Photo: Alexander Fife/Unsplash.
Innovation is often attributed to the research and development departments of corporate firms, academic institutions and other private and public sector research laboratories. But makerspaces are changing this notion by facilitating a community of people or ‘makers’ to innovate outside the rigid formal structures of science and technology institutions. These makers are interested in experimenting and creating new things by shaping their ideas into products.
Makerspaces are community-based workshops where people can access machines and tools required to design or make things. These tools could be both high-tech fabrication machines such as 3D printers, laser cutters and lathes or traditional tools like sewing machines, chisels and hammers associated with ‘low-tech’ crafts.
Makerspaces are known by a variety of terms, including ‘hackerspaces’ and ‘FabLabs’. The idea of having a physical space providing access to such tools required for design and innovation came about through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Centre for Bits and Atoms. Since then, the maker culture has been absorbed into engineering education in western countries to support curricular, extracurricular and independent projects of students, faculty members and other people in academia.
One astounding feature that differentiates activities within makerspaces from other profit-seeking entities is their commitment to the ethos of open sharing. Makerspace members willingly share ideas, designs and know-how among themselves, displaying unique characteristics of camaraderie and cooperation, versus innovators working in technology-based firms who often make use of patents to protect their designs from being copied.
Makerspaces are supported by monthly, weekly, or daily fees paid by members to use the space’s services. High-tech machines available are expensive and often funded through grants, charities and crowdfunding.
These spaces could prove to be especially useful for those who need critical thinking skills and hands-on learning for excelling in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). So a typical makerspace could involve hobbyists making things for personal fulfilment, students pursuing educational projects, budding entrepreneurs and social change-makers.
Though makerspaces began in western countries, they have made inroads in many parts of urban India, mainly through expatriates returning from the US in the early 2010s. The website hackerspaces.org lists 19 makerspaces operating in various cities in India. Similarly, a 2017 report by Swissnex India described the activities of ten major makerspaces operating in the country. The number might not be huge, but it certainly signals a growing community of Indian makers and is bound to grow in the coming years.
Some leading makerspaces in India are JMoon and Nuts and Bolts in Delhi; Maker’s Asylum in Mumbai and Delhi; Maker’s Loft in Kolkata; and Workbench Projects, Project DEFY and THE Workshop in Bengaluru. There are similar spaces in Chennai, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Dharamshala and Gurgaon.
Making is an activity that comes naturally to Indians. The Hindi language even has a popular term for it, ‘jugaad‘, denoting a smart yet frugal way of devising a low-cost solution to an everyday problem. The phenomenal work by the Honey Bee Network and the National Innovation Foundation in scouting and rewarding ‘grassroots’ innovators bears testament to the creative ingenuity of Indians.
In the Indian context, makerspaces may prove to be the missing infrastructure we need to allow the creative potential of non-expert people to blossom, to innovate products and solutions that overcome critical socio-economic problems unique to our geography. This promising approach to technology development has also found the attention of policymakers and other relevant stakeholders. For example, initiatives such as the Atal Tinkering Labs by the NITI Aayog was initiated with a vision to “cultivate one million children in India as Neoteric Innovators”.
The maker movement in India gained traction thanks to a policy environment that supported the startup culture and turned Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru into innovation hubs. Makerspaces that initially attracted tech enthusiasts and hobbyists wanting to create something new for the fun of it gradually started attracting people who wanted to innovate for entrepreneurial motives, even to contribute something to society.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the weakness of global supply chains in meeting the demand for critical medical items. The informal networks, design skills and fabrication tools embedded in makerspaces came in handy. Makers Asylum, a makerspace based in Mumbai, mobilised its resources to make a face shield, called M-19, for frontline workers. The team of makers experimented with different prototypes using 3D printers and laser cutters. They even consulted doctors to ensure their product was user-centred. Their makerspace alone was able to supply close to 200,000 face shields to different workers.
Makerspaces have also drawn a fair share of criticism as many scholars, and also makers, have argued that social justice and environmental sustainability don’t appear to exist in the making activities. Social inequalities that prevent access and participation are often ignored and the privilege or domination of some groups of people remain unchecked. For example, members of makerspaces are predominantly male, dominated among them by those with a higher monthly income. Similarly, there is a concern that makerspaces drive consumerism and add to environmental woes instead of ameliorating them.
But if these challenges can be overcome, makerspaces can inculcate a culture of innovation at the community level. The Department of Science and Technology recently released a draft Science, Technology and Innovation policy that envisions India as being self-reliant in technology development. One way to accelerate our progress on this front is to encourage young minds to make things by providing them with the platform and necessary materials to showcase their skills. These spaces are evolving to be platforms for testing and experimenting with ideas with a sense of cooperation, sharing and the embrace of failure.
Gautam Sharma is a senior project associate at the DST-Centre for Policy Research at IISc, Bengaluru.