Maker Assembly Manchester in review

This is a guest post by David Perry of the Comino Foundation. Thanks to David for sharing his thoughts.

Maker Assembly’s progenitor was the first gathering of makers from around England in April 2014, also at MadLab, sponsored by the Comino Foundation and run by Nat Hunter, then of the RSA.

This one started with an introduction from Liz Corbin of UCL who spoke of why we make, its situation in communities and how she was hoping for a ‘critical conversation’ – which was highly likely. Notably, the participants were almost precisely balanced in gender.

This was a day of contextualisation and community expansion with the first session’s theme being Learning from International Making Cultures including speakers from South Africa, France and Shenzhen, China. The first, Craig Dunlop talked about the extreme inequalities in South African society continuing so many years after the end of apartheid. He had recently benefited from a residency in the Machines Room in Shoreditch giving him clarity through distance. Addressing local needs in Cape Town meant drawing in local unemployed and using their skills to establish their makerspace commenting that as most then went on to employment they would not continue to be makers.

Justyna Swat then described the fun, hard work, confusion and emerging success of POC21 a five week 50 people venture in an almost empty French chateau and its grounds, exploring community building through social negotiation and taking responsibility and being disruptive but creative, eg changing attitudes to climate change through music. Whilst referring to ‘the beauty of dirt and imperfection’ she also admitted to the way that the need to take hold of emerging situations led them to accept the necessity of managing the event.

David Li from Shenzhen examined that unique city’s culture of making: the problems and opportunities of open source; the long tail of niche products based on a commitment to ‘deliver to needs’. He called electronics ‘the folk art of Shenzhen and described the eco-system of component supply and transactions that is its life-blood being based on a community of trust and facilitation with no boss to see things through. Surprisingly he called this a ‘trouble free production platform’ though small businesses often amount to no more than a two minute video and a web page! He contrasted this scenario to the likes of Foxconn making huge numbers of products for the likes of Apple Corp.

The second session, entitled Making and Humanitarian Relief was led by Laura James of Field Ready who are developing a different approach to aid utilising hyper-local manufacturing as far as possible: in the location where the aid products are needed. She identified these as ‘developments forced by circumstances’ describing those involved as ‘humanitarian makers’. After seeing a number of sample products, small groups then discussed how the organisation might progress, contributing ideas which Laura said were valuable and would be carried forward.

Lunchtime, and while shovelling in quantities of MadLab’s enviable hot food, people added events to The Incomplete and Crowdsourced History of UK Maker Culture in timeline format, which consecutive Maker Assemblies are compiling.

The afternoon’s Making and Manufacturing session chaired by James Tooze from the RCA’s Redistributed Manufacturing project started with Alan Meron discussing informal making/repairing events, noting that Sweden has removed vat from repairs and referring to Fixperts 1:1 design projects with a 1000 people now having been involved. But how to scale this up?

Ruth Claxton from MakeWorks, Birmingham, a hybrid space with provision for arts, crafts and engineering in ‘the City of a Thousand Trades’, described their venture to link manufacturers, suppliers and fabricators to help the scaling up of makerspace innovations, also referring to the online directory of Scottish making and manufacturing resources. Both aim to facilitate access to specialist manufacturing provision beyond the capability of makerspaces improving on the capacity of the Web plus ad hoc chats with people.

The irony of reduced choice resulting from higher volumes of production was commented on.

Adrian McEwan considered how to design to accommodate scaling up to manufacturing and suggested that more sophisticated approaches to resourcing manufacturing capability than touring local industrial estates was needed! He introduced us to the RCA project’s indie manufacturing site.

Paul Sohi from Autodesk showed their Fusion 360 product which is free to startups while staying below a given turnover limit and showed us Ikea’s Space 10 innovation and a Kickstarter approach for a Morphy Richards desktop vacuum former.

The afternoon’s final session was The Role of Making in a Wider Civic Infrastructure (no small horizons here!), a keynote by Laura Billings of the Lambeth OpenWorks project showed how in suburban West Norwood a high level of local participation was achieved through six months preparation, a year of action and six months finishing-off. Hundreds of items a week were repaired or made with a lot of emphasis on bartering. But this revealed how unfamiliar people are with participatory activities.

A great day – and thanks to the organisers for all their work in setting it up.

– David Perry