The Open World series of articles documents Liam Grace-Flood’s year of traveling all over the world exploring maker culture and spaces.
Machines Room’s goal is to support innovative people and organizations that want to make things with positive social or economic impact – whether that’s mycellium materials research, plastic recycling, or decentralized knitting machines. Nearly everyone they support is educating or making with social or environmental purposes in mind. They’re part of a “tech-for-good” initiative within Maker Mile in Hackney (East London). That places them right next door to Open Desk, and a quick walk from London Hackspace.
They were originally part of a British Council network of Maker Libraries. That network has since disbanded, but many of the core ideas remain at Machines Room. Immediately upon entering the space, you see their library and exhibition space. They’ve all kinds of books, many of which come from this reading list (which I think is pretty good). Alongside the books are all manner of projects, from recycled CNC scrap objects to Disrupt Disability’s 3D printed wheelchair bits, to PlySet’s recycled 3D printer filament lamp shades.
Because they’re so close to Open Desk in mission and geography, they end up fabricating a lot of their furniture and prototypes. The whole space is full of Open Desk’s and Enzo Mari’s furniture, and the Strategic Director, Nat Hunter, is part of a related research project at the Royal College of Art. They’re all super into helping envision the future of design and distributed manufacturing.
One other cool thing they do is residencies. They have paid membership and residency programs, but they also support a smaller number of makers for month-long funded residencies to work on particular projects. It’s great that even a small space like Machines Room makes a deliberate effort to ensure access to people whose projects could benefit from it. This August, I was in residence at Machines Room researching the future of open design and fabrication – ideas that were partly inspired by what Machines Room does. You can read about that project on their blog.
They’re not perfect, of course. Their space is pretty small, and, like many makerspaces and fab labs, their emphasis is much more on digital fabrication than traditional craft. So while they have CNC mills, laser cutters, and 3D printers, their woodshop isn’t the best, and they don’t have much in the way of metalworking. That leads to the occasional backwards workflow, like having to use their shopbot to rip a sheet of plywood. They’re pretty new, so they keep changing how they do things as they figure it out. Experimentation is great, but it can also be an impediment. Things were often delayed because the staff was trying to revise their protocols or rework a system.
That said, even if Machines Room doesn’t have the exact tools you need for a project, or a system doesn’t work quite right, they’re always thinking critically about how to improve their space. As the maker movement matures, and people come to appreciate the value of making in itself, we need more critical conversation about the other issues surrounding that trend. Conversations like commercialization and entrepreneurial drift, inclusivity and diversity, and what’s worth making vs. what’s wasteful.
Machines Room is at the forefront of many of those conversations, and is networked with other organizations that are also doing good work in this field. If you want to just make something, there are probably better places to go. However, if you want to make something with purpose, and to think critically about why and for whom you’re making, that’s what Machines Room is all about.
An artist, engineer, and researcher, Liam makes all kinds of things, including public policy, fine art, electric motorcycles, and computational models. His passion for making is rivaled only by his dedication to ensuring other people have the resources they need to make, too. In that vein, as a 2017 Watson Fellow he's exploring how open workshops democratize and decentralize education, innovation, and industry to make better things, people, and communities.View more articles by Liam Grace-Flood