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Fostering creative citizens through co-design and public makerspaces


Project description

This project seeks to develop a novel combination of 1) design interventions, 2) public makerspaces and 3) online design resources as a means of fostering creative citizens in China in an inclusive and bottom-up manner. The rationale is that human capital has increasingly become the most important asset of a country and experts argued that the key to sustainable economic growth of a city/country is an ability to attract, nurture and retain a creative workforce. One effective way of promoting and fostering creativity is to actively engage people in creative activities, such as co-design and hands-on making activities. 

The project spreads across three years. In Year 1, the team focused on identifying good practices of creative communities and finding out key requirements regarding public makerspaces in China in order to create suitable strategies. The key findings were written up as short case studies. 

In Year 2, the team will work with Tongji DESIS to turn their existing makerspace on Fushun Road Community Centre, Shanghai into a Community Creative Hub. The team will also collaborate with Tongji DESIS to create community co-design projects between local residents and Tongji design students to introduce the co-design process to the local communities. 

The processes and outcomes of community projects will be thoroughly evaluated to identify potential impacts. Key lessons learned will be extracted to develop suitable strategies and action plans for scaling up. Year 3 will concentrate on developing a strategic design framework with suitable guidelines for developing community creative hubs.

Case studies

Case Study 1: The Remakery

The Remakery is a community-based makerspace focusing on a niche group. Its core value can be summarised as ’ to spark the environmentally-conscious lifestyle through making’ and to generate the conversation about (re)making. The organisation attracts both individuals and social enterprises that share common interests in reusing waste and reclaimed materials and an environmentally conscious lifestyle. Having a well-defined ethos and personable ways of keeping people engaged with the organisation are crucial to the success in relationship building. The organisation successfully empowers people to make through a number of activities, e.g. mentoring, training, peer-learning and idea-sharing. The well-designed services (e.g. providing free reclaimed materials) and the multipurpose space play an important role in supporting these activities. It also empowers people through making, since the organisation sees its services as ‘actionable options’ for people to make positive changes to their local community and the environment. The aim goes beyond making things as it focuses on making ‘people’ by helping them develop making skills and providing them with opportunities to build their careers in making. Many members and resident makers use this place as a platform to launch their social enterprises. By seeing ‘making’ as skills and a way of thinking of how to tackle environmental issues, this has helped foster creativity in local citizens.

Case Study 2: The She Shed Association

The She Shed Association is a not-for-profit organisation set up to support older women who are vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, often due to the loss of close friends and families. It provides a wide range of creative activities (e.g. pottery, painting, jewellery making and woodworking) to attract this sometimes hard-to-reach group to come together to share skills in a safe environment and establish new social networks. The organisation has successfully empowered many older women through the act of ‘making’ in many ways, by providing various types of support, such as informal training and peer-learning. The She Shed facilitates casual conversation among strangers (e.g. asking to pass some materials) and helps beneficiaries to develop new connections with their peers. It also gives them the opportunity to develop an ability to ‘make’ things, giving them a strong sense of achievement, which helps enhance their self-confidence. For example, they had to learn to stand by their decision, i.e. choice of colours or negotiate with other members of the group to achieve the solution they wanted, i.e. convincing the workshops organisers that they preferred jewellery to paint. When interviewed, several makers explained that the act of making is ‘what we want to do, but never had a chance to do’. This has helped users to re-frame their ways of thinking. Evidently, a good combination of a friendly atmosphere and dedicated services has helped to foster creativity for these makers.

Case Study 3: The Camden Town Shed

The Camden Town Shed is the first UK shed started by its users in 2011. The concept was based on the Men’s Shed Movement in Australia. The main targets are older men and women who are vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation. The Shed is equipped for woodworking, sculpturing and hand-building in clay. The organisation has successfully empowered people to make through training and peer-learning. There is clear evidence that people have been empowered through (the act of) making. When interviewed, one maker reported that the act of making has helped him think creatively and plan things in advance (e.g. creating a precise drawing beforehand). Moreover, it encourages them to explore new knowledge. For example, one user studied principles of Islamic Art to create Islamic geometric patterns. Besides, it enables rather ‘shy’ individual to socialise with others. Makers enjoy the strong sense of belonging, as they reported that space has ‘good banter’ and ‘sense of comradery’. While most makers make things for fun, sometime they work on commissioned work that will benefit others. It can be seen that a combination of creative activities and a community of interest has helped foster individual creativity.

Case Study 4: The Building BloQs

The Building BloQs is a makerspace for professional makers, which can be broadly categorised into two groups: freelance professionals and small companies. It provides spaces and means for making (e.g. workbenches, machines, tools, materials and storage spaces) for paid members. The services could be grouped into three main departments: wood, metal and fashion & textiles. The company is all about empowering people through making since its goal is to support ‘people who want to make a living through making’. It offers makers a platform to create and launch their businesses. In terms of empowering people to make, the company enables makers to upskill and develop knowledge further through peer-learning since most members already have a good level of knowledge and skills in making. Having access to the ‘knowledge community’ (in other words, other makers, other businesses and other knowledge that they may not have) is the main motivation for most members to join this makerspace. Thus, the place was designed to maximise peer-learning and networking (e.g. providing open-plan workshops and displaying members’ work in social areas). Providing means for making and access to the ‘knowledge community’ is key to help professional makers develop their creativity further.

Case Study 5: The Goodlife Centre

The Goodlife Centre is an independently funded workshop designed to help ‘people who would like to make something’ by providing them with knowledge and skills in making. The company started with one training course (woodworking) at a community centre before expanding into other areas, e.g. upholstery, sewing, etc. It has successfully empowered people to make through formal training courses and other support, e.g. peer-learning. To a large extent, the centre is also successful in empowering people through making. Its training courses had helped many trainees develop creative confidence to the point that they considered a career change. According to trainees, the act of making can really foster creativity. One trainee observed that he has changed his way of thinking. His thinking process has become more structured, as he has to plan things in advance before starting making. The founder was trained in 3D design and previously worked as a designer for high-end brands. Subsequently, she has a good understanding of experience design and has effectively applied this knowledge to create a welcoming space with great attention to detail. The good atmospheric design and hands-on training have help beginners gain the confidence to explore ideas and develop their creativity further.

Case Study 6: Blackhorse Workshop

The Blackhorse Workshop is founded by creative practitioners with a mission of becoming ‘a socially pioneering world-class centre for making’. It currently focuses on woodwork and metalwork, but also offer other services, e.g. leatherwork. Although the organisation mainly targets professional makers, the workshop also supports hobbyists and families. For example, it offers ‘Kids Holiday Club’ and ‘Make Stuff Club’ for children aged 9 – 11 years old. It also provides women-only sessions. The organisation helps empower people to make through various training programmes and inductions courses. Moreover, it works with the local council to support youth groups and schools. The open-plan workshop helps facilitate idea sharing, networking, and peer-learning, which help people develop their creativity and making skills further. Social areas, e.g. café, are strategically utilised to engage local residents with this makerspace. It also organises events, where artists, designers, expert fabricators and craftsmen from various fields are invites to share their thoughts with the general public. Its location, which is approximately half an hour from Central London, puts it in a good position to support creative practitioners in London and surrounding areas. The organisation helps foster creativity through formal training and good use of spatial design to facilitate knowledge sharing.

Case Study 7: The Library of Things

The Library of Things works in partnership with Crystal Palace Transition Town & Upper Norwood Library Hub to help people get access to things they need. This is a place where people (mostly local residents) can borrow useful items (e.g. drills, gazebos and carpet cleaners) at affordable price and learn how to use them. Although the organisation does not provide a dedicated physical space for making, it still empower people to make by providing means of making (e.g. access to DIY tools) and training them making skills. The Library perceives its offers as ‘community services’, since it helps promote do-it-yourself attitudes. To help people adopt new habits, the organisation has organised a number of classes (e.g. DIY sewing classes) and facilitated peer-learning activities (e.g. skill sharing and volunteer training events). The empowerment through making is rather indirect due to its nature. Nevertheless, the ‘snowball’ effect was observed, as users tend to encourage their friends and families to get involved. In this way, positive changes have cascaded beyond immediate users. The organisation also sees itself as a pathway to other community services. By giving people access to means of making and helping people obtaining making skills, it helps foster creative citizens without actual making spaces.


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Key findings

Principal findings from stakeholder interviews in China

The interviews were conducted with 22 Chinese participants (including 10 makers and 12 non-makers). Their professional backgrounds were diverse, namely office worker, design practitioners, programmer academic worker, university student, and local community centre staff. All 10 makers took part in the interviews are male, while the non-maker group contained eight females and two males respectively. The non-maker group also included three senior citizens.

​The interview results cover three key issues of making and makerspace in China: 1) the meaning of making; 2) how makerspace should be; and 3) the role of makerspace in the Chinese context. It was observed that there is a significant gap between young people’s perspective and that of older respondents.

Most interviewees found it challenging to define ‘making’ within their socio-cultural context because there are several expressions of making in Chinese, e.g. handcrafting, producing, manufacturing and creating. Subsequently, they described ‘making’ by referring it to various handcrafting activities – ranging from the traditional practices (e.g. pottery making, painting and woodworking) to the modern types of making (e.g. building LEGO models, modelling and developing digital applications). 

Different types of making that appeal to Chinese people


For most people, making means realising ideas through technology and/or hands. Some young people also highlighted that making is a hobby. It is a kind of activities and lifestyles going beyond simply an approach or toolkit for materialising their ideas. According to young participants, ‘to make’ is also to have fun and learn new things.

 However, it is important to note the different views from some senior participants who consider making as part of their daily life. They gather in a community centre or a senior university, and kill time as well as socialise through handcrafting activities (e.g. painting and knitting). For them, making is a daily routine that benefits their physical and mental health.

Different meanings of ‘making’


The motivations for making


Making activities is usually tied up with ‘makerspaces’, which, however, is an unfamiliar concept to many Chinese participants. Not every interviewee understands how the makerspace was initiated in the modern era, and how it should be like in a specific cultural context. Therefore, when being asked how a makerspace should be designed, different groups describe such spaces for their future making in entirely different ways.

​For some young people, Xinchejian (for the minority), FablabO (education-oriented) and Chaihuo (commercial) are their types. These makerspaces mainly focus on digital and high-tech making which originates from the hackerspace that was initially born in western countries. They prefer their makerspaces to be well-equipped workshops with sophisticated machines and tools (e.g. 3D printer, laser cutter, CNC, and tools for making wood, leather & fabric). The exhibition area is not necessary, but it will be helpful.

​By comparison, older people picture their makerspaces as a community centre where essential hand tools for knitting and comfortable furniture are provided. They also emphasise that newspaper, books and accessible toilets are essential. Nevertheless, both groups expect a similar atmosphere.

Most of them prefer the space to be bright, cosy and homely. Some also would like some private areas because they are not in favour of having too many socialising activities in the makerspace. 

How makerspaces should be designed


Most participants acknowledged positive influences of ‘making’ and makerspace on their community. They suggested that space for ‘making’ could help connect people to share ideas and promote the sense of community. Some emphasised the social role of makerspace since it could support the young generation’s education and improve senior citizens’ mental health. Besides, the outcomes of making are largely enjoyed by the makers as well as their friends and families. This is another key benefit to their community. However, some respondents expressed concerns about the exclusiveness of the makerspaces – this type of space may only benefit the minority of people who enjoy making. Some makerspaces in China, such as Xinchejian, current face considerable challenges, as they are perceived as exclusive space for the minority. 

Who may enjoy the outcomes of making


When asking whether they would use makerspaces, respondents provided both practical and personal reasons that would hinder them from coming. Participants believed that they do not have time for making. Moreover, they are lack of making skills and do not want to work in public areas. Besides, some reported that they have no desire to make. The practical reasons that prevent people from using makerspaces are issues related to space itself, e.g. the poor quality of making activities, the poor management and the atmosphere of the makerspace. One participant also emphasises that the idea of making and makerspaces is not popular in Chinese society. There are only a few makerspaces and only a small group of people know of such activity.

​When questioning the potential socio-cultural impact of making, some feedbacks highlighted the importance of re-investigating the context of ‘Made in China’. One participant mentioned that the current ‘Education of Maker and Making’ (provided by the Makerspace/Hackspace) hinders the development of making in China because they do not solve real industrial problems (e.g. manufacturing). In this sense, ‘making’ has become an educational product, which helps to polish the students’ grades and enables them to access to better schools. Therefore, it is important to rethink the concept of making and makerspace. The Shaji village (which has been completely transformed and developed through a combination of furniture making and e-commerce) was given as a reference of how the ‘narrative of making and makerspace’ in China could be. Based on this reference/narrative, some interviewees argued that such an industry shows how China is redefining ‘making’ and scaling up makerspaces, and this would undoubtedly change the lifestyle and economic development in China in a long term.

​To summarise, the overall concept of making and makerspaces in China has a different narrative compared with that of the UK. The concept of social enterprise is not fully established in Chinese society. Most of the makerspaces in China are for-profit and have sustainable business models. Not-for-profit makerspaces heavily rely on governmental support, e.g. community neighbourhood centres and youth maker education. In order to get funded by the government, these not-for-profit makerspaces need to respond to the national ethos, such as ‘Strengthen the Nation with Innovation and Technology’. It was observed that digital fabrication and youth education may have higher priority than other types of making. The perception of makerspaces among younger people is significantly different from that of older citizens. Young professionals and students perceive makerspaces as a place for entertaining, supporting practices and developing new knowledge, while senior citizens prefer a space for their daily recreation. Their different opinions also reflect their different lifestyles. Most people commented that makerspace could provide opportunities for improving their physical and mental health, exploring creativity and enhancing cultural and economic development.

Principal findings from field trips

In June 2019, four researchers from the UK conducted a field trip in Shanghai. They visited three community centres in Yangpu District and three makerspaces.

Three community centre is as follows: Citizen Service Station of Quyang Community, Miyun Road Community Neighbourhood Centre, and Fuxin Road Community Neighbourhood Centre. 

The field studies in China confirmed that existing community neighbourhood centres have strong potential to become community creative hubs. Firstly, they are strategically located in the middle of the communities. Secondly, they attract a wide range of users from the local areas. Activities during the daytime are often designed for older people (e.g. calligraphy), while those in the evening are suitable both families and working professionals, e.g. dancing and English classes. Moreover, the centres are well-supported by the local governments. Most activities (e.g. art & craft sessions) are often organised by the staff. However, many activities do not need any supervision. Local residents are welcome to use health-checking facilities, play areas, table tennis tables, libraries, etc. by themselves. The centres also support self-organised activities (e.g. a painting group) by providing spaces and displaying artwork. Many centres are part of the same service provision organisation and connected to each other via an online platform. They make good use of social media, such as WeChat, and their online platform to share photographs of previous events and update information about upcoming activities. 

​The centres generally welcome new ideas and suggestions. Local groups and external organisations can propose new activities on a voluntary basis, which will be assessed by the centre managers. Successful proposals may be funded by the local government, e.g. covering the cost of materials. Since most centres are designed to be multi-purpose, it is not suitable to create a fixed physical space dedicated to making activities only. The focus should be placed on providing means of making rather than physical spaces.

The UK research team also visited three types of makerspace: Xin Che Jian and Tongji Fablab O in Shanghai, and Shaji Village in Jiangsu.

 Xin Che Jian is a commercial co-working establishment where professional makers and start-up entrepreneurs could rent spaces to produce their work. The place opens 24 hours per day and is well equipped with manual and digital fabrication tools for making. It regularly hosts a talk to encourage people to share ideas and learn from their peers. This helps its users connect to a wider community of makers. While it is successful in attracting foreigners, it has problems connecting with surrounding communities.

 Fablab O is part of the College of Design and Innovation, Tongji University. It is also part of the Fab Lab Network. Thus, it adheres to principles of the Fab Foundation and Fab Academy. The organisation focuses on education, especially STEAM subjects, design thinking and human-centred design. It provides various courses (e.g. coding) for secondary school students as well as helps schools set up their own Fablabs. Fablab O also has problems connecting with surrounding communities due to their lack of interest in making.

Shaji is described as a Taobao village due to its strong connection with e-commerce (Taobao is a well-known Chinese online shopping website). The village was once an agricultural area. It has gone through rapid area development to become a large-scale design and manufacturing hub for e-commerce products (such as furniture, home decorative items and soft furnishing). In 2019, the village hosts more than 13,000 companies. It is often referred to as a great example of economic development through creative industries.

The visits revealed that community-based makerspaces are still rare in China since most makerspaces either target creative professionals/entrepreneurs or students. While many makerspaces act as a platform to help creative professionals/entrepreneurs launch their businesses, others are designed to train STEM subjects (e.g. coding) to secondary school students. Subsequently, a place for the general public to explore ‘making’ is limited. In addition, current strategic frameworks in relation to creative development, e.g. the Shaji Village model, which recommends a combination of creative entrepreneurs and e-commerce as a winning formula, do not focus on fostering creative citizens.

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Principal findings of the co-design workshops

Three sets of co-design workshops, the Design by Consensus workshop was adapted by The Glass-House, were conducted – two in the UK and one in China. It aimed to help people come together to explore how they could shape a building to cater for multiple different makers, and to be a space that could help engage the community in creative making activities.

The workshop was flexible and contains a number of tools and techniques that could help different stakeholders in China develop shared visions for public makerspace. It introduced an imagined building with internal and external space, and a series props to help explore shared and private workspaces, storage and social spaces and the distinction between clean and messy and between quiet and noisy spaces. There were also different size kitchen spaces, toilet configurations and some standard building features, e.g. doors, windows and corridors. 

The first set of workshop was organized in the UK. 14 design researchers from China were given the first-hand experience of visiting community-based makerspaces in the UK before they were asked to create a vision for public makerspace in China. The outcomes of this workshop reflected what participants had experienced and their understanding of Chinese culture.

The second set of workshop was organised in China with approximately 20 Chinese participants from various backgrounds, e.g. university students, academics, local residents, designers, artists, office workers and businesspersons. They did not have the first-hand experience of visiting community-based makerspaces and mainly relied on the information provided by the research team and the design researchers, who took part in the UK field trip. The second workshop enabled the research team to engage a wider audience to better understand contextual issues of public makerspaces in China.

The third set of the workshop was conducted with approximately 40 postgraduate design students. These participants were selected because most of them have creative backgrounds and, therefore, could comment on the future of makerspaces and help the researchers get further ideas. Half of the participants were Chinese and the rest came from different cultural backgrounds such as British, Greek, South Korean, Indian and Thai. Involving non-Chinese participants could help the researcher see the similarities and differences in terms of approaches, outcomes and key considerations regarding the spatial design.

All eight groups (6 Chinese and 2 non-Chinese) believed that the interaction between makers and non-makers should be considered a critical issue when designing makerspaces. Therefore, they wanted to 1) show their making activities to the public through the window, which could generate a sense of welcome, and 2) have an exhibition space inside and/or outside of the building, where the items made in the makerspace could be sold with expectations of economic value creation. Moreover, they believed that making should be considered as an inclusive activity that should be accessible to everyone. They also expected to have makerspaces in a residential area so that there were plenty of opportunities to interact with local people. All groups separated the workspace by the natures of functions and divided the functional areas by the level of noise – for example, the handcrafting workspace is a large shared space in one corner, while the digital work zone is in another corner. Having an outdoor garden (a green space) seemed to be quite important to most groups. However, they did want to keep a reasonable level of privacy from the public and, therefore, most groups considered a wooden fence around the garden area.

The researchers observed that the Chinese groups showed a significantly different approach compared to the other two groups in terms of their definition and role of their makerspace, design process, strategy and decisions. Further details of the Chinese groups’ considerations on the physical environments are described below.

While the number of Chinese participants taking part in these workshops was relatively small, some similarities across different Chinese groups could be drawn.

Firstly, all the Chinese participants approached co-design tasks in a pragmatic and efficient way. They spent a relatively small amount of time (approximately 5-10 minutes) on creating shared values in the form of the vision statement but dedicated more time on designing the space, which was the practical task. They spent a considerable amount of time negotiating each other’s demands. In contrast, the other two non-Chinese groups spent a larger amount of time (15 – 20 minutes) on the development of shared visions and took a flexible approach towards interior design. Creating a positive and productive working environment was the main concern of Chinese participants when allocating different types of spaces inside the building. Two Chinese groups placed a strong emphasis on dividing the indoor space into private and public zones, as they preferred to work efficiently in their private areas without any disruptions from the visitors. This was not the main concern for the non-Chinese groups.

Secondly, it was observed that most Chinese participants preferred to arrange different working spaces (e.g. woodworking, metalworking and pottery) in order by anticipating how different stakeholders would use different zones (e.g. quiet, messy and social zones). A strong emphasis was placed on managing and controlling the space – e.g. who should be able to access which space. For example, four out of six Chinese groups decided to keep the outdoor space mainly for makers. By ensuring that this outdoor space could only be accessed through the building, it became easier to control and manage. Another key concern was growth. Chinese participants positively predicted that the number of makers would increase. Subsequently, they allocate large spaces for individual makers within the makerspace. In contrast, the Western participants did not foresee a significant growth of public makerspace and, thus, would be satisfied with relatively small working space. Moreover, they would be willing to share storage space with others and reduce their own space if needed.

Thirdly, socialisation was not perceived as a part of making for Chinese participants. Although having proper socialising space for makers appeared to be extremely important to every group, all of the Chinese groups separated making space from socialising space. In contrast, the Western group considered socialising as part of making. Their rationale was that combing socialising with making would make it more enjoyable and meaningful. It was observed that all of the Chinese groups perceived the outdoor space as an extension of the space inside the building. As a result, they paid great attention to the outdoor space and tried to utilize it fully. Although some groups turned the outdoor space into working space and a storage area, most of them used the outdoor space for social activities and networking (with other makers and those from the surrounding community). Finally, most Chinese participants demonstrated strong business awareness by thinking of sustaining the makerspace financially in the long term. Five out of six Chinese groups introduced a shop – they not only want to display items created by makers, but also to sell them. The idea of a shop was not initially included in the instructions and props provided, but initiated by the participants themselves. In contrast, European participants introduced a coffee shop in the building mainly for relaxing.

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