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Chicago's Pumping Station

October 23, 2017

Maker spaces have emerged in the last fifteen to twenty years as a remarkable innovation in democratic spaces. In case you haven't visited one, I encourage you to do so and get a feel for these community-powered workspaces where creatives of all backgrounds share access to a range of workspaces and tools, from old-school hand-tools to high-end fabrication technologies.


I'll get to why I think the best maker spaces are essential creative spaces as well as laboratories for democracy in a second. First, the Pumping Station.


While in Chicago I had the opportunity to visit the Pumping Station, a maker space in Avondale that opened in 2009 and has grown to serve 450 members in their 10,000sf. facility. It is an entirely volunteer run facility that hosts hot and cold metal areas, a beautifully renovated wood shop, a CNC shop, jewelry area, and "clean" room for electronics, sewing and illustration work. The place is packed floor to ceiling with tools, materials and projects and is both blessed and cursed by a tendency of members to bring and leave items in all states of use and value. Literally one maker's junk is another's treasure and the impulse is to hold on to things – often on account of the inconvenience or expense of disposal.


That said, part of the magic in a sustainable maker space is the balance between authentic inclusion and participation and getting things done. Which brings me to democracy.

The first concept is inclusion. While the trope is that maker spaces are the domain of musty, bearded white men this is changing, and necessarily so. The Pumping House may be a great example of a space that thrives on the professional backgrounds of its members as much as the racial and ethnic, gender, age and neuroatypical composition of the community.

A second concept is voice and agency. While there are many ways to structure authority, representation, voice and agency the root challenge is creating effective mechanisms that maximize involvement. It is still unclear to me what "optimum" participation is – maybe 10 to 20 percent of a community? – but the central idea is that responsive mechanisms exist. Members can feel or experience the impact of their voice, whether it is delivered online, face to face, or fiat such as a paper vote.


Finally, progress or productivity seems important. Members both have the right – and to some extent though its not known how much – to contribute ideas and actions that strengthen the space or demonstrate its potential. A maker space that produces nothing of value – for its members and the community at large – is ultimately not living up to its potential as a non-profit organization and is just another fun distraction for the financially and creatively empowered.


I was interested to learn that, at the moment, the Pumping House does not offer any classes; members are empowered to create and offer their own classes however, as is demonstrated through the jewelry, CNC and electronics zones.


As maker spaces grow across the country, it will be exciting to see whether a federation of thinking emerges that crafts an important voice around the freedom to create and its power in a democratic society. It was a joy to visit the Pumphouse and I can't wait to see where they go in the years ahead.

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