Occasionally, I’ll visit a frustrated makerspace. “We have a space. We have tools. Where are the members?” They describe how they’ve put energy into the physical aspects of the space and say nothing about the community building aspects. To this I typically reply that a makerspace without a community is a soulless place. Without a soul there’s little passion and therefore little stickiness for prospective members. It’s not easy to create community but it’s an important theme to develop. One way to do this is to tap into existing community. Below are some techniques we’ve used at Nova Labs.
Most cities have interest groups of many types. As a simple test, go to Meetup.com and do a search for what exists in your community. You may find several groups with maker instincts: woodworking, robotics, PHP coding, etc. On Meetup.com alone, the variety in major metropolitan areas is staggering. Identify a few and get to know them. By doing only this, you can discover mutually beneficial opportunity to nurture community.
Our makerspace was actually founded with one such group at its core: Northern Virginia RepRap Group. NovaRRG is a hub of 3D printing enthusiasts and experts who meet regularly and build Prusa 3D printers. As time has gone by, we’ve reached out to the DC/MD/VA Robotics and Automation Group because our robotics enthusiasts were champing at the bit to do things. It turned out the group needed a space to meet regularly so we offered our conference room and several collaborations have resulted. We also connected with the DC Area Drone User Group because, heck, we wanted to fly drones! Leveraging Nova Labs’ space, resources, and 3D printer group build expertise we collaborated on a kit build with great success. In each case, we’ve been careful to work together for mutual benefit so both communities continue to want to work together.
Another form of community building is based on cross promotion with other makerspaces. A very special local makerspace in D.C. is HacDC with whom we’ve fostered a relationship. They’ll occasionally have programs we don’t offer, such as amateur radio or Project Byzantium, and we’ll have tools they really need to use such as our vinyl or laser cutters, or we’ll host an event they’re interested in attending such as the recent MAKE RaspberryPi meetup. FredHack is another local makerspace but located in the open country of Virginia. There they can engage in activities such as metal working with a hand-cranked charcoal forge or mixing pyro chemicals to build homemade model rocket engines. We can’t responsibly get away with such things in the big city due to insurance and landlord restrictions. The folks at FredHack have participated in a variety of Nova Labs programs and come to town to conduct demonstrations for us city-folk.
This collaboration among makerspaces has been healthy for all concerned. Contrary to what many people think, working with other spaces is usually not a threat. Your makerspace tends to be your “third place” (after home and work) and consequently needs to be conveniently near where you live or work. Only for special events would you normally venture too far out. Cooperation is constructive and works nicely this way.
The last example I’ll give is of existing institutions in your town. Schools and libraries are places where special interests gather. Community colleges and high schools have a variety of classes on various topics of making. Getting to know those institutions and the right people in them will set the stage for opportunity. We hosted the MAKE 3D Printer meetup and were able to invite the students of our local high school who use the school’s 3D printer. To our local library we offered to stage a half day exhibit of 3D printers which they publicized. It was well attended and now other libraries have asked that we do the same for them. In both these cases, we were able to find and attract people with passion to stoke our community of interest.
The more you cooperate with other passion communities, the more people become aware of your space, join you, and feed your community. The tactics above are worth considering to inject your makerspace with a soul and give your space stickiness. Done well, this approach benefits all concerned, and a space with tools becomes increasingly a place of passion pursuits.
Had success growing community in your makerspace? Tell us how!