Phil Shapiro: The makerspaces that I’ve visited have been so interesting to see the children there with their parents, just exploring stuff and building things together. It’s just electric being able to watch creativity before your eyes, knowing that that’s the purpose of the space. That it’s not something that happens to be just a fluke that you walk in the space and see some kids are building something – that’s the purpose of the space. So I’ve visited makerspaces in different states, up in Ithaca, New York, there was an interesting new one that started,IthacaGenerator, I’ve been over to Nova Labs in West Virginia, and I saw kids over there – it was just amazing. But I like it to be not just a once-in-a-while thing, I think we need to make the creative process part of our culture. And we don’t have it currently as part of our culture. If you want see what’s part of our culture, turn on the television - that is our culture.
Timothy Lord: Now I want to back up just a little bit, theoretically I think that public schools themselves should be beacons of creativity and learning. Why is it that these schools are closed in the first place?
Phil: Well, the schools closing was a simple financial decision that even if they wanted to, the school board wouldn’t be able to reverse themselves, it was just lower enrolment in the schools, and to keep the whole building open when only half of the classrooms are being used does not make financial sense. So it was a consolidation effort, it was very sad for the students who go to those schools - they will have to travel further to another school, and they probably have some emotional connection to the building.
Tim: Now, Phil, since kids really do have local schools all over the country, I know the schools that I’ve been to, many of them practically could be reconfigured as makerspaces by changing the name, there are kitchens, there are vo-tech classrooms, there are drafting rooms for some things. What do you see as the way to turn a school into a makerspace, what are the big changes we have to institute?
Phil: I would say the big changes are that the space needs to be open seven days a week. It needs to be also open from early morning, I would like to see makerspaces open at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. so that people who are in the creative zone can spend two hours doing creativity before their 9 to 5 jobs. And then they come home, and they might choose to go to that early rather than watching TV for two hours in the evening – so like a time shift.
Tim: Sort of like the midnight basketball idea.
Phil: And there shouldn’t be any reason why some makerspaces can’t be open 24 hours a day. We do it for Kinko’s and if Kinko’s can do it where there is a will, there is a way, there is a way to make that happen.
Tim: Yeah, I know a lot of makerspaces certainly run late night, because it does seem to align with at least certain people’s creative ideas - one of my favorites is open from noon until midnight every night. I don’t know of any other 24 hours yet, but I would like to see that. That’s still though you mentioned the schools are shutting down because of money, it does take money, but at the very least, keep the lights on and keep the power saws running, and maybe keep people there for some kind of security and instruction things like that. How do you propose that could work?
Phil: I am so glad you asked because there are different mechanisms of keeping a makerspace open. I think there ought to be some kind of membership fee. I don’t think it’s valuable to make it free to the public although there ought to be some scholarships available for people who totally can’t pay. I’d like to see every makerspace also have some entrepreneurial component so that businesses are started in makerspaces. In fact, large foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can challenge makerspaces to start businesses and have like a competition to see which makerspace can start businesses with the understanding that the business that’s started in a makerspace, one third of all proceeds from that business will come back to the makerspace, that the entrepreneurs themselves can use the space as a jumping off point, but the purpose of that business is to firm the makerspace.
Tim: So it sounds like you are talking about incubators, and not just places for making fun, and sort of tinker toy things, but really using makerspaces as a space for entrepreneurship in general.
Phil: I think that is the general idea. I mean what we have to visualize is the Wright Brothers in their bicycle shop – they loved to tinker but they were tinkering with a purpose, and their purpose was to build a flying machine. And so we need tinkering with a purpose where community members with different strengths help each other in whatever group projects are happening in the makerspace. And then at a certain point, the makerspace takes off, like a plane takes off, the makerspace itself becomes self-sustaining in the air.
Tim: Right now there are some of the things you mentioned just now about let’s say about business involvement and about foundations and about membership fees. These don’t sound like anything that happens right now with a typical public school building, so are you talking about is it in your mind, the idea, that is essentially transfer ownership and to change the nature of the physical plant and say this is now sold to a sort of a cooperative or.. how will it work?
Phil: Yes, I think we need to think of these spaces in wholly new ways - not as schools but as tinkering spaces, that the purpose of the building is a new purpose. Eventually, as people come to understand the makerspace ethic and process, some of that will filter back to schools, so that schools will say, “We want to be doing more of this in our regular school building” but if we have exclusive use of that tinkering in the makerspace, then that can only be a good thing.
Tim: It is easy to imagine, like you say, a part time use a well, you could say it is a school building that from 8 o’clock at night until 8 in the morning becomes a wholly different thing.
Phil: True. And that would require some logistics about keeping the property in the building safe. But it is all doable. It actually becomes like an architectural design question – can we have a shared space with for example, I once worked in a public school that it cost $10 million to renovate the school. They had a gorgeous school with an auditorium that was a just a beautiful auditorium. Now that auditorium got used for school purposes for as much as maybe ten hours a year. So there is a lot of time that auditorium wasn’t being used. But that auditorium didn’t have an exterior door – it didn’t have a door that somebody could enter the auditorium that was not coming, walking through the school.
Tim: So you couldn’t repurpose it that way?
Phil: Right. We need to have so that when the school is closed the auditorium is open, or it could be rented out. So we need to be thinking about things in new ways. Our competitors are taking our jobs away from us - if we don’t think quickly and act quickly to build the new culture of creativity, we can just expect greater and greater economic losses on our side, unless we start thinking boldly; we just can’t think in timid terms, and we can’t think in slow terms.
Tim: You are reminding me a lot of a book that I liked called ____8:06 in talking about the way the place in a public school could be repurposed. So are there any places that are models in your mind, are they makerspaces or even projects like this in other places that are doing this sort of repurposing and rethinking?
Phil: I haven’t seen models of this kind yet, but what I need people to consider is: Any tinkering they’ve done in their own basement or garage, and how much fun it is to do it with friends, that you can work on projects on your own, but when you have friends coming together and you are talking about the process and you are laughing and you are in that zone, that kind of thing can happen not just in one family – I bet you that there are some families that have never experienced that process. And that is a loss for our country. They have never experienced a process of making something that was exhilarating.
Tim: And that might be especially true in places where schools are shutting down.
Phil: That is true. That is very true. I think Maker Faires are where the excitement of a sharing process is most vividly viewable by the public. So I’ve been to a few Mini Maker Faires, I haven’t been to one of the big Faires yet, but you walk away, and there is a lot of excitement at these events. And it’s particularly a great thing that the youth, explaining what they have made, like “I’ve designed this game” and it doesn’t matter whether the game is an excellent game or not an excellent game, it matters that the youth designed it. That’s the exciting part. And that they want to explain what they’ve done and they want to explain where they’re going next. We don’t have enough show-and-tell. Show-and-tell has been taken out of the schools. It used to be a part of my elementary school actually until third grade, where my third grade teachers says, “We don’t have show-and-tell anymore” and I objected. And she was surprised I objected. We need show-and-tell to be part of the culture. And the makerspace is the show-and-tell space.
Tim: Yeah. So you’ve written specifically with this idea about 50 closed down schools in Chicago. You are in DC, why not DC? Is there anything that the school culture or the city culture around the country would make harder in some places than others?
Phil: I think that this kind of thing is suitable for every city. And in DC, they have been closing schools. Interestingly they asked, when they closed schools about five years ago in DC, they asked the public for ideas about the use of the school building, and I submitted some ideas which were similar to a makerspace idea. I never heard back from them. And I have no idea now what the building is being used for. It is a former building. The communication process was poor even to the point where the only people they wanted to hear ideas for the use of the building was you to have to be an official nonprofit and you have to submit your proposal in ten typed double-spaced pages. And I’m not a nonprofit, and I submitted my proposal as a YouTube video where I had a screencast. They could’ve chosen to ignore what I submitted but I did my duty as a resident of the city. I said, “These are the things I think would make the best use of that space.” The either didn’t have time to listen to that or they don’t.
Tim: It sounds like a pretty conservative process though.
Phil: Yes, I think we are not doing enough listening to each other. And listening brings you to wisdom.
Tim: Tell me, are you involved with DC makerspaces?
Phil: I am. I‘ve had some involvement, I have a little less involvement currently. I was a little disappointed that the one makerspace I was involved with did not seem gender inclusive. I brought that up with the founders. The good news is I’ve heard things have changed there. So that’s good.
Tim: I think a lot of people who view this video are going to find this an intriguing idea. If people are interested in bringing more of a maker shaper hacker culture into their local public school system, or as you are talking about, even wholly supplanting parts of it, with this sort of cultural shift – what should they do? How do you suggest people go about making that a real possibility in the world?
Phil: Tim, you’ve asked a real interesting question because the role of change agent is not clear. And sometimes you can just hit your head against a wall if you can’t make an appointment with the school principal. The school principal is thinking of lots of other things than makerspaces. They got many other fish to fry. So sometimes we introduce change by the blogging – the blogging I did for Make magazine. Make is very very supportive of anybody sending them a blog suggestion. The new editor-in-chief there would love to hear from anybody I bet, including you, who have some ideas they want to share. So I would say be careful how you spend your time as a change agent, because you can go up against hurdles if you want to change existing systems, you could do that for five hundred years and not achieve much gain. That’s why I actually see some hope with something like Chicago where we build something entirely new - I think that’s where the most hope lies.