Makerspaces and innovation

Update:
The published version of the paper is available here until January 16, 2018.

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There’s a lot of talk about makerspaces these days, and deservedly so. Makerspaces tend to include a lot of the prototyping technologies that people are excited about (especially 3D printers) and Makerspaces are getting set up in all kinds of contexts – universities make them available for students, libraries set them up to so people can learn to ‘make’, private makerspaces are being opened up, etc.

In an intuitive way, it seems obvious that all those makerspaces should somehow influence the amount and quality of innovation that gets done in society and that getting more of them would be beneficial. But in an equally intuitive way, it also seems obvious that they will mostly get used for fun, but not super-productive, projects – maybe the people with really valuable ideas are finding ways to get them prototyped independently of a makerspace.  Or maybe makerspaces just help innovators who would otherwise have just found other ways to develop their prototypes without support. In economics jargon, it’s all about the marginal effect that makerspaces have on innovation efforts and we don’t actually have a particularly clear idea about how this will work out, primarily because makerspaces have yet to receive much attention researchers (outside of library studies and educational research).

My colleague Peter Svensson and I have tried to open up this issue and have a (revised) working paper  about it out now.

This is what we did. We look in detail at a particular policy initiative from Sweden that involved setting up Makerspaces at six hospitals throughout the country. We collected data on all the innovations developed in the hospital makerspaces and tried to map out what kind of innovation activities makerspaces actually support. We also calculated the economic value of those innovations using a range of different data sources, and related that value to what it actually costs to operate makerspaces (a return-on-investment-type calculation).

In brief, this is what we found:

  • Makerspaces support people innovating to solve the problems they encounter in their everyday work (user innovators, basically); there are not many budding entrepreneurs in there, but lots of people trying to make their daily work more efficient. Patients were surprisingly absent (unfortunately).
  • The potential value of the innovations developed is more than 10 times the investment required, so in principle a very good use of government money; the values of innovations are highly skewed, though (a few are tremendously valuable, most are negligible).
  • It turns out to very difficult to get firms to produce and commercialize innovations (for very good reasons that we get into in the paper), but having a makerspace actually allows a hospital to self-produce innovations, effectively becoming suppliers to themselves.

The policy implication is pretty straightforward: there is a (really) good case to be made for setting up makerspaces in professional contexts and not just in the educational settings where we typically see them. Employees, it seems, have ideas that can become very valuable if they receive even a light touch of support to get them developed and refined. I would be interested to see just how well this works out in other contexts, because it may be way to tap into under-leveraged innovation resources.

This is a first empirical study on the topic in our corner of the academic world, so it’s still early days on understanding these issues. Research (like capitalism) is a process, so we’ll see where the discussion will go from here. Hopefully more work will follow this.

One thought on “Makerspaces and innovation

  1. Pingback: Bureaucracy and innovation | The Gale

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