Exploring the (un)sustainability of Making

What is the common feature of food assemblies, libraries of things, and making? At first glance, all of these practices operate in their very individual cultural spheres: Food assemblies attract foodies with a heart for local farmers, makerspaces are full of techies building robots and printing futuristic objects. Libraries of things come in handy in a variety of circumstances ranging from borrowing a drilling machine for domestic construction work to renting a karaoke machine for a birthday party. Yet, all these grassroot movements might contribute to changing consumption practices and all of them so far represent rather niche activities. Transition Studies investigates how more sustainable technologies or practices succeed to overcome their niche status and become the common way of doing things. At the 8th International Sustainability Transitions Conference taking place in Gothenburg from 18th to 21st June, international researchers from a variety of disciplines came together to not only discuss theoretical and methodological advances, but also to share real-life examples.

The three aforementioned grassroot movements with a focus on changing consumption practices and in the case of making and food assemblies also production processes were all presented in a shared speed talk session. Here, I was given the chance to briefly present MAKE-IT’s three sustainability scenarios and discuss their potential to ease the environmental impact with the audience. In that sense, the sustainability scenarios show three possible ways in which the Maker movement could transition to a mainstream activity. Thereby, they emphasize different trends observed in current practices.

The first scenario assumes that the Maker movement is absorbed by public learning spaces. Schools, libraries, museums and other public spaces that reach out to a broad target group create makerspaces within their facilities. Hence, students or visitors can use digital fabrication tools and the pedagogical personnel has the skills to teach them how to do it. Thereby, making is heavily influenced by the attitudes, objectives and rules of the specific public space.

In the second scenario, the Maker movement is embedded in a widely mainstreamed open source ethics taken up by a variety of public and civil society organisation. The wider society is in favour of developing into a commons-based, decentralized P2P manufacturing economy. Here, making is part of a societal change of attitudes from individualistic to cooperative. This development of the Maker movement assumes that a large part of society is able to meet an increasing portion of their material needs without formal employment and is, thus, in favour of becoming part of this change.

In contrast, the third scenario sees the Maker movement as being absorbed by the established industry. Makerspaces become part of corporate research and development departments. Industry benefits from the spirit and grass-roots community elements of the Maker movement. The financial security of makers and makerspaces is significantly increased in this scenario and design approaches are influenced by the maker culture, but the open sharing of designs is largely undermined by global players.

While none of the scenarios explicitly refers to the Maker movement’s potential for ecological sustainability, all of the scenarios have the potential to also include this aspect. Given that the discussants work mainly with environmental sustainability, I used this forum to discuss the drivers and barriers for environmental sustainability in the Maker movement.

The first overarching topic that arose during the discussion was that today we lack the scientific basis for estimating the concrete environmental impact of making. For example, calculations like life cycle analysis or the environmental footprint or backpack, which estimate the total resource use of products and production processes, are difficult to perform given the diversity of filaments, on the one hand, and lack of experience in terms of longevity of the machinery, on the other hand. In addition, rebound effects might emerge when consumers produce certain goods cheaply in makerspaces and spend their saved money on environmental harmful practices elsewhere. On top of that, making is still an additional mode of production which comes on top of traditional production processes and, hence, presents so far an additional environmental burden. This led to the question of what would be produced in makerspaces, as producing in big bulks can in general be done in more energy efficient ways than producing personalized single items.

In a next step, the discussants agreed that the Maker movement can only foster a sustainability transition by changing consumption practices on a wider scale. The discussants regarded this as mainly feasible in scenario one and two, as the main actor in scenario three are businesses whose financial success depends upon a society with ever-growing consumption rates. In general, one participant voiced the concern that the Maker movement risks a similar development as social media 10-15 years ago. In the early days, hopes were high that they could enhance democratisation and civic engagement. However, today most of the popular platforms used by the majority of people worldwide are owned by big corporations with their own interests. This has the consequence that most of the decisions on how to deal with e.g. private data are not made democratically engaging all users, but are subject to corporate interest. Drawing back on this historic development, the discussant claimed that now is the time to take action to undermine this trajectory.

In contrast to scenario three, the first two scenarios diffuse making in civil society. They can contribute to a shift of values, as individuals value an object they made themselves much more than one bought in a shop. Consequently, one will put more effort in enhancing the lifespan of a product by e.g. repairing components. Here, one discussant remarked that a shift to a repairing society, as assumed in scenario two, faces some legal barriers today. For example, due to safety reasons it is not allowed to replace some parts of electronic devices. Even if 3D printers make it easier to print exact copies of the missing components, the safety regulations prevail. This example shows that some of the barriers are posed by the legal environments and cannot easily be solved by the Maker movement in isolation.

However, scenario one and two depend heavily on mediators who not only teach the skills necessary for digital fabrication but also spark the interest in doing so in the first place. One participant highlighted that this mediator function would then also assure that civil society uses the makerspace for its intended purpose. He further gave the example of makerspace, which was created in Barcelona as part of the town’s fab city concept, but transformed into a food market by citizens who did not see a personal gain in making.

The discussion of MAKE-IT’s sustainability scenarios in regard to the drivers and barriers of a sustainability transition with focus on environmental sustainability showed that scenario one and two offer more points of leverage for changing consumption practices on a large scale. This is in so far of relevance as clear cut evaluations of the environmental impact do not exist and are difficult to calculate. Hence, the Maker movement’s potential to enhance environmental sustainability lies mainly in changing the attitude towards and behaviour of consumption. At best people consume and produce only what they actually need and value these things more, which at the same time leads to a shift from “buying new” to “repairing”.

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