The Open World series of articles documents Liam Grace-Flood’s year of traveling all over the world exploring maker culture and spaces.


In 2013, South African design studio, Thingking, won a spot at Design Indaba. That meant while everyone else at the festival was trying to sell their wares to pay for their spot, Thingking was there to have fun. That playful approach to doing good work ended up drawing the attention of Daniel Charny, who turned them onto his Fixperts initiative.

Thus began a series of public programs — Thingking had just moved into a new space in Woodstock, Cape Town, and they wanted to reach out and make friends with their new neighbors. So, using the Fixperts framework, they opened their doors and tried to help fix whatever their neighbors brought them.

With that project as a starting point, they continued their open-making as part of Daniel Charny’s next initiative: the Maker Library Network. Originally commissioned by the British council to connect makers in the UK and South Africa, it quickly grew to include open-access workshops and private design studios around the world — offering toolkits and resources for designers and makers to open up their spaces and practices to local communities.

Thingking’s shared office and workshop space

While the network’s funding ended last year, many of the member spaces continue — Thingking is one notable example. MLN learnings are still available online too. I love their thoughtful reading list, and their recent retrospective of the program as a whole, called The Journey of the Maker Library Network, has some really valuable takeaways for anyone thinking about open makerspaces or networks.

One generally applicable takeaway: in a movement celebrating decentralization and free association, intentional networks like the MLN can either be a useful, or halting, friction. For some member spaces, like Machines Room in London, the network had a lasting impact on their work, and affected everything from the physical layout of their space to their public programs. Less so for Thingking. Marc Nicolson, Thingking’s co-founder, said it was valuable and interesting to talk to other network members, but they struggled to spark effective long-distance collaborations. He called it an interesting way for them to take a new look at the kinds of participatory projects they were already doing, but it hasn’t had a lasting impact on their practice.

In fact, Thingking have never identified as “makers,” and they don’t call their workshop a “makerspace.” Even though their work is deeply participatory and has a proclivity for pan-disciplinary experimentation; even though they sublet their extra workshop space to a number of local designers and makers; and even though they were a founding member of the MLN.

Thingking’s ‘Micro Business Kits’ produce a sellable object and teach an easily transferrable skill

They fully participated in the network for the three years it ran, but ultimately eschewed other people’s terminology and templates to let their space, practice, and network grow organically to suit their context. And increasingly, when creative practices do that — grow organically in tandem with their communities — many start to look a little like makerspaces, whether they participate in the global “maker” conversation or not.

To read more about Thingking’s work with the Maker Library Network, check out their profile, including stories about their experiments with a mobile Maker Library. And again, I heartily recommend their retrospective, The Journey of the Maker Library Network.