In 2016, Roma Makers, one of Italy’s first makerspaces, set out on an ambitious project to set up makerspaces within 20 schools in Rome. As part of our DSI4EU project, which looks at the growth of digital social innovation in Europe, we spoke to the co-founder of the initiative Leonardo Zaccone. Go to www.digitalsocial.eu for more inspiring stories of digital social innovation.
Since it was set up in 2013, Roma Makers, a non-profit association based in a fablab in the Ostiense district of Rome, has become a vital hub for designers, hobbyists and creatives looking for a space, tools and community. However, Leonardo, one of the co-founders of Roma Makers, was keen to explore how he could increase public engagement in the maker movement through involving school children, and to see if makerspaces could help build children’s creative and digital skills in new ways.
When Roma Makers was originally founded, the organisation didn’t have a physical space to meet and work in. Instead, its founders organised monthly events in innovative spaces around Rome, using a “pop-up makers” format created by WeMake, a creative community in Milan. These meetings led to the idea and founding community behind the Roma Makers fablab and makerspace in the Garbatella area of Rome.
Leonardo explains that the opportunity to bring people together in new ways was the prime motivator for setting up the space.
‘We gathered many people and developed the idea to create an open collective space for all of us. After a year, we opened Roma Makers fabLab in Garbatella. From the beginning, the social dimension was more important than the productive one. How could we spread the movement and involve people in our city?’
Starting from this goal, Roma Makers has helped to build and set up other new fablabs and makerspaces around Rome, supporting maker communities to grow.
While the makerspaces were successful in spreading around the city, there were still many communities within the city that they struggled to engage, including children and young people. To address this, Leonardo and his colleagues came up with the idea to try and bring the maker movement out of the makerspaces and into local schools. They managed to get 20 local schools on board to their 'mini maker' idea and set up makerspaces within the schools, equipped with tools such as 3D printers, milling stations and laser cutters as well as a daily support of at least one skilled ‘minimakers trainer’.
‘As often happens in the process of innovation, we made a virtue out of necessity. Rome is a big city, and it takes a long time to reach different neighbourhoods. Suburban schools have, at the same time, a lot of empty spaces and the need to teach digital skills with old hardware and a few tools. We could not expect the school to come to the fablab so we brought the machines and know-how into the schools. We support them in setting up a fablab to be used during their classes in the morning and in the afternoon for all people who wanted to join and use it as a local makerspace.’
Students can use fablab machines and create their projects using digital fabrication techniques. Some projects are created following a training course, but the general aim is to let the students develop personal projects from the idea to the fabrication, to find their own solutions to technical problems.
For example, in some schools the students used the makerspaces to convert their ideas for how their neighbourhood could be redeveloped into real models, using a Google map top view and Tinkercad to model the buildings. In another example, during Advent the students designed and developed an original Christmas decoration, using electronics, 3d printers and a laser cutter.
For the project, the main aim is to create open spaces where many different people including students can work together, learn in a peer-to-peer way, realise their own dreams and always find somebody to talk to. However, Leonardo and his colleagues are beginning to observe how in some instances, the students use the space and the opportunity to make in a slightly different way, including being more creative and quick to learn what can be done.
‘We learnt that kids are more receptive than adults, and they can imagine perfectly how a machine can help them develop an idea.’
While it is still early days and it is too soon to measure the impact of the school fablabs on learning and skills, Leonardo believes they are already making a real difference.
‘Building a fablab in a suburban school has a big social impact, because it means we are creating innovation hubs in neighbourhoods where normally nothing happens. In these fablabs the relationship with the local community is more active than in our main hub.
Over time, the community hopes to measure the results of the school initiative by for example looking at the digital skills learned by users of the makerspaces, how many of the kids will continue to innovate with digital fabrication, and ultimately learning how things are made will change their relationship with the life-cycle of objects.