• 'Makerspaces' aim to democratize innovation and production.
  • They are collaborative work spaces that provide access to a range of tools.
  • They are increasingly involved in helping tackle global challenges.

Makerspaces are central to the vision of the Maker movement, which was hailed on its emergence a decade ago as part of the fourth industrial revolution. The Maker movement aims to democratize innovation and production by encouraging people to use new technology to share ideas and develop and produce their own goods locally.

Makerspaces are often community-based, but can also be organized by universities or businesses. They go by different names, including Fab Labs, hackerspaces and tech shops, but all provide access to a range of tools, including 3D printers, laser cutters, milling machines, wood and metalworking machinery, sewing machines and electronics benches. While no two makerspaces are the same, they share a common ethos of openness and collaboration, being connected online with the broader Maker community. This means that non-specialists can collaborate remotely using shared design files.

Many of the first makerspaces were located in the US and Europe, but they have now sprung up all over the world, including in low and middle-income countries. According to the Fab Lab network there are over 2,000 globally and this number is growing every year. Studies have shown that makerspaces can help to cultivate the creativity and confidence of learners, and to improve the inclusion and wellbeing of marginalized groups.

In recent years, makerspaces have also been involved in tackling a range of pressing global challenges. Nepal Communitere, a makerspace in Kathmandu, was set up in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake to help produce and repair essential items. Glia have been 3D printing life-saving tourniquets at hubs across Gaza since 2016. During the COVID-19 pandemic, makerspaces acted as flexible manufacturing hubs to produce life-saving equipment, such as PPE, diagnostics and clinical care equipment. An estimated 48.3 million items of PPE were produced by Makers globally, with a net worth of $271 million.

It is estimated that 48.3 million items of PPE were produced by local Makers during the COVID-19 crisis
It is estimated that 48.3 million items of PPE were produced by local Makers during the COVID-19 crisis
Image: Field Ready

When the pandemic began, the non-governmental organization Field Ready was already working in challenging environments, from Syrian conflict zones and refugee camps in Bangladesh to vulnerable communities in the US. It quickly pivoted its programmes, with staff members developing a range of items to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including face coverings, visors and hands-free taps. It shared these designs openly, allowing them to be produced in different locations and adjusted to local demands, such as size requirements and social preferences.

Face shields being manufactured by Mosul Space in Iraq
The Mosul Space makerspace in Iraq manufactured masks and visors, which were distributed to hospitals
Image: Field Ready

In Iraq, a makerspace called Mosul Space produced home-sewn masks and visors, which were distributed to hospitals. In Nepal, Field Ready collaborated with other innovation labs to repair broken ventilators, as well as coordinating the production of masks, hands-free taps, visors and gowns. In Bangladesh, Field Ready formed partnerships with local businesses and makerspaces to meet the huge demand from refugees. In Fiji, the organization worked with the Ministry of Health and Medical Services to produce face shields, privacy screens and hand washing stations.

In Malawi, Twenti makerspace distributed over 6,000 visors to public hospitals, schools and local businesses within a few weeks of starting operations. In Ethiopia, BiT makerspace distributed essential PPE to local hospitals and testing centers, and has also been working on a low-cost oxygen concentrator in collaboration with the University of Cambridge.

These achievements are particularly impressive considering that the response was mainly driven by voluntary citizen action. So far, makerspaces have been run on a shoestring and without proper institutional support - now it is time that they were properly formalized, supported and funded.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

An important first step is for governments to formally recognise makerspaces as critical infrastructure. There are several reasons for this:

  • Access during crisis scenarios. In some locations, communities struggled to access makerspaces during the pandemic due to restrictions on movement. Critical infrastructure status would prevent this happening in a future crisis.
  • Funding and investment. The volunteerism that we saw during the pandemic cannot be taken for granted. Many makerspaces also face challenging times ahead, having already been closed for over a year. Public funding is urgently needed to support the development of this infrastructure.
  • Improved coordination of demand and supply. Many makerspaces helped to supply underserved communities, who wanted to place low-volume orders. Improving their links with the broader manufacturing sector would help ensure the right products get to the people who need them.
  • Fair access to supplies. Critical infrastructure status would help to ensure priority access to materials that are needed for the production of essential items.
  • Streamlining regulatory support and approvals. Makerspaces need to be recognized and supported by regulators to accelerate the development of high quality, essential products.

We urge policy makers and government to develop policies, in coordination with the Maker community, to actively support makerspaces and strengthen their networks.