by Mark Payne, Svava Pétursdóttir, Monica Mitarcă
We – Mark, Monica and Svava – visited the Modulab makerspace in Bucharest. Behind the metal gates of a fairly mundane Bucharest residential street lies a really lovely plot containing a large makerspace workshop plus additional ‘heavy engineering’ and kitchen facilities all set under large mature trees. With its lawns and wooden decking it really is an idyllic setting, like a bit of countryside in the heart of the city.
Mark Payne, Paul Popescu and Monica Mitarcă in the garden at Modulab
The Modulab main hub contains much of what we would expect to see in a makerspace (more on the ‘expect’ below), including 3D printing facilities, robotics and computer equipment, work benches full of tools, wires, gadgets and other such items – the photo says it all.
Workbenches in the Modulab
What the photos don’t adequately capture is the warm welcome we received, the energy and enthusiasm of the colleagues who work there (perhaps play there too!) and the passion they all have for creating and designing and building. Paul Popescu, Matei Popescu and Ioana Popescu-Calen welcomed us with coffee and answered all our questions and more, including a tour of all the facilities.
The Modulab seems to have grown organically, naturally if you like, from childhood tinkering in grandad’s workshop to building a more 21stCentury workshop on grandad’s old vegetable plot as those children have grown up to include partners and wider family, all with an interests in ‘creative engineering’.
There were no youngsters or children engaged in making whilst we were there but here are occasional events, workshops etc., and children from the neighbourhood- friends of the family do drop in. But there does not seem to be a pedagogic remit, nor does the Modulab take subscriptions. In fact, it does not seem to engage in the self-publicity of its larger cousins. It must also be noted that the colleagues at the makerspace produce commissioned work for museums and galleries – they have to earn a living.
During our discussions we noticed the description of this particular Modulab as ‘perhaps atypical’, which led to discussions about ‘typical’ versus ‘atypical’ makerspaces and what typical means or should mean and if there is such a thing. For example, the Modulab looked and felt like a makerspace, characterised in part by lots of equipment, all freely accessible to those in the workshop, plus two 3D printers – a piece of equipment that seems to get mentioned quite a bit when discussing MakEY; in fact the 3D-printer seems to have taken on iconic status in the world of makerspaces.
So, this begs the question, what is a typical makerspace?
Perhaps typical would mean, to check all the above, plus some features related to the involvement of the public: the relationship with the beneficiaries. Since Modulab produces installations, but not knowledge in a curated form for the public and not the typical workshops we tend to associate with makerspaces, it is a-typical: apparently, IT ISa workshop that uses the same type of technological tools and knowledge one might expect to find in a makerspace, but not with the purpose a makerspace is supposed to have (such as, offering workshops to external persons).
Perhaps, in a sense, each makerspace, in a country where they are not standardized and subsidized or enclosed/confined within an official, administrative definition, is and should be a-typical, the sort of organization that is created especially to address a gap or something missing from society. This is my answer to why some of them are so different than the others.
But the need of sharing knowledge and putting knowledge in common with others, as well as the tools, is paramount in my view – and Modulab does that, in contributing to open source data bases.
The discussion we had under the Romanian sun amidst all the workshop tools in Modulabs brings more questions than answers. By definition Modulab is a Makerspace, a space that enables participants to create a range of artefacts using specialist tools and resources. But on the other hand, it bears little resemblance to the sleek FabLabs or schools Makerspaces I have visited before. It reminded more of an actual metal workshop, a smithy if you like, similar to the one my dad worked in building equipment for the Icelandic fishing industry. Now my son is in the same profession but his smithy looks like a giant makerspace with huge machines, laser cutters, water cutters and machine tools, most computer operated.
Visiting Modulab evoked so many thoughts of the purpose of making in education. In the Makey literature review there is this axis where we think of makerspaces as either formal or informal on one dimension and pop-up or permanent on the other dimension. Modulab is not designed as a learning space so even though we can place it in the diagram as informal and permanent is says nothing about its educational value, so that would be a whole another dimension. In our school system there has been a trend where too few choose technology and vocational studies perhaps makerspaces can reintroduce those careers as a feasible option.
Another dimension we might consider is the availability of tools in the makerspace. In Modulab it was interesting to see the mixture of sensitive computer equipment and regular wood, and metalworking tools all in the same space. Reading about makerspaces in libraries and schools we see mainly two trends, low tech makerspaces with crafting materials and the other with the digital tools and often a combination of those two. The MakEY project focuses more on the digital tools and skills but also combines crafting. Both from visiting Modulab and one of our collaboration schools in Iceland you get the feeling that more tools could be included for carpentry, metalworking, electricity and perhaps more.
In Modulab you could feel the joy of making and designing in the air. The makers there obviously love what they do, designing, making and tinkering, even the commissioned work but also their pet projects like the robot they are gradually building, 3D printing the parts one by one. They even have created a nook to get a little sleep when their work takes them late into the night. Hopefully the introduction of makerspaces to schools can help more children find their passion in designing and making. Perhaps for that they need to be less “typical”, more messy, with a variety of tools and materials, allowing for freedom and passion to flourish.
A little context for makerspace movement in Romania.
What is interesting about makerspaces in Romania is that they started a few years ago amidst a lot of hype, as a part of the new urban culture oriented towards other values than simply consuming. Some dozen makerspaces sprang up, not all of them in Bucharest – Iaşi, Cluj, Sibiu, Timişoara and Braşov were also represented in the movement.They all had in common this vision of sharing knowledge and collaborating, making and tinkering, with variations in their organization and modus operandi. But a few factors made them gradually adapt to the constraints of functioning in an environment that is now willing to pay for having access to such places and equipment and using them.
The first constraint – the financial one – was described to me by Alina Floroi, founder of Laborazon. If you start out by offering free workshops, people will not be willing to pay for them afterwards, instead, they will be jumping from one free workshop or demo to another.
The second one is related to the local culture. As a former Communist country, Romania is still a place where tinkering is part of the way people go about their lives. Not that much anymore, of course, once the free and global market brought its benefits, but in not such a distant past, men used to gather around a rusty old Dacia car immemorially parked in front of their block house, chipping in with advice and jokes to the poor owner of a semi-functional car. All families have their own tools in a corner of the house, somewhere – and the lack of good quality, affordable and abundant everyday objects in the past meant that each person knew how to mend things. I, myself, vividly remember how I used to make my own large format notebooks, by sewing together some continuous stationary my mom used to bring from the factory, to compensate for the lack of quality notebooks, with pages solidly glued together. Or how I used to sew the zipper of my favourite boots whenever it broke.
Such a mending, tinkering culture is not totally dead yet, and that may be one of the reasons makerspaces are not that popular or mainstream for the whole of the population, attracting dismissive reactions from people who still know how to use tools and craft themselves a knife handle or a shelf for the flower pots
The third thing that may have led to the decline and even the closing of some of the makerspaces is the fact they were not supported by the State, nor acknowledged as a valid educational setting – and MakEY, we hope, might be enforcing the idea they are useful and necessary for education.