Experiments in Autonomy: Reflections on The Makerplatz

Photo: Kay Strasser

One could view everything in our world as a collection of prototypes available to be changed. In these interesting times, we have all the tools in the world, all that is needed is a conversation to start the (re)making. Welcome to Berlin’s Makerplatz.

By Jay Cousins

Our dominant cultural paradigm has been, for many years, a culture of consumption. This has resulted in a disconnection between people and the things that sustain them. This disconnect reduces our awareness of the true cost of things, and leaves us vulnerable to the centralised system that sustains us. It renders us powerless to engage with our world.

The act of ‘making’ empowers us, it changes our relationship with the world: what we don’t like, we can change. We can take responsibility for improving our environment and our society rather than petitioning others to provide change for us to consume.

Berlin represents a low friction environment for making and experimenting. It has a fast growing culture of overlapping ideas and themes, acting as a lab for new forms of work, lifestyle and production. Given that these ‘new forms’ have to be built rather than consumed, Berlin’s maker culture is a continually stimulating environment with vast, intellectual and physical, resources.

The Makerplatz (Moritzplatz, in Berlin’s Kreuzberg) is a hub for making, a space where these various energies of exploration and production coalesce. The people, ideas, and projects surrounding this space combine their forces to learn from one another and create new forms of organisation, lifestyle, work-style and products. This is continuously happening, however in order to draw attention to the existence of The Makerplatz, we created the Makerplatz Festival to celebrate and highlight its existence in October 2011. This was an experiment in shaping reality through storytelling. Our message was simple:

“Here is a space where people can make things—you can join us.”

Makerlab Process

The process used to create the festival is called the ‘Makerlab Process’, an open and evolving event format which focuses on autonomy and empowerment over control, management and curation. This process and the events that share its name, such as The Makerlabs, started accidentally in 2010 when more than 40 designers, makers and creatives—from Berlin, Holland, etc.—were invited to collaborate for an event at the DMY Design Festival. Invited to manage the event, I declined, instead of stating an interest to facilitate and act as a point of communication. The resulting DMY Makerlab was a festival of collaborative ‘making’, and gave birth to the Open Design City within Betahaus (a coworking space with a diverse culture, event space and an open workshop—open design city). Each subsequent event has built on the idea of autonomy and empowerment, changing and improving the process to further empower the participants.

This process leverages existing event infrastructures in order to reach a broad audience and to ensure a large selection of potential participants.

Makerplatz

Moritzplatz in October 2011 proved particularly ripe for such an event, as three festivals were set to take place at the same time: the People in Beta festival at Betahaus, the Aufbauhaus/Planet Modulor (a giant marketplace for materials and production services) launch event, and the Prinzessinnengarten Kartoffelfest (the mobile community garden that holds a potato harvest festival every year). Having been invited by Betahaus and Planet Modulor to create Makerlabs in both spaces it was only logical to connect them, and then to add Prinzessinnengarten and Etsy Labs (an event space for the craft community) as festival spaces.

After describing the idea to connect the spaces and organize one festival (originally Makerlab Moritzplatz) to Semiramis Ceylan (from Graffiti Research Lab), her immediate response was “ahhh Makerplatz”. It stuck. After describing the new name to Kay Strasser, he went down to the Ubahn (Berlin’s rail system) and days later brought me an image showing Makerplatz—having altered the Ubahn sign in photoshop. From then on it was clear the meme had strength: it grew in our collective conscious and spawned a desire in me and many others to “Hack the Platz”, and so a project took place during the event to rebrand Moritzplatz as Makerplatz. During the event, the Ubahn signs were ultimately changed to reflect this transition.

So we had a strong identity, we had six spaces (we assumed the street and roundabout as ours) and two days for potential action. However, we had one month to go and no content.

‘Making’ the Event

We created a ‘planning event’ and invited people from our network and the communities we had yet to meet. In a café at Aufbauhaus we highlighted the opportunity for people to participate. We encouraged them to talk to one another through speed dating, and document what action they would like to create on our ‘event cards’. Most importantly, we gave them the chance to get to know each other.

From this first action we had 25 events from different interest groups, individuals and organisations with workshops in everything from table tennis bat making, to open source electronics and upcycled fashions. The events eventually grew to 40+. These actions were created on a ‘for benefit’ basis, with participants invited to consider what the benefits of their participation may be (businesses can promote their business, organisations engage with public, some workshops run for money, others for the joy of creation). As the event approached, it grew daily, with new participants emailing new workshop proposals. Every day we said “yes, bring it”.

To get a better idea of what might happen we had a planning party at Platoon (another event space in Berlin). We laid out a ground plan for the workshops at The Makerplatz, with some set times for meeting and socialising. We constructed a timeline of what would happen, when and where. Over the course of the day the story changed, but it gave us enough of a sense of structure to guide us through the event.

It was impossible to experience everything at the event. Autonomy is like that, unstructured yet thriving, alive and changing all at once. The most beautiful moments were the bits we didn’t see coming and the unexpected talents that emerged from the chaos. Moments like:

  • The mobile live stream video booth with a reporter that sprung up three days before the event.

  • The Red Line that joined the spaces and created a pedestrian crossing, by accident.

  • Josephine’s logo for screen printing that she created, in an hour, in her garden in the sunshine.

  • Vahagens pop-up upcycled jewelry store.

  • Emre taking to the street to promote his action.

  • A lizard and a giraffe sipping homemade lemonade in the garden.

After everything was said and done, two days full of surprises, of which these are but a few highlights.

Moritzplatz became Makerplatz, something real and visible, created by the changing Ubahn signs and through the workshops that took place. Giving us a sense of ownership over our public space, adopting it and appropriating it in full view of the authorities (the police watched our picnics and street actions but did not comment or interfere). It was a playful and positive way to shape our public space.

Co-creating the event formed bonds between participants, many of whom were strangers to one another before the event but became friends and collaborators afterwards.

For me this is a critical component of the Makerlab Process. In producing things together and in shared action, strong relationships are formed. We gain an understanding of our individual strengths and weaknesses, and push ourselves to learn new skills.

Post-Makerplatz there was, and still is, a desire for a repeat, although who knows when events will align so beautifully again. As the space remains and grows, new collaborations occur and emerge between the communities and spaces. For example, we just created a Human Rights Makerlab with new participants and Makerplatz veterans alike—this was a better documented event—humanrights.makerlab.info. On a smaller scale, I bump into participants who tell me of new collaborations and opportunities arising between the friends they made.

Why Do This?

Everyone has their own motivation, but I will try to highlight a few of mine.

One is the ‘buzz’, the high of being surrounded by the spirit of making, the multiple overloads of inspiration. Another is the opportunity to meet and connect with people of all backgrounds and differing skill sets; through ‘playful’ work many new collaborations and opportunities are born.

Furthermore, it demonstrates to participants their own latent power and energy—what they are capable of when given the opportunity. One of my favorite moments from the event was when one participant told me he was now taking some wood home to build something for himself, after having build a cargo bike in one of the workshops.

“I’ve always wanted to build it”, he said. “Now that you’ve made me a maker, I finally have the confidence to do it”. I told him that he himself made the transition—all that we did was create the opportunity to explore what he could become.

In my opinion, The Makerlabs and The Makerplatz are stimuli for individuals, organisations, businesses, societies and even for myself. We have entrenched beliefs as to how things should be done—management, control, hierarchical management structures, centralised service provisions. We don’t dare to question or challenge them lest we meet them with failure, often we don’t even think to challenge them. Only through experimentation and failure can we grow. The Makerlab process is intended to enable the flow of innovative ideas and resources through collaborations, that can lead to new concepts and insights.

There isn’t one right way, but we need to explore alternatives, The Makerlab process is one such alternative. Every time we do it, it blows my mind. What people achieve together through joyful action under a shared story. These are the stories I wish to share, not just as theories, but as actions that make strong statements and provocations to those who say it won’t work. Instead of just saying it works, we put it to the test and got results.

This story takes the form of a vision combined by participation and a call to action. To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

The vision should be loose enough for them to apply their experience—to attach their own fantasy. Vaguely defined yet inspiring. We should start talking about our visions of the future, about a reality we would like to inhabit.

The Makerlab process creates a temporary space for discovery and learning. Like the Burning Man festival, it sets different parameters for engagement and can therefore be a powerful tool for social change—as you are asking people to suspend or temporarily adopt new beliefs and behaviours in the name of experience rather than permanently change their beliefs.

In context of the Culture of Transition, transformation and building resilience represent a powerful tool—a Trojan horse for new ways and technologies. The Makerlab creates an opportunity, both through the process and the event itself, to experience new technology and a new culture of doing things—a safe space for people to experience another reality and question the predominant one. I would like to see The Makerlabs become a Circus of Sustainability—a viral event that plants the seeds of a beta future wherever it occurs. We collectively possess the knowledge required for social transition; the Circus of Sustainability would create the event context where these skills, resources and technologies can be shared and transmitted. It would be a catalyst for a beta future.

So many of us are paralysed by perception. Events like The Makerplatz allow us to surpass what we think we are capable of—to try, to fail, to explore and to push past the boundaries of our imagined limitations. A chance to grow beta together.

The Makerplatz and The Makerlab are crescendos in building community, they are both the climax of collective action, and the beginning of new collaborations, projects and ideas. They are catalysts for change.

They are the product of community, of collaboration and co-creation. They are ways in which participants can share the responsibility and joy of what they do together.

With each new process we facilitate less and enable more. Each time we let go of control and encourage more responsibility. Each time I’m left with a sense of awe. The Makerlabs for me have been where I have learned new ways of doing things by challenging our conventional organisational paradigms. An event as an opportunity to demonstrate the raw power of Enabled Autonomy. Try it.

This article was originally posted in Issue 1 of The Alpine Review, a magazine I highly recommend. Get the next issue for an article I won’t be publishing here for at least a few months after it’s release, titled “Anarchy in Practice”, drawing on my experiences from Egypt and Berlin.

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About society2point0

Serial Entrepreneur and Dragons Den Survivor now concerning himself with using web and mobile technologies to empower society and encourage real world interactions.

One comment

  1. Hi Jay
    I have been part of few events similar to this one and I’m fascinated by the creativity and energy that happens in these context.

    I recently started a free and open resource to map such events in order to identify patterns that could be reused by groups who want to self organize co-creative events:

    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AvjAaLhwfefxdF9Ka3hBekl3ajBiU2NFTndtV3hULVE#gid=1

    I would be interested to know if you have a “source code” for the event (ie a recipe, a how-to guide) that other people could use if they want to organize their own “MakerPlatz”.

    thanks.

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