Organizing a Nation of Makerspaces Is Hard But Worth It

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Organizing a Nation of Makerspaces Is Hard But Worth It

If you think getting people in your makerspace to work together is hard, imagine trying to coordinate the efforts of several hundred makerspace organizers after getting them excited with a meeting at The White House!

In my previous post, I shared that the President’s Nation of Makers Initiative moved forward recently with a gathering of over 175 makerspace organizers. You can imagine that as we started talking about the challenges faced by makerspaces, many in the group jumped into action. By the end of the week, we had a Facebook group, a new Nation of Makers Slack channel, a Nation of Makers github, a number of new Google documents, new mailing lists, working groups to pursue grants for makers, and much more. During all the excitement of the days after the meeting, I noticed the actions of the makerspace organizers were starting to fall into several overlapping states:

  1. Suggesting or creating new solutions (love the passion, and drive to action!)
  2. Advocating that others review existing solutions and help maintain or improve the existing solutions (makers need to maintain, not just build — why not go update
  3. Calling for the formation of coalitions to solve challenges (let’s work together!)
  4. Feeling overwhelmed with all the activity while returning from D.C. to their day jobs and their makerspaces (We were already overloaded BEFORE the White House invite!)

Luckily, Andrew Coy, Senior Advisor for Making from the Office of Science and Technology Policy was prepared to advise us after the meeting on how to move forward. Andrew proposed a strategic planning process (which really needs a good name — send me your ideas or post them in the comments!) by which we can work together as a community to Diagnose our needs, Scout for solutions, Test key hypothesis, Prototype solutions (the maker in me LOVES this phase!), and Iterate on those solutions.

Click for full size graphic. Strategic Process overview graphic created by Ian Cole based on process overview shared by Andrew Coy.
Click for full size graphic. Strategic Process overview graphic created by Ian Cole based on process overview shared by Andrew Coy.

We are currently in the first phase — Diagnose. In this phase we are documenting the challenges faced by our makerspaces, without trying to identify the solution. Anyone wanting to help document challenges are welcome to send them to Andrew Coy by September 4th.

For makers, this is much harder than it sounds! In following the dialog, I’m also seeing that while there are some challenges universal to makerspaces (like funding and diversity), there are significant differences between the different makerspace models. Examples of these different makerspace models include:

  • Community-run non-profit makerspaces
  • For-profit (Techshop, etc.) makerspaces
  • School (K-12) makerspaces
  • Library makerspaces
  • Museum makerspaces
  • and many more…

Each model has a different approach to space, membership, funding, organizational structure and more, which becomes apparent when discussing challenges and solutions. For example, the community-run makerspaces (and hackerspaces) may advocate an Open Source solution, both out of cost and philosophical drivers, whereas a for-profit makerspace, or a makerspace located in a library or museum may be more likely to choose a solution with training and technical support options. There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solutions and it will take diverse and inclusive thinking to solve them.

Andrew addressed this in the email suggesting this process, “To accomplish shared goals and build a support infrastructure, I believe you all must be explicitly strategic and intentionally inclusive.”

I’m excited to participate in this process, and to see how we can document our challenges and then build coalitions to solve them. I’m still seeing quite a bit of “I will do this”, or “I will do that”, and not enough “let’s build a diverse team to go approach and solve this problem together.” I know it is hard to work together, but I also believe that overcoming our largest challenges and reaching long-term sustainability will require a coalition of makerspace organizers.

Going forward, this coalition may lay the groundwork for some nature of non-profit advocacy and support organization. Think of it as a trade association that represents makerspaces. Yet another instance of “It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it!”

Stay tuned, because this will be interesting!

If you are a makerspace organizer and you’d like to follow this in realtime, you can get started by joining our Facebook group then navigating from there to many of the other resources that are available.

Thanks to Steve Traugott for the header photo.

Earlier this summer, the White House held a Nation of Makers meeting before the National Maker Faire in D.C. that brought together an unprecedented number of makerspace organizers together to discuss some of the common issues that makerspaces and hackerspaces face today.

This article is part of a series on the efforts that are now taking place as a direct result of that meeting. You can read the first article here.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Ian is a co-founder of The Maker Effect Foundation, a non-profit group organized to amplify the effects of makers within their communities. The Maker Effect Foundation's programs include Maker Faire Orlando, and MakerFX makerspace in Orlando. Ian is also a board member of Nation of Makers, and a member of FamiLAB, Orlando's Hackerspace.

View more articles by Ian Cole
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