Design Your Own Future: Supporting Networked Design Expertise

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Engineering and Environment

Abstract

MakerSpaces and Fab Labs are open, publicly-accessible workshops, which provide people with access to cutting-edge tools and technologies (both digital and analogue), which they can use for completing design projects. These sites are commonly run as collectives, with equipment gifted or purchased from donations. Much as public libraries serve to educate a resource-impoverished public, MakerSpaces and Fab Labs provide access to resources too expensive for people to readily own themselves and act to up-skill a community, by providing informal training and knowledge exchange for, and about, design and manufacturing skills.

As 'smart objects' become more commonplace the potential for developing, designing and tinkering with 'Internet-of-Things' enabled devices becomes more everyday and yet more complicated, as there will be greater technical barriers to participation (DIY with digital technologies seems understandably harder for the general public). As it becomes possible for people to make their own technologies, and to modify and customise existing ones that they own, MakerSpaces and Fab Labs will increasingly lead the way in supporting people to do just these activities.

However, we understand relatively little about how these sites work well, or badly, and about how we can use digital tools to support processes of 'open design' or knowledge exchange, in which design understanding is shared amongst communities. Consequently, we need to go and visit these sites to study them, in situ.

Alongside this, manufacturing will increasingly come closer to the consumer, with print-on-demand, rapid production and personalization / customization. There is a great opportunity to explore how open design platforms (web-based technologies) might loop in manufacturers, such that they can become consumers of design skills amongst design communities (setting challenges and federating or 'crowd-sourcing' their design and innovation requirements). But also, crucially, feeding back in to these communities and design collectives, to provide deeper understanding about design processes and techniques, thereby up-skilling the public to create a more design-informed population. Consequently, we need to spend time talking to and working with manufacturers to understand their perspectives on processes of 'open design' and to use both this knowledge and our work with communities in MakerSpaces to co-design a new prototype web-based 'open design' platform, which we can then trial with manufacturers and design communities.

The project will also work to understand how new communities of people can be brought in-to-the-fold of design activity, reducing the barriers to participation in design spaces. This will be done through the production of a simple Mobile Fab Lab, which can be toured between sites, such as schools, exposing new audiences to the tools and technologies of the MakerSpace, and fostering a broader interest in processes of 'open design'.

Planned Impact

Based on the study of working practices within MakerSpaces, Fab Labs and associated design communities, and our generated understanding of manufacturers' responses to new models of engineering design process, this project aims to prototype and test a technical platform for supporting processes of open design. This web-based platform will facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing between communities of designers and manufacturers, allowing manufacturers to be both consumers of federated design expertise and active providers of knowledge and skills, serving to up-skill other, community-based, members of the network. The key point here is that the platform and methodology will allow service providers and service users to engage with one another much more deeply and effectively than traditional methods of consultation have otherwise achieved.

We argue that in the age of smart objects and the Internet-of-Things, consumers will increasingly be interested in modifying, adapting and 'hacking' the devices, in their homes, workplaces and vehicles. Whilst this will to some extent support engagement with MakerSpaces and Fab Labs, for many these spaces are an unknown. Our work will seek to explore how we can promote engagement with these facilities, but also how we can increase their effectiveness and crucially, bring manufacturing organisations closer to consumers through these open networks.

The project will also be working to open up new user-bases for these facilities by directly engaging with new user communities, such as schools, trying to understand how they can be engaged in engineering design activity in meaningful, productive and mutually rewarding ways.

Ultimately we intend to deliver a prototype open design platform, which, subject to refinement, could be rolled out for broad public use. Our platform and methodology will be developed as an open source project. This would support broad networks of design communities working in collaboration with manufacturers at multiple levels, including both small and large enterprises (our partner organisations have been carefully selected to reflect this balance of small to large organisations). We anticipate that this work will serve to up-skill public communities providing a deeper engagement with engineering design activity which will serve to deliver some of the UK manufacturing sector's requirements for better and more established product design skills amongst the working-age population, so as to provide future resilience for manufacturing in the UK.

The very nature of the open design platform which promotes activities such as federated research, design and innovation will, we hope, give rise to new markets and businesses (for example third-party customization of semi-finished products), supporting servitization and customerization of the manufacturing process, which should have a broad potential future impact on the economic vitality of the UK.

The very research we conduct throughout this project will adopt a user-centred design approach (core to our methods of fieldwork and action research), and as such we will be engaged with end-user communities (both design communities and manufacturers) from the beginning of the project. These groups will be directly involved in the research, helping to co-design the open design platform that is built and ultimately becoming its first users, with our partners acting as both research collaborators and end-users, as test-cases, before the platform is opened to broader audiences.

Finally, this project will take place in the context of Newcastle University's commitment to a societal engagement agenda and making research relevant to the real world. To execute this agenda, the university has launched a societal challenge theme (and Institute) of Social Renewal, which will support the project as it works to invigorate small communities, leveraging the resources of manufacturing enterprises to help enact societal development.

Publications

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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
EP/N005848/1 01/09/2015 31/08/2016 £270,315
EP/N005848/2 Transfer EP/N005848/1 01/09/2016 31/12/2017 £142,188
 
Description Research from this project has highlighted the broad potential community of open design practitioners within the Newcastle area. In particular the work has helped to demonstrate how those who associate with the maker movement and who actively use maker spaces are one small part of a highly interwoven maker community (including those who do and do not associate themselves with the term 'maker'). New considerations for the ways in which open design might be used as a vehicle for networking maker communities and manufacturing organisations have been identified.
Exploitation Route When fully developed (results are currently still being processed) a set of strategies will be disseminated which will support manufacturing organisations in engaging with maker communities through open design processes, for mutual benefit.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

 
Description Work from the project has been used to support public engagement activities at MakerFaire - a large public exhibition for the Maker Community - demonstrating the engagement of University researchers in community building and broader knowledge dissemination.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Societal