Democratising technology

calendar_today 25 October 2019

I was looking for research which studied how makerspaces could democratise technology. I came across work by Waldman-Brown et al. (2016) and a paper which explores intersectionality in STEM makerspaces (Tan & Calabrese-Barton, 2018). This post is a summary/discussion of both findings which can be applied in future workshops.

Summary: Waldman-Brown et al. (2016)

  • Grassroot innovators determine what will be taught
  • Technologies are options, not absolutes
  • Encourage tinkering/improvement
  • The roadmap should include vocational courses
  • Open access = publicise and receive feedback


Maker Movement: A DIY movement democratising access to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math). Ultimately meritocratic, *anyone can build anything*.
  • ‘Democratisation of design, engineering, fabrication and education’ – Artisans Asylum (2014)
  • A ‘do-it-yourself culture, open-source sharing, and small scale manufacturing and production’ – Waldman-Brown et al. (2016)
Impact: Makerspaces have given birth to ‘cottage industries’ where makers can sell crafts/tool. Think Etsy or growth of maker technologies i.e. Arduino, Kano, low-cost 3D Printers.

Politics: Government agencies have considered the Maker Movement in relation to international development policies. The paper refers to a recommendation from the World Bank to Bulgaria suggesting fab labs could create ‘synergies among innovators’.

The paper introduces Troxler’s (2014) four interpretations of the Maker Movement.
  1. Bourgeois pass-time
  2. Innovation in education on technology
  3. New renaissance reconciling liberal arts with science and engineering in a contemporary and playful way
  4. New industrial revolution
Accessibility: The paper refers to stats of a white male focus within the movement but this is irrelevant here. Hielscher and Smith (2014) recommend it is worth understanding that creating *anything* is not easy for everyone. I am interested/in the business of making it possible/accessible.

Agency: Toombs et al (2014) found being an ‘established’ maker is more about one’s agency versus intelligence or ability. Will make a future post after I’ve read everything I can read about the relationship between self-efficacy and makerspaces.

Technologies centred around humanitarian relief:
  • There is a gap between ‘short-term relief and actual long-term sustainable development’
  • The article refers to ‘Rethink Relief’ by MIT/Caritas Uganda which provided a 2-week conference teaching refugee to develop low-cost technologies. This included a ‘make your own light kit’.


Empathetic design > technology
  • The article urges us to avoid a ‘neo-colonialist imposition of technologies’ by working with local artisans, inviting their skills/knowledge
  • Avoid ‘air-dropped models of ICT for development’ driven by ‘determinist imaginaries’ (how do I avoid this?)
  • The example of One Laptop Per Child, which I also explored within my undergraduate dissertation, is quoted as ‘amplifying unequal divides’ and the article recommends technology should incorporate indigenous languages/teachers
Stakeholders consideration: Equipment costs and the installation of fab labs are not cheap. Makerspaces require partnership with policy-makers (in regards to imports).


Waldman-Brown et al. (2016) echoes Hersh‘s concerns of divorcing technical means from social ends i.e. ‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down’. The article highlights donations can be made to satisfy supplier requirements over the needs of actual users. I believe this can actually be mutual but prioritise user needs foremost.

In regards to avoiding ‘air-dropped’ technologies, I read a UNESCO 2017 report last year which recommends we should be ‘shifting from a techno-centric approach to a need-centric and resource restructuring model’ in reference to digital tools for refugee education. This can be limiting.

Tan & Calabrese-Barton, 2018


  • Community ethnography as pedagogy: Supports youth in authoring their own opportunities to engage in STEM
  • ‘Just-in-time’ experiences allow youth to work towards needs identified
  • Making involves learning more about who one is and how your experiences are ‘tied into broader systemic narratives’ = an agentic response via making
The paper uses a theoretical framing of intersectionality to explore how makerspaces can reshape equity. Tan & Calabrese-Barton use a longitudinal study to immerse themselves in an anthropological approach.

They argue that the view of merely distributing goods and services is an ‘impartial stance towards what access and opportunity may mean and fails to disrupt assimilatory practices’. The paper asks us to consider who is making and mentoring, what is made and why.
  • This echoes a former point by Hielscher and Smith (2014) that making *anything* is not easy
Community ethnography: In an effort to avoid the ‘keychain syndrome’ where children engage in experiences which are ‘trivial and without prolonged meaningful engagement towards more complex projects’, the paper recommends that youth actively seek social issues affecting themselves.

They recommend teachers encourage youth to seek community data and include this data in their STEM-making – which would be ‘productive’ for youth enduring oppressions.

The paper concludes that community ethnography ‘granted legitimacy’ to youth framing issues of injustice which reframes the lens away from a ‘problematic individual’ to ‘expose normalised systemic oppressions’.


  • Encouraging youth to become ‘agentic makers’ in theory, is the equivalent of encouraging them to tackle problems that matter to them (See post on self-efficacy).
  • Framing STEM workshops in the context of UN’s sustainable development goals would interesting or the do your:bit challenge. Potential here to build tools/services based on need.
  • Acknowledging problems that affect your day-to-day experience is not easy, let alone working towards tackling this. The paper does comment that this takes vulnerability and courage. This might be naive, but I am interested in shifting from ‘This is a problem, let’s work towards it’ to ‘How would it feel to not experience XYZ, you can change this’ i.e. future-facing and more optimism?