Finding The Champions of Circular Makespaces

Since May 2015, a team at SustainRCA (Grit Hartung, Sharon Prendeville, Clare Brass, Ashley Hall) in collaboration with Erica Purvis of Technical Nature, has been investigating the contribution of Makespaces – community-run workspaces supporting common interests across machining, technology, science, crafts and digital art – to a potential new era of redistributed manufacturing with positive, rather than negative, environmental and social impacts. They have been exploring the potential opportunities for embedding circular practices such as approaching waste as a resource, re-use, repair and cradle-to-cradle into the current and everyday activities of makespaces. Here, researchers Grit Hartung and Erica Purvis discuss the progress of the project: 

'Our approach has been hands-on and immersive, using design-led research in keeping with the makespace context and culture. We conducted interviews with experts and thought leaders, undertook a rapid literature review and developed action-led cases studies during visits to selected makespaces. Alongside this, we initiated a benchmarking exercise to identify current ‘circular’ activities, which lays the foundations for future research in this area.

Makespaces provide a space where people can experiment, learn new skills, build personal and professional connections, and access a variety of previously inaccessible fabrication tools and technologies. Makespaces are at the centre of open design practices and the widespread diffusion of additive technologies such as 3D printing.

While the hope is that makespaces can contribute to a new era of redistributed manufacturing with positive environmental and social impacts, evidence to support this is still very limited. The thinking is that makespaces will enable sustainable re-distributed manufacturing at a grassroots level, by opening up opportunities for decentralised manufacturing, making innovation accessible, supporting local communities and nearby manufacturing businesses, as part of digital networks and in national and global supply chains. Anecdotal evidence from managers of such spaces and their maker networks, however, suggests that many are struggling to survive and, as a result, sustainable practices are not integrated. There is even the possibility that current makespace practices could exacerbate the negative impacts of (linear) product design on our environment. For example, 3D printers are not necessarily less wasteful, the waste from 3D printing is not necessarily recyclable, while energy consumption is significant. Without full consideration of the impacts, there is a risk in transferring the current linear production model into a distributed form.

SustainRCA's Circular Makespaces research began with a design challenge during the the Open Source Circular Economy Days earlier this year set by The Great Recovery and hosted at Fab Lab London. It asked: how can we support the worldwide local maker movement and places to build sustainable practices and ‘circular thinking’ into its approaches, projects and spaces?

Our initial insights uncovered some of the main challenges to circular practices including the ‘invisibility of issues’ and the need for eco-champions (amongst others) to provide leadership within Makespaces. You can find the documentation of the workshop here.

The OSCEdays was a chance to connect with and grow our awareness of the many ‘circular’ minded makespaces around the world, as these were the main audience that engaged with the (voluntary) OSCEdays initiative. Examples of such spaces are the WoeLab in Togo and the Sustainable Living Lab in Singapore, as well as Shenzen Open Innovation Lab, SIDA (David Li). Following this, we interviewed some of the world’s leading experts on this topic, (from China to Helsinki and the UK) including: Cindy Kohtala (Aalto University, Helsinki), David Li (Hacked Matter/Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab), Daniel Charny (Central Research Laboratory), Tom Tobia (Makerversity), and Tomas Diaz (Fab Lab Barcelona).

With insights from our experts, and a background experience within makespaces, we then set about undertaking a series of exploratory case studies at selected makespaces, to benchmark activities. Through site visits, in-depth conversations and circular mapping activity we furthered our understanding of the barriers faced by the makespace managers and founders and the emerging opportunities to implement supportive and culturally relevant solutions. 

We visited and experienced a diversity of Makespaces including: Fab Lab London, which has a unique partnership with The Great Recovery and can be found in the heart of London City; Fab Lab Amersfoort on the outskirts of Dutch City Amersfoort; European-funded Buda Lab Kortrijk; nature-inspired and organically developed Phoenix Lewis Industrial estate; and finally, the Central Research Laboratory in Hayes, London, which we have been lucky enough to observe from its very beginnings.

Our research is in the final stages now, and as we bring together insights and findings, we will be developing a range of ideas and recommendations to solve some of the problems identified, for both the spaces themselves as well as the objects made within the spaces. This will include high level strategic visions and building in practical solutions and support. Most importantly, we see that these should be in collaboration with and for the people in the makespace communities. We are hugely grateful to all of the individuals and organisations who so openly shared their knowledge and experiences while participating in the research.

The Circular Makespaces (CMS) project is one of two Level 1 feasibility studies on Future Makespaces in Redistributed Manufacturing, a two-year ESPRC funded research project run by the Royal College of Art in London.


Grit Hartung –  Research Associate, Designer Researcher

Sharon Prendeville – Research Associate, Design Researcher

Erica Purvis – Sustainable Design Engineer

Clare Brass –  Co-Investigator, Head of SustainRCA

Ashley Hall –  Co-Investigator, Professor of Design Innovation and deputy head of the Innovation Design Engineering programme at the RCA