Shared workshops can have a feeling of community. I used to think it was a matter of scale, that the larger groups would have more community. I now realize it’s more a matter of how much people will linger. The more people engage with each other in a workshop, the more likely the sense of community will develop. Most of us have experienced how good this can be at our local makerspace, but to date we haven’t experienced maker pro communities at scale.
Local makerspaces are compelling and one very strong reason is their sense of community. When folks of like-mind gather to share a space and tools, to teach and learn from one another, and to collaborate on projects when there’s magic in the air. You can’t force it to happen. When the right bunch of people get together with the shared goal of building a space, and after they’ve overcome the myriad of hurdles between them then a great sense of community grows. Invariably the core members will live within 30 minutes of the makerspace. They’ll be at the space often and for good chunks of time. It’s their geek “Cheers.” It’s where everybody knows their name.
Understandably, when it comes to tools most makerspaces won’t have great variety, high caliber, or the latest technology. Those serious about their making (as in “I make for money”) will venture out to find a pro workshop, something along the lines of a Maker Works, TechShop, or MakerPlace. For most this will mean a longer commute. For most their time will be spent intensely focused on getting work done. For most, upon completion of their tasks for the day they’ll pack up and return home. Almost nobody will loiter and consequently they will not create the bonds that are at the foundation of community. My experience is that at the level of a pro workshop the sense of community dips; it becomes a much more get-the-job-done -I’m-out-a-here type of environment.
The above were my conclusions until recently I spent a weekend at Artisan’s Asylum. There I found both the biggest makerspace I’ve visited and the biggest face-to-face maker community I’ve experienced. The facility is huge and they have a vast collection tools and resources, enough to attract artisans from miles around. In addition, they have workspaces for rent and herein lies the revelation. Artisans come and stay, they loiter and get to know one another, they build relationships. In this artisan town under one roof they have community.
Recently it stuck me. Artisan’s Asylum is a variation on the artist colony which originated back in the 1830s and is almost 200 years old. Framed through this lens there have been thousands of these large creative communities. In my own back yard of northern Virginia there are examples in operation today. The Torpedo Factory has 165 artists working in 82 artist studios. The Workhouse Art Center is comprised of seven buildings of working artists’ studios with residency programs in both ceramics and glass. It turns out this is a well-understood territory where our tech-tinged DIY making has yet to explore.
So when will it happen? Large communities of artisans have been around for a long time, but to date haven’t leveraged the recent potent mix of internet and computing. It’s only recently that makers have been able to easily tap open hardware, collaborate on hardware designs, and prototype rapidly with CNC tools. We haven’t seen what the combination can produce. With all the creativity, collaboration, and community in a maker pro colony the results could be potent. I hope we see examples emerging soon.