Monday, 25 May 2015

Fab Futures : non-library-FabLab founders

At the Fab Futures conference at Exeter Library there were talks about the FabLabs in Devon and Chattanooga libraries but there were also speakers involved in FabLabs that aren't in libraries.

Inside Exeter Library

Richard Clifford, MAKLab (Glasgow)
Interestingly, Richard's background is in architecture and design: he even taught architecture at the Glasgow School of Art! When establishing MAKLab, the founders were primarily interested in bridging a gap in education (getting people "job-ready"), but also wanted to look at social and economic issues by engaging groups such as disenfranchised young people and unlocking their potential.
In his talk "The power of collaboration", Richard drew from his experience at MAKLab to make us think and ask ourselves the right questions about why and how we would want a FabLab in our libraries.

Sharing experience: the team in Glasgow (currently 8 people) all started as volunteers and are now in full-time employment. They bring a diverse set of skills with them. As Richard said: "You can buy as much equipment as you want but in FabLabs the real value is the knowledge base, what the people know".
Think: what experience or skills in your team are underused? Who goes home at night and does something different?
What skills are missing from your team?
Space is expensive: so is electricity, a cleaner... MAKLab has a co-working space so everyone shares the costs and helps out.
Do you have spaces that are under- or unused? There is a lot of pressure on libraries to maximise space but are the spaces in your library being maximised for the right goal?
Who could use those spaces?
Sharing resources is important, as the equipment and technology change quickly; equipment is expensive and so is the knowledge on how to use it. You need to understand what equipment/machines you truly need.
What do you need?
Who has it? Is it being used where it is?
FabLab Exeter

There are other organisations out there that need the same things and have the same aims as you. MAKLab got together with four other local social enterprises to form The Wood Cooperative.
What benefit would you have in collaborating with a particular organisation? How does it make you stronger?
MAKLab is working with the NHS to prototype medical products such as 3D-printed teeth. FabLabs are where the real innovation is happening, because they are more nimble than the big organisations - therefore you should value your contribution!
What sets you apart? What are the reasons people come to you?
FabLabs - like libraries! - are about social empowerment e.g. empowering unskilled people to build something themselves, together. MAKLab helped a community design and build a boathouse - the people involved leave with new knowledge and confidence in themselves.
Another initiative (which I'd first heard of thanks to Marc De'ath of St Botolph's The Waiting Room) which has spread across the UK is Men in Sheds where older men come together in a workshop for some woodworking or other similar activity, but also for socialising. What is interesting is also to use it for intergenerational dialogue and transfer of skills by inviting school children in as well.
What groups do you want to work with?
What did you talk about on day 1, are still talking about and why have you not done it yet - what's the barrier?
Innovate quicker and don't be afraid of high risk: Richard said there is a culture shift in funders which means it is now ok to fail (though I'm not sure it has reached Councils yet?) Start small and prove your point: get some seed funding or borrow a piece of equipment from someone for a week and do something with it.
At this point, Richard also mentioned that highly innovative products do break down a lot!

Compliance and de-risk: you need to learn and design through the risk. Risk is always present, there are just ways of mitigating it e.g. programme a machine to stop as soon as you touch it.

Libraries are in the best position to develop FabLabs and maker spaces because we are already talking to the groups that need these things most (job seekers, young people...)
3D printers and laser-cutter at Exeter Library FabLab

Phillippa Rose and Joss Langford, MakeSouthWest
MakeSouthWest is a network of community-led maker spaces, educational establishments and industry partners in the South-West of England. Its members include a library (FabLab Exeter), a secondary school (KEVICC in Totnes), the Plymouth College of Art...
One of the initiatives mentioned is Open Devon: an open week for the local engineering and manufacturing sites (as far as safety and intellectual property protection allow!) It is an opportunity for the participating businesses to showcase their work and potentially find people who may be interested in working with them (either individuals - as future employees - or other businesses).

Eddie Kirkby, FabLab Manchester
The FabLab Manchester opened in 2010 and was the first of its kind in the UK. The FabLab is about empowerment: enabling members of the public to design and make their own things, but also inspiring them. It offers access to equipment and educational workshops as well as - to fund its free open days - a range of commercial services e.g. prototyping. It is very much about telling people and businesses: what do you want made? and we'll teach you how to make it.
In its first 4 years, the FabLab has seen about 2,500 visitors a year (numbers for both visitors and members keep growing), helped bring 20 new products to market and has even seen its first millionaire!
"Libraries are about access to knowledge. First they had books because that's where the knowledge was. Then they got computers because that's where the knowledge moved to. Now it's digital making." Eddie Kirkby

Monday, 18 May 2015

Fab Futures : Devon and Chattanooga

On 2nd May a baby was born - thanks to whom I had the opportunity to attend the Fab Futures: public libraries in the digital age conference at Exeter Library. No, I'm not talking about the royal baby (!) but my manager's first-born: as my manager knew he would be on paternity leave at this time of year, he had asked me if I'd be interested in going to the conference in his stead. As you can imagine, I didn't say no!

Useful bits first: the original conference programme. For a full overview of the day, I would recommend you also have a look at Claire Back's excellent Storify. Some short video clips are available on Exeter Library's YouTube channel.

A FabLab at Exeter Library
A few years ago, Devon County Economic Development team were setting up projects that would help residents develop their skills, learn new ones, inspire them to try something different - and therefore find employment or create their own by becoming self-employed. But how do you bring digital making and cutting-edge technology to a very rural county like Devon?
At the time, Exeter Library was being refurbished. As Ciara Eastell, Head of Libraries, Culture and Heritage at Devon County Council tells it, she got a phone call and was asked: "Would you like a FabLab in Exeter Library?" The idea of a FabLab tied in with the vision for the role of the library in the 21st century. Exeter Library was already running Raspberry Pi jams and Devon library service was part of the Enterprising Libraries programme whose aims are connected to local economic growth.

The funding came from Devon Council and external grants: £170,000 in total. Tips on setting up, from Tom Dixon, Public Information Manager at Devon County Council:
 - get as much advice as possible;
 - it's not easy to navigate Council procurement rules to get the equipment you want;
 - volunteers are crucial: you need to link with the local people who are already interested.

The FabLab Devon business model [that was the phrase used] has evolved over a pilot 12-months period. There is now a charge for courses, a membership scheme for using the equipment as well as pay-as-you-go options (people pay for the materials they use).
The FabLab contributes to the library running costs but also to its visitor numbers. It is used by tech-savvy or tech-curious individuals but also by local businesses such as a textile designer and a skateboard maker!
The next stage in the project is to bring FabLabs to other parts of the county.

 The children section at Exeter Library
(No link with what I'm saying; just because it looks nice, and I like the "Hello adults" sign)

  • Devon Libraries are looking into becoming a mutual (the route York took) in the near future - the FabLab is seen as important for this next incarnation.
  • Exeter Library has just joined the Business & IP Centre National Network. People using the BIPC at Exeter will be able to get intellectual property information for their product idea, use the FabLab to make a prototype and simply walk back into the Centre for support to start a business or market their product.
  • The FabLab volunteers do not replace staff but bring added value to the service; they have specific knowledge that staff do not / would not be expected to have.
  • Staff need to be given the opportunity to start projects based on their talents and interests - that's how the Raspberry Pi jams at Exeter Library started!
Funnily enough, one of the first questions asked by the audience was about the IT department. Apparently, the Devon IT department has been involved but "it's still a learning curve"... (what a polite way to put it!) The Council IT is not responsible for the equipment in the FabLab.
How to recruit volunteers with the relevant skills: Devon Libraries advertised the FabLab along with details of the skills they were looking for in volunteers. Fran, one of the volunteers (and textile designer mentioned above), said what attracted her was the fact it's a collaborative space: "the range of people you meet is amazing and you learn so much". Devon currently has the luxury of having too many FabLab volunteers! When showcasing what the FabLab does, there are always enthusiastic people coming forward. Linking up with other local groups with similar interests e.g. Code Club volunteers, Raspberry Pi Foundation events, also helps.

Raspberry Pi jam

Webcast with Corinne Hill, Chattanooga Public Library
Unfortunately, Jane Kunze from the Main Library at Aarhus, Denmark, couldn't make it at the last minute so instead the conference organisers arranged to link up with Corinne Hill from Chattanooga Public Library (the one with the wondrous 4th Floor) over Google Hangout.
[Updated 19/05/15] An edited version of the Hangout recording is now available on YouTube.

US libraries don't seem to have the same budget troubles as UK libraries (ahem) but Corinne Hill's talk was inspiring nevertheless. I can't agree with everything she says, but she does have a refreshingly frank vision of what libraries and librarians should be today! Sample quotes and bits of information below.
  • "Maker Spaces in libraries where only the staff can use the kit are totally missing the point."
  • In the 4th Floor people just come and do stuff: "it's more tinkering than anything else" [but they seem to have a LOT of kit]. There is no membership, just a small fee to cover the cost of the materials used.
  • A lot of events at Chattanooga 4th Floor are in partnership with other organisations; it's not the library staff running them.
  • Money for the 4th Floor came from a technology in libraries fund from the Tennessee State Library, which was before then used on new computers.
  • Libraries should stop using so much of their budget on reference collections and use it on FabLab activities instead.
  • You need to have the right team to create and develop something like the 4th Floor. Chattanooga changed the culture of the library service by changing the person specifications when recruiting new staff. Qualities needed in job applicants now include: being curious, keeping up with technology developments independently (the Library is not going to train them).

In the next instalment: my notes from the talk by Richard Clifford of MAKLab (Glasgow) and the FabLabs "national perspective" afternoon session.