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Making Space for a MakerSpace

Over the last decade or so, the tools of the modern inventor have become less expensive and easier to use.

Today, you can buy a serviceable 3-D printer for less than the cost of a new PC and a college undergrad might show you how to use it. Programmable electronics were once a thing that required post-secondary education in IC chip design. But now, with well-documented and inexpensive platforms such as Arduino and Coursera, anyone with even a remote interest can very quickly get started. These and other advancements have brought about the current popularity of the “Maker” culture and that magical place called the “MakerSpace.”

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A MakerSpace is a communal area where makers can have access to equipment and, well, space to tinker, hack, and create amazing things. At a Makerspace, you will commonly find a collection of tools and equipment, such as 3-D printers, soldering irons, circuit boards, LED lights, virtual reality headsets, connected devices, etc. More recently, the term “Maker Lab” has come to mean a Makerspace supported by and for a specific organization or company.
Seeing the explosion of creative ideas spawned from the Maker movement, forward-thinking agencies and marketing teams have begun utilizing internal “Maker Labs” to rapidly develop more innovative ideas for their brands and partners. They are enabling their creative teams by giving them the time, space, and tools to build solutions, not just ideate them. Furthermore, by introducing these new capabilities, agencies are fostering entirely new ideas that never would have been part of their teams’ creative vocabulary in the past.
If you boil it down, there are basically two kinds of things that come out of a Maker Lab: prototypes and ideas. The first is obvious. The second is typically more profound than you would at first think.

Prototypes

The tangible output of a Maker Lab is typically a prototype. Prototypes can be built for a number of reasons: to win business, to invent new products, for iterative design and product refinement, and to examine the feasibility of an idea. However, most ideas, once they are vetted, must be presented. A physical, even functional, prototype is one of the most powerful presentation tools.

Consider this: You can tell a client about an idea or you can build a slide presentation to show them the idea. Which is more effective? If the idea involves production of some physical item, you can describe the item in a slide presentation or you can hand them a physical prototype. Which would be more effective?

We have already seen the recent trend to invent new product concepts, even futuristic branded experiences, to promote a brand as forward-thinking and/or altruistic in its approach to anticipating its customer’s needs. These types of promotions practically require a Maker Lab approach, and they cannot effectively be presented without a prototype.
Until a client holds a prototype in their hands, the idea of it is an abstract thing. It doesn’t feel like something that could actually happen. The process of getting an idea to a finished product seems long and often mysterious. Putting that prototype into someone’s hands totally short-circuits that type of thinking. Suddenly, the thing seems real, attainable, and exciting.

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Ideas

It is arguable that the largest benefit of having a Maker Lab comes from the creative wellspring such a lab brings. Photoshop brought a whole new range of creative possibilities that might never have been considered before. Maker Labs do the same thing. Key to reaping this benefit are time and freedom. Individuals and teams that are to take advantage of a Maker Lab’s possibilities must have the time and freedom to experiment with those tools. Using the same metaphor again, think about the difference in having “some idea” of what Photoshop can do and actually having an understanding of how it works. I might know that two images can be edited together, but, in many cases, I wouldn’t know enough to even offer up a solution that Photoshop makes possible.
No matter how “creative” you are, your ideas will be limited to fewer options unless you play with the tools. This is critical. Simply put, until a person is allowed to play in the Lab, their creative vocabulary will be limited.

Building a Maker Lab

Three things are needed to take full advantage of a Maker Lab: time, direction, and reward:

Time

Paying for activity not directly tied to income is a big deal. You have to have faith that those activities are laying the groundwork for future success. Forward-thinking organizations are setting aside regular time for their people to learn and use the Maker Lab. This is a model that has been very successful in promoting real outside-the-box creative thinking at companies such as Google. To be clear, time shouldn’t be spent at the expense of project deadlines, but allowing and encouraging Maker Lab time to tinker and experiment is highly productive and an essential part of this approach.

Direction

Participants should be encouraged to tinker with ideas that could conceivably benefit a client or project. It’s not uncommon to end up with a collection of ideas that no one is working on. If someone wants to learn but doesn’t have anything specific on which to work, those ideas can be given to them. The point is to make them do something. At the very least, make them tell you what they intend to learn. That might be an opportunity to provide some direction, guide them to work on something specific in their area of interest, or tell them from whom they might get some expert help.

Reward

Many organizations encourage use of their lab and the skills related to it by organizing regular “hackathons.” Popularized by companies such as Facebook, Yahoo!, and Google, a hackathon is a great way to stimulate new ideas and draw attention to these new capabilities. It starts with everyone being invited to submit project ideas. From those ideas, a few winners are selected and given one week with a maker team to develop a prototype and pitch their idea before a panel of judges. Winners get bragging rights and perhaps the opportunity to proceed with the project. Meanwhile, the capabilities of the Maker Lab and the in-house expertise are evangelized throughout the company.
Such events, and the creative freedom and learning that come from fostering a maker culture, also serve to boost morale and improve teamwork in general. It is largely seen as something that will attract and retain talent.
As we continue our migration deeper and deeper into the experience economy, where memorable and, more importantly, shareable experiences are needed to effectively promote a brand, agencies that don’t effectively create those experiences will fall behind. Creative use of technology to build personal experiences is where leading agencies are differentiating themselves and the brands they represent. In 2016, we are approaching a time where creating brand experiences without brand tangibles will put you at a competitive disadvantage. To ideate, design, prototype, and iterate physical objects and experiences, access to a Maker Lab is a requirement.

Recommendations for starting a Maker Lab in your organization:

• Identify individuals in your organization that already have maker skills and/or a desire to acquire them.
• Task that team with assembling and maintaining your Maker Lab.
• Encourage everyone to familiarize themselves with the Maker Lab’s capabilities.
• Build stuff. Don’t wait for a client-facing project. Make up a project if you have to, but get to work building things now. The more your lab is used, the more ideas will flow from it.

References
1. “Make: Tool Guide.” Makershed.com. Step-by-step photo instructions and reviews of more than 200 tools for the modern maker.
2. Cavalcanti, Gui. “Is It a Hackerspace, Makerspace, TechShop, or FabLab?” Make, May 22, 2013.
3. Smigielski, Robb. “We Are All Futurists Now – and That’s Great for Advertising.” The Drum, July 17, 2015.

Making Space for a MakerSpace was written by our intern, Daniel Morgah, for the Thrive blog

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