer classes, discussion panels, and other events that promote horizontal exchange and creativity.

TechShop, for example, is a makerspace founded by Jim Newton as the world’s first open workshop, and it is defined as “17,000 ft2 [5,181 m2] with every tool you need to make anything on the planet.” According to Newton, there’s a phenomenon called the “idea gap,” which makes people give up on an idea because they don’t have access to the necessary tools to make it. By providing these resources, makerspaces make innovation possible.

They provide tools to take action.

Entrepreneurs often face barriers to starting their business. Some obstacles can include the lack of a physical space suitable for the type of work they need to do, the cost of access to specific equipment or materials, and/or the need for mentoring to move forward with a project. Makerspaces contribute to projects’ success by providing the specific resources and shared tools they require, making entrepreneurship an accessible form of business.

For example, “1776” is a social impact makerspace focused on helping startups that are transforming the industries that impact millions of lives every day: education, energy and sustainability, health, transportation and cities around the world. To join 1776, applicants undergo a rigorous selection process in which they have to explain the problem they want to solve with their project, and whether their solution can be implemented on a large scale using technology. Once they’re accepted as members, they have access to a workplace, study resources, mentors who advise them regarding the creation or improvement of their business model, and connections to investors and other key players in their area. You can take a look at the projects in the various industries here.

They scale local projects.

All of the above mentioned characteristics empower projects created at makerspaces, primarily because they promote the acquisition of skills and give people the ability to create their businesses, products, or projects by themselves. Furthermore, the tools and space provided by a makerspace allow projects to be increasingly larger without losing their local characteristics.

In recent years, a movement called Made in DC has emerged in Washington, DC. Many of the brands that are part of the movement are being developed from collaborative tools and processes. This movement highlights the importance of entrepreneurial empowerment, creating jobs, innovation, and local culture.

As we’ve seen, there are makerspaces for construction, 3D printing or mechanical projects; for designing services that promote or support public policies; and for promoting local or culinary businesses. These examples demonstrate that there can be a makerspace for every need. The shared characteristic and philosophy of these spaces is that they are places that promote open and collaborative creation and the prototyping of ideas.

Laura Paonessa

Laura is part of the Knowledge Management Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Her work focuses on promoting open innovation as a collaboration methodology to find shared visions to common problems.

Before joining the IDB, Laura worked in different pioneer projects led by the Buenos Aires City Government, Argentina. Some of them include the Tech District of “Parque Patricios”, the office of New Media, and the Innovation/Open Government Lab. Additionally, Laura is a mentor for social entrepreneurs and women leaders.

Laura has a degree in Political Science by the University of San Andrés in Argentina. She was a fellow at the Open Government Fellowship Program of the Organization of American States (OAS), and a participant at the Global Competitiveness Leadership Program of Georgetown University.

Arianna Orozco

Arianna Orozco is from Caracas, Venezuela and she currently works as a communications consultant for the Knowledge Management Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

She has a degree in International Affairs by the University of Colorado, Boulder with a focus on Conflict Studies, Human Rights and Latin America. After graduating, Arianna travelled to Brazil to do research on the role of art disciplines in youth empowerment and community development. Passionate about Human Rights, Arianna moved to Washington, DC to work with Press and Communication team of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as well as that of the Due Process of Law Foundation.

The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author of this article do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University or any employee thereof. You can find the original article here, posted to the Inter-American Development Bank’s blog.

Originally published at beeckcenter.georgetown.edu on September 30, 2016.

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