These are notes from the NightScience event in Paris, July 2015. This was a two day free and open event, held by the Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires, around the topic of equitable access to scientific research and education. FoAM were there to talk about our citizen science projects, but also to embed these projects within the framework of community work spaces and the open access movement.
The event brought together a formidable bunch of people – by no means just scientists – there were lawyers, actors, coders, humanitarian organisations, philosophers, and educators, bringing diverse perspectives from all over the world. The Paris Bettencourt iGEM team were also there, as were the Gamelab summer school participants who were in the middle of an eight week course on science, game design, technology and education.
The main difference from many other meetings was the pervasive openness with which people talked – not just presenting polished projects, but hopes, incomplete ideas, barriers encountered, and failures. The thread running throughout was an acknowledgement of the need to be thinking completely differently in the face of the global challenges that we face – poverty, war, corruption, failing educational/political/economical models, and environmental change. Each presenter had their own take on the root problems, and was making strides to try out something completely new, largely unbound by disciplinary thinking or institutional bureaucracies. A sniff of a burgeoning renaissance.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― Richard Buckminster Fuller
These are some talks that made me think:
Tekla Labs (USA)
Hovering around scientific research there are a large number of organisations that make vast profits out of publicly funded researchers – the classic example is scientific publishing. There is a similar problem with laboratory equipment, which is often very simple technology extortionately priced to bring large profits to the companies who make and sell the equipment. There are now a substantial number of people developing how-to manuals and downloadable patterns for making low cost DIY lab equipment. I've always thought this was great, and have made some equipment for my own lab, but never picked up on this → Marc Choolijan mentioned that one big problem with this approach is that the equipment is not standardised - a piece of kit made by one person may not work exactly the same as a piece of kit made by another - this is a serious issue when the science must be repeatable. This standardisation is a challenge that Tekla labs are aiming to solve.
International Committee of the Red Cross (Switzerland)
David Ott from the Red Cross is interested in the possibilities for a maker space/fabrication lab for humanitarian use e.g. in war situations and refugee camps. An example of something that could be made quickly in such a set-up was a customisable body tag. David outlined what the 'Ideal Humanitarian Thing' would look like: Do no harm, functional, editable, scalable, and both tool and material independent. This seems like a set of criteria that we should be working towards for most projects, not just those that are strictly humanitarian.
Denisa Kera (National University of Singapore)
Denisa talked about the philosophy and politics around DIYbio, hackspaces and open science. Denisa referred to scientists in richer countries limiting access to research outputs, and science communicators acting as a filter for what can be accessed, as epistemic violence. Denisa has a fantastic set of writing available here around DIYbio, makerspaces, food, design, philosophy, politics, open source and more.
Vigyan Ashram (India)
Yogesh Kulkarni from the Vigyan Ashram has been working with kids who have dropped out of school for a long time – they are essentially using project-based learning. An example was given of a group of students making a community park – to do this the have to do some maths (budgeting, working out dimensions etc.), planning (using Google Sketchup), chemistry (soil testing), biology (choosing appropriate plants), and building (almost entirely using recycled materials). At the end of each working day they held small debates together. Another example given was working out how to produce enough fodder through a summer drought. The foundations for this are work centred education which was used in India ca. 1938-1960, following on from the 'Basic Education' ideas of Ghandi. However, there is social stigma around this type of work, and getting their hands dirty, so the Vigyan Ashram now uses a fablab as an alternative base for the same educational approach.
School Factory (USA)
James Carlson talked about the broad variety of collaborative spaces that we now have , and how to better create these spaces – including making them more accessible to a broader range of users, rather than the typical rich white male user group. Setting up spaces on the boundaries between geographical areas with distinct demographics was one notable approach. These spaces offer alternatives for traditional education, allowing people to gather a bespoke set of skills through co-learning, perhaps with problem-based learning at the core, with badge systems for recognition of specific skill sets.
Group exploration on making Fablabs/Makerspaces
[James Carlson, School Factory] People need to go into a fablab/makerspace to get what these spaces are about, but the ones who don't get it won't go in. These spaces need to be developed by a particular type of person – someone with 'big ears', able to create spaces where people feel comfortable, able to be curious about everything, and able to connect people. Leading from the top down (traditional hierarchy) is a very different skill to leading from the bottom up (supporting everyone, connecting ideas, bringing the best out of people – a 'concierge') – it is the second type of person that is needed.
[Juan Keymer] Don't always need a fixed, dedicted space – can intervene better sometimes in neutral existing spaces e.g. Eurolines coaches, where you can target a particular group of people.
[can't-remember-who-sorry!] Mobile fablabs are popping up, and while they're a great for giving a taster, but they're too transient to allow people to develop their ideas.
[Libraries Without Borders] Fablabs could be a place where people can make their own books, videos, write down recipes etc., building their own resource that is relevant to them.
Parts of this discussion were live-drawn by James Carlson.