As innovations in technology and online knowledge-sharing continue to fuel the global phenomenon known as the Maker Movement, a new ‘makerspace’ opens its doors to welcome artists, designers, tinkers, hackers, craftspeople and tech enthusiasts into its vibrant creative community and state-of-the-art shared space
I arrive for a personal tour of the as-yet-unnamed facility nestling inside the Matter Make warehouse (formerly DFab Studio) for a much-anticipated nose around Malta’s brand new creative hub.
I met its founder and my guide for today, Steve De Micoli, back in 2017, when he first showed me the plans for the project. Described by Gadgets Malta as a ‘tech guru’, Steve is also founder of Open Tinkers, an outlet for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) education products and games. He is a practising architect and is working towards a PhD in Integrated Computational Design and Digital Fabrication. He’s also a family man with three young children.
As a director at De Micoli and Associates, the architects behind the Tipico Building, Spinola Park and the Laguna project, Steve is steeped in the principles of both design-thinking (worth googling) and the Maker Movement itself, and this makerspace has evolved from his industry background and personal passion.
Steve greets me warmly and welcomes me inside the ground floor office/workshop where computers and hand tools sit side by side. I am introduced to some fresh-faced next-generation designer/makers sitting at their laptops, busy programming design software in their workshop overalls, poised, no doubt, to rustle up a masterpiece at any moment with a tap of the keypad and the whir of a drill.
When asked about the inspiration for the venture, he tells me that “the planets are aligning to determine how things are made and who makes them” and naturally I am intrigued. “Tools and electronics have come down in price and we’re seeing a democratisation of technology. We can learn to make almost anything on YouTube. There are ways to hack whatever you need, the knowledge is there.”
He is describing, of course, the fertile conditions which have allowed the Maker Movement to germinate and flourish. I wouldn’t usually reference Wikipedia, but its summary of this “social movement with an artisan spirit” seems pretty spot on. It goes on to say that “maker culture emphasises learning-through-doing (active learning) in a social environment”. Vicki Davis (edutopia.org) describes it as “a unique combination of artistry, circuitry, and old-fashioned craftsmanship”.
Steve also points out the growing demand for customised or unique items, with an increase in websites like Etsy, the art and handmade crafts website which sells direct from the maker.
“Everything is manufactured at grassroots level. This ‘P2P’ trade with items designed to your liking is resonating with society. Everything is coming back to the craftsman, but it doesn’t have to be the lonely, pioneering hero in the garage; makerspaces provide community and a physical space to share ideas, tools and expertise.”
The Maker Movement has its roots back in 2005 with Make Magazine, founded by Dale Dougherty, which encouraged makers to explore and collaborate. Since then many have set up small businesses using the internet to sell tailor-made products, forcing large enterprises to re-evaluate what they can offer.
If a library is a resource of knowledge, then why limit it to books? The makerspace is the modern library. We could have one in every town hall
So what is a makerspace? According to Steve it’s “a communal space with expertise and facilities readily available under one roof to encourage you to make or fix almost anything”. Through the glass I see an open-plan, industrial-style workshop with tools, machines and materials. This is dedicated to Matter Make’s primary function as a fabrication and design studio supplying the marine and building industries. This commercial arm of the business has enabled the setting up of the new makerspace, but going forward it will have to earn its keep. Historically unsubsidised makerspaces tend to struggle at first. Many are forced to close,like TechShop for example. But for a model of success there is Fab Lab, the global programme empowering education and invention founded by Neil Gershenfeld from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There are hundreds of Fab Lab facilities worldwide, including a small one in Valletta.
As we explore, Steve elaborates on the concept and vision of the makerspace, likening it to a library. “If a library is a resource of knowledge, then why limit it to books? The makerspace is the modern library. We could have one in every town hall. And why only a one-way channel of information, why not two-way? Why not take your broken appliance to a place where you are empowered to fix it yourself by taking it apart. The makerspace has a role in encouraging an openness to learning. We’re all makers at heart.”
We move upstairs and enter the makerspace itself, a large well-lit area with tables, chairs, storage for tools and equipment and lockers for personal belongings. It accommodates about 30 people and overlooks the floor below, which is interesting in itself. Laid out on the tables are experimental models just completed by fifth year students of the ‘Architecture Technology 2’ course at the University of Malta; for a project on which Steve co-tutors with Dr Irina Miodragovich.
This open-plan space is divided by intricate laser-cut partitions. Around the corner I am surprised to discover a huge modern kitchen, well-equipped and with a large central L-shaped table where people are eating their lunch. Beyond this is a hot-desk area for about 20 laptop users and spaces containing laser-cutters, 3D printers and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines.
Although this particular makerspace is geared towards architecture, with machines and tools for woodwork, metalwork, 3D printing, electronics, laser-cutting and robotics, for tech or process-based makers, Steve tells me he’d like to broaden the scope. He’s considering acquiring sewing machines and screen-printing equipment next, but either way, the basics are here and the place is open for business.
New members receive a basic tool kit as a welcome gift. They can access the kitchen, lockers, tools and machines (some through a booking system) and a technician is on hand for support.
Looking at it as a fine artist, I can imagine making my canvases here, teaching or collaborating on cross-disciplinary projects, attending creative networking sessions or working on large-scale commissions which require space. It’s a versatile facility and Steve is very clear that artists and makers of all kinds are welcome to join, he explains that “having creative people come and participate in this endeavour is quite special and we want to grow the community”.
School visits are planned, with activities recycling leftover materials from commercial projects and tours of the machinery, including a giant robot arm from the automotive industry, which I’m sure will delight the children. “It’s great to give them an awareness of the machines,” he says, “I’ve seen it with my son, often we’re faced with a problem and he’ll say, ‘Hey, you could 3D print something to solve that’, it helps them to see what’s possible.”
Steve wants to hold corporate team-building events here, with creative activities and motivational speakers. According to Simmi P. Singh (sloanreview.mit.edu) developing “spaces to discover, explore and connect in unstructured ways is crucial for businesses to move from the culture of criticism to a culture of creation”. Steve would also like to host R&D projects “perhaps for companies who need to outsource them” he explains, “so we have some recognised innovation taking place on the academic side.”
Matter Make is planning launch events and guided tours next year, and I would strongly recommend a visit, but meanwhile the doors are open and new members are welcome. The rate card is on the Matter Make Facebook page and for a limited period Steve is offering discounts on early-bird memberships and OpenTinkers products though www.themacc.mt, which might make a great gift for a creative friend or a new year’s resolution instead of the gym. Needless to say, I know which one I’d rather find in my Christmas stocking.
Matter Make, warehouse 7, Y&P Industrial Park, Burmarrad is open Monday to Friday 7am to 6pm. Contact Steve De Micoli at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 9988 6788.
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