Making the network work

Back in February I was asked to contribute an article to a forthcoming publication documenting the life so far of the Maker Library Network,

… a British Council project that connects designers and makers around the world. It facilitates knowledge and skills exchange amongst professionals and encourages public engagement with making.

A Maker Library combines three elements of a makespace, a library and a gallery. These spaces are connected online and through a programme of travel exchanges, exhibitions and events. People use them to make things, show things, get inspired and connect with like-minded people.

They wanted a piece that addressed the networking aspects of the project. How did the participants work together, share ideas, communicate and learn from each other. That booklet has now been published in beautiful hard copy form, and also online as a PDF.

As ever, there was far more to say than could fit in the space available, so I’ve posted the unabridged version of what I wrote here. Thanks to Daniel and the British Council for the invitation, and to Anna Bates for her excellent editing (in the finished article, not in what I’ve posted below).

 


What are the realities of connecting disparate Maker Library Network projects across the world, and how do you develop effective ways for people to collaborate, share news and resources and promote their activities? Maker and researcher Andrew Sleigh – whose work focuses on the power of networked communities to innovate and effect change – looks at the inner workings of the MLN and what its future could be.

When the Maker Library Network was established, there were no networks of makerspaces with a critical framework. The Maker Library Network set out to correct this. It established a network of people – makers, designers, entrepreneurs and activists – who saw making as a cultural activity.

The Maker Library Network is a group of people – makers, designers, entrepreneurs and activists – who want to do better work, reach new audiences, and have a bigger impact. They share much in common with many other networks: they’re diverse, culturally, in terms of the resources they have, and what they want to achieve. There are some people who have more time to give, some who are more active in starting projects in the network, and some with more power to set the agenda. So how do you make a network like this work? What tools do you use, and how do you use them well?

Getting to know each other

The first job of the Maker Library Network – of any network – is to help people across borders get to know each other. Each Maker Library was inaugurated in the presence of a number of other librarians, to offer support, exchange knowledge and get acquainted. Foreign travel, exchanges and residencies also had a great impact: “It’s just natural that if you spend time with people you share knowledge,” says Gareth Owen Lloyd, maker librarian at Machines Room in London. “The idea for the Maker Mile [a network of studios, factories and makespaces in Bethnal Green, London] came from a trip. That time away, that networking – you have to take that time out to have new ideas.”

Moving people around the world for events or residencies is expensive though, so the MLN, like most networks, turned to digital tools – which provided their own challenges.

Feeding the network

Everyone in the network benefits from knowing what other people are working on, and what skills or resources they can offer. Basic tools such as blogs, shared calendars and Facebook groups offer this function, but they all demand to be fed. “Originally, the vision was to have a calendar where all the librarians could put all the activities they would run, so that everybody knew what was happening,” says Justine Boussard, former project coordinator at From Now On. “People didn’t do it.” The same was true of the network website. “We had a beta website on WordPress so there would be a platform for the librarians to communicate,” says Boussard. “It had a forum; each librarian had a profile, and they could update their own content. But the system was too complex. Some librarians felt comfortable with it and published a lot, but most didn’t.”

Blending physical and virtual

The most successful use of technology to augment a physical meet up was at the Think Tank session in London in April 2016. This used an advanced video conferencing system implemented by Cohere to bring together 18 remote participants and 27 in the space; a screen to the side enabled those on site to see those online, while cameras meant those online could see the space, the people in it as well as the presentations. “It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever been at virtually,” says Bilge Nur Salt?k, maker librarian at ATÖLYE ?stanbul, and one of the remote participants. “I actually felt very engaged. I didn’t feel left out, which I wasn’t expecting. I felt that we were more engaged than people in the space.”

Working together

 Of course the network was not established just so that makers and makespace managers could get to know one another, but with the intention that they would be able to collaborate. This happened in the usual private channels – Whatsapp and email – generally between those who new each other. Sometimes it was necessary to have conversations that were open to everyone except the British Council; in order to speak freely, people needed to be able to share concerns, but not in front of the main budget holder. This manifested itself for one day as a selective ‘libraries-only’ Slack channel during the Think Tank session in April 2016.

Telling the story

The network was not only inward-facing. Individual maker libraries wanted to promote projects to local and international audiences, and the network itself needed to demonstrate success to those on the outside.

Was it possible that the British Council could provide an editorial function, collecting and publishing stories from the network? “That was considered,” says Boussard, “but people were so busy delivering the project. Even just a simple newsletter – that never happened.” Some success was found with tools that brought together content that libraries were already publishing, the simplest of which was the #MakerLibraries hashtag. “I followed #MakerLibraries, and a lot of the libraries would use that hashtag.” says Gareth Owen Lloyd. “It became almost like a magazine of what everyone was doing. I have a kind of closeness to them, just through that hashtag.”

While no accident, it was interesting that one of the basic building blocks of the network – a library of books – in some cases proved to be a key tool for sharing the story of the network with the public. “The main manifestation of the Maker Library was the actual physical object, which we moved to become the first thing you see when you come in,” says Nat Hunter, strategic director of Machines Room.

Looking forward

As this phase of the network comes to an end, it’s useful to see what strategies and tools can be carried forward to help it thrive in the future. Dominic Morrow, an activist within the UK Hackspace Foundation (an informal, self-funded organisation that represents the network of hackspaces across the UK) likens the foundation to “the United Nations, without the UN infrastructure”, recognising that a group of peers can work more effectively when there is a central pool of resources to draw on: a bank account, a website, even just some templates for common administrative tasks.

While the MLN is losing its largest single contributor of resources, and its central organising partner, some resources could be pooled (perhaps by a subscription paid by member libraries) to make some basic tools available: a website, a part-time editor, or event support.

A striking example of a shared network resource can be found in the Fab Lab network. Itself a globally distributed group of makerspaces, the Fab Lab network shares a number of tools to help new labs start up, and facilitate collaboration between them. One of these is the Fab Academy, a 5-month educational programme that equips students with the skills to make best use of Fab Labs’ digital fabrication tools. All labs and their members can benefit from the Academy. Tomas Diez, co-ordinator of Fab Academy, explains how this resource can be provided: “The adademy is funded by students – and it’s economically successful. With this money it develops tools – like the conferencing platform – and keeps improving them.”

Some of the biggest successes of the MLN have been the catalytic events: the face-to-face meet ups, exhibitions and residencies. While they demand resources and commitment from many people, these can be invaluable ways to initiate relationships and projects. The effort is itself part of what makes them work.

Again, the Fab Academy offers a useful example of such an undertaking. The course demands a heavy financial and time commitmment from students, but offers a unique opportunity to share an experience with other Fab Lab members, to learn together, and build substantial relationships. Tomas says: “It’s a distributed university – the planet is a campus. We’re on the 7th edition, with 70 Fab Labs and 300 students around the world involved.”

Anyone who’s had experience working in a group – from a village football team to a global activist network – knows that it’s a frustrating exercise trying to find tools that everyone is happy to use. We all have diferent social networks and messaging platforms that we’re comfortable using, or we consider ubiquitous. But they rarely are, especially in global networks, where technology use varies widely between regions, or when people from different demographic groups or cultures are working together. Technical people feel comfortable using tools like GitHub or IRC, but these are unapproachable and cumbersome to those from non-technical backgrounds. Others may consider popular platforms like Facebook ‘good enough’ but they can fail to meet others’ needs for privacy or just be a poor cultural fit. The MLN has experienced its fair share of friction in this regard, but it’s useful to remember that no perfect tools exist; that no platform has to live forever; and that there can always be space in a network for new tools to emerge, and be either more widely adopted or evevntually abandoned.

Does a network have to be sustained to be successful?

It is also worth recognising that networks don’t have to last forever. They can exist in one form to bring a group of people together, but then disassemble to let new, possibly less formal, networks emerge. Liz Corbin, co-organiser of Open Workshops London (also a network of makers) has now stepped back from managing that network. “I’ve noticed that now when someone who runs a space needs advice, they just contact someone from another space,” she says. “It’s not as though no one from OWL speaks to each other; actually they’re speaking to each other in a far more organic way now. If OWL did not exist we could never have got to this really organic – if nebulous – network. But it doesn’t have to be a formal thing any more.”

The Maker Library Network has put down roots over the past three years. Perhaps now it’s time to consider a different way of working together that enables it to grow more organically.