Author: Marthe Zirngiebl
Marthe Zirngiebl is a researcher at Sozialforschungsstelle – Central Scientific Institute of the Technical University Dortmund. She has developed a strong focus on social innovation in various societal contexts. She combines this focus with her previous knowledge in environmental governance and transition studies which she gained during her MSc. in “Environmental Studies and Sustainability Studies” at Lund University (Sweden).

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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When online meets offline: Digital Social Innovation Fair 2017

It seems to me that fairs are an omnipresent component of the MAKE-IT project. Obviously, Maker Faires are one of the most important opportunities for makers worldwide to showcase their project to a wide community and meet fellow makers and potential investors and consumers in an offline environment. Yet, MAKE-IT through its transdisciplinary approach is not only part of the Maker movement, but, as a CAPS project, MAKE-IT has one foot in the world of social innovation as well. Just like Makers, social innovators display their ideas and meet other like-minded individuals at fairs.

One of these fairs is the Digital Social Innovation Fair, which took place on the 1st and 2nd of February in the pre-digital historic buildings of the Protomoteca Hall on Campidoglio in Rome. The MAKE-IT consortium was well represented with Tomas Diez’s keynote giving a comprehensive overview of the Maker movement’s vast spread including the rise of fab cities and the opportunities of the smart citizen project and Jeremy Millard’s keynote which focused on how acknowledging nature as a fifth additional actor to the quadruple helix model can inform the design of social organisations and substantially alter visions of future societies.

The keynotes given on both days of the fair covered a vast array of topics reaching from practical issues of how e.g. open data management can become a tool for municipal public administration to ethical considerations touching upon the prevailing conflict of online power being in the hands of big corporations instead of citizens. In the evening, Janosch Sbeih and I took part in a side event which led us to FabLab Rome located on the outskirts of the city. We explored the FabLab’s two neighbouring facilities of which one was decorated in neat colours to spur creativity, while the other resembled a garage stuffed with drilling and printing machinery. Leonardo Zaccone who founded the FabLab Rome focusses on introducing kids at an early age to the possibilities of digital fabrication. To enhance the outreach of his Fablabs he developed specialized courses for teachers who can then include digital fabrication into their curriculum.

Side event: Leonardo Zaccone presenting his FabLab at Meet the Roman Makers (Photo by Marthe Zirngiebl)


On day 2 of the Digital Social Innovation Fair 2017 Janosch Sbeih presented MAKE-IT’s preliminary results during a workshop called Collaborative Making, Art and Creativity. Since many of the other presenters and people attending our workshop are quite active in the Maker movement, we used our time slot to discuss the question of what the Maker movement needs to sustainably tackle societal challenges such as environmental degradation, social inclusion, and employment.

The audience agreed that a lot of makers pursue projects that have the potential to tackle these challenges sustainably. While they do not lack creativity, ideas and a sense of societal responsibility, they by and large lack public recognition. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for initiatives to receive funding or guide policy in a favorable direction. So one consequent action to be pursued by the Maker movement would be to voice their values and showcase their activities to a wider public. Hence, our presentation, as well as the other ideas and projects exhibited at the Digital Social Innovation Fair 2017, provide valuable insights for MAKE-IT’s sustainability scenarios developed as part of Work Package 6. To collect further input, the results of the discussion are presented here and will remain open for further comments by the online community. Furthermore,  Janosch Sbeih wrote an analytical report of the DSI Fair 2017 you can check below.


TUDO Analytical Report: DSI Fair 2017


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MAKE-IT at the CAPS Community Meeting and Workshop in Berlin

On 18th May 2016, I presented MAKE-IT at the CAPS Community Meeting and Workshop in Berlin. DG Connect did not only invite all 36 CAPS projects funded in the first two calls, but also external participants interested in their developments. The acronym CAPS stands for Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovation.

The CAPS initiative attempts to foster the use of network technologies, thereby building collective intelligence and collective action within five thematic areas. MAKE-IT aims at understanding the role of CAPS in enabling the growth and governance of the Maker Movement, particularly in relation to using and creating social innovations and achieving sustainability. While MAKE-IT is one of the four projects funded within the cluster Collaborative Making, projects of other areas employ means of digital fabrication, as well. In that regard, the community meeting showed that the insights into the working of makerspaces will be of great value for and provide potential synergies with other CAPS projects like Hackair or CAPTOR, which with the help of special DIY building kits encourage citizens to measure the level of air or ocean pollution.


Besides presenting MAKE-IT and listening to the presentations of first and second round CAPS projects using socially innovative means to contribute to a more sustainable, more cooperative future, I participated in a workshop which centred on the role and ambition of impact measurement. Of central interest was the tool IA4SI, Impact Assessment for Social Innovation, a first generation CAPS project which developed a self-assessment tool. This tool should assist CAPS and other projects with a focus on digital social innovation in assessing and monitoring their socio-economic, environmental, and political impacts. As such, it serves as an important reference framework for the Monitoring and Assessment Framework developed as part of MAKE-IT’s Conceptual and Methodological Framework.

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