Grassroots Innovation in Low Energy Digital Fabrication

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Grassroots Innovation in Low Energy Digital Fabrication project

The ‘Grassroots innovation in low energy digital fabrication’ (GI-LEDF) project examines energy demand issues in the context of makerspaces and digital fabrication, as part of the Research Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand(CIED). The wider Research Centre aims to use a range of techniques to examine how ‘low energy innovations’ develop and diffuse, how they can be encouraged and what impact they are likely to have on UK energy demand and carbon emissions. Within the Centre, the project on grassroots innovations focuses on the emergence of multiple, novel socio-technical configurations deriving from makerspaces that have implications on energy demand.

Energy demand and sustainability issues are significant in this context, considering that small-scale digital design and fabrication technologies are opening up new possibilities for decentralised, networked, user-led manufacturing. A confluence of new technologies (e.g. the 3-D printing ‘revolution’), new business models (e.g.‘personalised manufacturing’), and new social movements (e.g. ‘open-source, commons-based, peer-production’), are prompting excited claims about the reconfiguration of production and consumption with impacts on sustainability. For example, whilst digital fabrication can enable local production, remanufacturing, and longevity in goods and services, it could also lead to throw away, personalised manufacturing that intensifies consumption. Moreover, decentralisation may reduce scale efficiencies, and require more dispersed logistics infrastructures in raw material shipping. Finally, whilst arguments about inclusive user-led and grassroots possibilities are reasonable from a social sustainability perspective, actual developments could just as easily deepen the digital divide. None of these developments is mutually exclusive. The pattern that emerges will be shaped by the way digital fabrication is framed and used. Our project aim is to understand 1) why there is so much interest in this development, exploring some of the framings of digital fabrication and makerspaces that generate narratives towards opportunities for sustainability and social change, 2) how these different narratives shape current socio-technical configurations in makerspaces, examining some of the materialisations of projects through the use of digital fabrication tools and 3) what low energy innovations are arising in this setting. This project runs from October 2013 until 2016. We will be mapping makerspaces in Western Europe, including a database of spaces with descriptive information about each, and evidence for sustainability and low energy innovation activities. This work will be complemented by a content analysis of mission statements, media reports and makerspace events to identify existing narratives of makerspaces and digital fabrication, in particular those where energy demand features prominently. In conjunction with the mapping exercise and content analysis of narratives, we will undertake visits to five makerspaces (three in the UK) with commitment to sustainability, low energy innovation. Further work will include the running of workshops for practitioners that explore energy demand in digital fabrication (workshop 1), and with makers to develop design concepts for low energy digital fabrication (workshop 2). A series of briefings, reports, journal articles and the grassroots innovation website will inform academics, makerspace practitioners and policy makers towards the emerging possibilities and their limitations of digital fabrication within these spaces, particularly for sustainable, low energy lifestyles and patterns of production and consumption.