Critical Making with and for Communities
Community-Driven Critical Making Grounded in Practitioners’ Perspectives on Definition and Praxis

Regina Sipos, Technical University of Berlin, Germany, sipos@tu-berlin.de
Victoria Wenzelmann, Global Innovation Gathering, Germany, vic@globalinnovationgathering.org

Critical making, a method particularly useful around “wicked problems” offers the chance to combine practices of making with critical thinking, to explore processes and topics utilizing technologies and materials and thereby learn or, in grassroots communities, create tangible artefacts which have a societal impact. Many of the growing number of makerspaces globally - though by far not the whole “global assemblage” of makers - foster participatory design for and with their communities to identify, highlight or solve local problems, explicitly or implicitly basing their practices on critical design. The term critical making is utilized in innovative scholarship, to describe design approaches, and DIY citizenship. During the 9th International Conference on Communities & Technologies, a workshop was organized by the authors to ground the term in grassroots innovation movements, with a special focus on the Global South, while recognizing the diversity and situatedness of making. Participatory methodologies were used to better understand the terminology of grassroots innovators, to discuss emerging and evolving issues of critical making, participatory design, and maker communities and to further develop the term critical making.

CCS Concepts:Human-centered computing → Empirical studies in collaborative and social computing; • Social and professional topics;

Additional Keywords and Phrases: Participatory Design, Grounded Design, Makerspaces, Connected Communities

ACM Reference Format:
Regina Sipos∗ and Victoria Wenzelmann. 2021. Critical Making with and for Communities: Community-Driven Critical Making Grounded in Practitioners’ Perspectives on Definition and Praxis. In C&T '21: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Communities & Technologies - Wicked Problems in the Age of Tech C&T '21), June 20-25, 2021, Seattle, WA, USA. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 25 Pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3461564.3461572

1 INTRODUCTION

The term critical making was developed as an approach to innovative scholarly practice, a method particularly useful to address and discuss “wicked problems” [Rittel et al. and Coyne as quoted in [27], p. 253] by using making to experiment and develop a collective frame that highlights and resolves disciplinary and epistemic differences [27].

“Critical Making is an elision of two typically disconnected modes of engagement in the world: critical thinking,' often considered as abstract, explicit, linguistically based, internal and cognitively individualistic; and 'making,' typically understood as material, tacit, embodied, external and community-oriented." [26].

In a book based on a collection of papers from an international conference in 2010, the term is redefined and explored to describe activities of DIY citizenship [29]. Critical making was later on adapted to help look beyond the idealized picture of the maker and to "reintroduce a sense of criticality back into post-2010 maker culture to un-sanitize, un-smooth and repoliticize it” [17].

In recent years, academic attention on Grassroots Innovation Movements (GIM) has been increasing, fueled by the “era of participation” [25]. Research has focused on the “global assemblage” [Ong and Collier 2004 in [22]] of hacker- and makerspaces as spaces of collaborative, collective or community-based design [6,3] and grassroots innovation [32], with a focus on technological and sociopolitical analysis and the aim to highlight the diversity and situatedness of what constitutes as making [22,4].

It is before this background that we asked ourselves whether critical making was a term that could describe the activities, processes and aims of grassroots innovation communities focusing on collaborative technology development in the Global South. Some practitioners explicitly refuse the maker label to describe their activities [7] as they feel like it describes a Western narrative of innovation [14, Csikszentmihalyi in [9]] and choose to use a Brazilian local word: gambiarra. Others, for example Indonesian practitioners prefer to focus on the co-creative processes of knowledge production and tinkering (ngoprek) rather than the ownership of a particular outcome [30]. Jugaad, the Indian term used can be translated as hack or resourcefulness, and shanzhai copyleft production practices in China are also getting more and more attention in an attempt to decolonize Western information technologies [4,21]. The question arises: how many people engaged in making practices define themselves as makers, or even use the term making in the majority world? Building on this notion: how many grassroots innovators identify their practice with the term critical making, is this a term they might be interested in adopting? The authors have been aware of two references to GIM using the term: Fonseca's article on Gambiarra which refers to the term in a positive light [14], and a conference called Transformaking, inspired by Hertz's work and organized in the past by HONF Foundation1 in Indonesia.

To unmask the utopian vision of making that is resting on technosolutionism and ideological colonialism and look beyond the maker hype and its promises [22], the authors of this paper decided to organize a participatory workshop and direct their attention to non-Western approaches like jugaad, gambiarra and ngoprek; as well as collectives and communities instead of makerspaces in order to unearth decades of critical making practices that have been labeled differently. The authors aimed to explore the possibility of further evolving the term, and to highlight locally relevant critiques of socio-political realities through grassroots technology innovation practices. This could help identify, analyze and understand the processes that are deemed too small and scattered, their relevance so hyper-local that they end up being overlooked by academia, while governments and traditional innovators such as corporations also do not invest into them. However, they contribute to valuable plurality and reflexivity [32] through their community-based knowledge production processes.

The hype and promises did not subside, in fact, since the workshop, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a turning point in making: while governments and industries struggled with the breakdown of supply chains and the shortage of medical hardware supplies2, maker communities designed, tested and produced necessary equipment locally and shared the blueprints globally [19]. While COVID-19 continues to act as a magnifying glass for wicked problems, making has not quite yet reached the democratizing potentials it promised, but maker communities have demonstrated innovative capabilities. This paper aims to show how maker communities, often under the radar of governments and industry, have been engaging in responsible practices and critical thinking, as well as open knowledge sharing, and it highlights the ongoing development of communities that make critically.

2 GROUNDING CRITICAL MAKING IN GRASSROOTS

To engage with practitioners, we decided to organize a one-day workshop. The 9th International Conference on Communities & Technologies provided a suitable platform for this workshop as it already aimed to broaden the spectrum of participants by reaching further than academia with the topic “Transforming Communities”. The organizers developed questions and co-creative methods to explore how practitioners in the Global South engaged in critical making, including the audience of the conference and the vast networks of the Global Innovation Gathering3 . In the call for participation, the organizers made sure to highlight an array of examples representing grassroots critical making In Brazil, Uganda or Indonesia, to inspire non-Western practitioners to join [32] and set out to explore the following three topics with the participants.

2.1 The Democratization of Innovation

One of the claims of the so-called maker movement is that making has the power to democratize innovation, by democratizing production and empowering the consumer [33] to make their own products through prosumerism, an imaginary “echoed (…) across the West” [Paltrinieri and Esposti 2013 quoted in [4]. While we share this vision in terms of (hyper)local knowledge production and appropriate technology design through access to tools and devices, we wanted to hear from the practitioners whether they thought the idea that making can make everyone an innovator applied to their practice and thus asked Question 1: Does making democratize access to and practices of innovation?

2.2 Extending the definition of Critical Making

The term critical making has been evolving from innovative scholarly practice [29], to DIY citizenship [28] and re-politicizing Western maker culture [17]. However, most of these definitions have been focusing on the West, Global North, or minority world, and few linkages have been explored between making activities, grassroots innovation and critical making in the Global South (see [14] or Transformaking conferences). The organizers hoped that the setting would leave enough room for the participants to express their discontent with the term. Question 2: What is critical making for you?

2.3 Inherent Criticality of Making

Making in and of itself is often anecdotally described by makers as a subversive and therefore critical practice, following the argument that opening the black box is criticality in itself, and ultimately enables everybody to make everything. Additionally, the storyline of many popular narratives of making - particularly in the Global South - is that the innovator in question utilizes making to solve a societal problem. In order to collectively explore the normative implications of the usage of criticality in these instances, we raised the circular Question 3: Aren't all makers critical makers? Why should they be critical at all?

3 CONFERENCE WORKSHOP AND ANALYSIS

In order to attract both academic and non-academic participants, the organizers shared a Call for Contributions on a dedicated website4 and via their networks of researchers, practitioners and activists: to ground the discussions in practice, the organizers explicitly encouraged participation from non-academic practitioners, ranging from global (with a special focus on the Global South) to local makerspaces in and near Vienna. Communities and practitioners were asked to submit a position paper, a critical essay, piece of photojournalism, podcast, or video documentary on how the practitioners work is related to the workshop topic.

The workshop was designed as a one-day activity that would allow the organizers to create a common ground, give practitioners space to share their critical making activities, to co-create answers to the 3 questions above, and to allow participants to collaboratively design future projects.

3.1 Common ground

The workshop started with a keynote presentation from the organizers. The goal of this presentation was to share with participants research on the potentials and imaginaries of making [15,23] and critique towards maker culture [13,2], a brief overview of the state-of-the-art of critical making [16,17,18,26,28,29,8] and situating the term vis-a-vis related areas like critical technical practice [1,10] or critical design [12,11], in order to create a common ground for the rest of the day and ensure that participants had a shared basis of the term to build upon and decide whether current definitions resonate with them.

3.2 Case studies: Practitioners’ Presentations

Aiming at getting a better understanding of what types of practices different people consider as critical making, the organizers invited participants to present their respective cases in the next part of the workshop. The format of the cases was deliberately left open to see whom it would resonate with, but with the precondition in the Call for Contributions that the selection would be made based on the contributions’ relevance to the workshop themes, quality of submission and potential to stimulate discussion. This was necessary to ensure the goals of the workshop could be reached and because only a restricted number of participants could be hosted. 16 potential participants signed up for the workshop and 6 cases were selected for presentation. Three of these were impeded and could not share their cases, two because of a lack of funding, and another one because of visa issues. 3 out of a total of 10 participants presented their cases, with the other workshop participants sharing their experiences in group discussions and reflections. The presentations focused on shared commonalities such as: they were built around locally relevant and situated social issues, worked with their local communities to raise awareness, address these and/or co-develop a solution, demonstrated critical thinking skills in their practice, used tools and methods that resemble open-source community practices, and finally, worked in, with or inspired by practices in the Global South (see Table 1: Case Study Projects).

Table 1: Case Study Projects
Project Location Social Issue Community Critical Thinking Skills Tools and Methods
BeeCreative5

5https://www.beecreative.asia/

Nepal Hands-on application of critical thinking and making in the classroom Students in schools as users, schools as stakeholders and partners “A co-curricular program designed to bring stimulating hands-on experiences into the classroom. These experiences do not replace the regular curriculum, instead, they enhance it. (…) By getting students excited about (Science, Computing, OBT and Math), BeeCreative increases their willingness to learn in regular classes.” A curriculum covering a wide range of topics, around which BeeCreative offers hands-on materials packaged as tailor-made kits, which they also presented as a case study in the Community Track Presentations of C&T2019
Mz* Baltazar's Lab6

6http://www.mzbaltazarslaboratory.org/

[35]
Austria / Global “A hackerspace for women and trans* individuals only!!” Women and trans* individuals “Generate resilience through commons” asking the question “how a space can invite people to cultivate creative practices and sharing without gender regime” Workshops and exhibitions in which participants practice hacking as a feminist art practice; [virtual] global community-building; physical space in Vienna
The Bachchao Project7

7http://thebachchaoproject.org

[34]
India Building technology for diversity and inclusion Women, LGBTQIA people and gender non-conforming groups, technologists and non-technologists Community-centric efforts to develop and support open-source technologies and technical frameworks with the goals of mitigating gender-based violence and working towards equal rights for women, LGBTQIA people, and gender non-conforming groups Research and advocacy; guiding communities in determining appropriate technological interventions for themselves; development of a set of guidelines for designing and improving technological platforms (web and mobile) in ways that make them utilitarian and friendly to a diverse group of users
Disaster Relief Robots Hungary Not able to present
LabCOCO Brazil Not able to present
Making Sense Project
and Citizen Data Lab
Spain Not able to present
Void Oracle Projects Indonesia Not able to present

3.3 World Café Format for Co-Creation

Due to the limited amount of time and the aim to ensure that all participants could equally contribute, the organizers decided to use co-creation. In a world café there are different tables, each with its own host who is the patron of one question, which is written on the “tablecloth” - usually a piece of flipchart paper - of their table. All other participants are guests, who in groups first gather around one table. After some time to discuss the question and document their answers, the groups collectively move on to the next table. The host of that table briefly recaps the results of the previous discussion and invites the new group of guests to add their thoughts. This format combines the benefits of small group interactions with a larger sample of participants [5].

3.3.1 Question 1: Does making democratize access to and practices of innovation?. Dominant narratives and imaginaries of making claim that it makes innovation available to everyone: once people have access to tools, they become capable to innovate. Innovation in this case is understood in terms of market, meaning that a new product is created that can contribute to the growth of GDP, not in terms of e.g. responsible or social innovation. The organizers wanted to get the viewpoint of grassroots innovators on this claim and asked them whether they thought that maker practices made innovation more democratic through access to tools, skills and resources.

Figure 1
Figure 1: World Café Answers to Question 1. Photograph by authors.

Analysis of the term innovation: The participants attempted to create a shared understanding of the word innovation. They agreed that it meant creating something new, but also addressed the process and the narrative around it: innovation is hard work, not magic, as some imaginaries of overnight successes in technology might suggest. Concern was expressed regarding the contextualization of the idea in order not to use it as “an excuse to hijack everybody into tech”. As an attempt to separate commercial approaches from community-driven approaches, the participants differentiated social innovation, which they defined as reform, or socio-political disruption and innovation as a commercial term: “the latest (company name) product”. The participants expressed strong emotions and critique towards the term innovation and its current perceptions. It was described as a buzzword they detest, one that is commodified, misused by capitalist systems and creating unnecessary competition. Referring back to the topic of the workshop, participants expressed that they believed critical making could now produce innovations as we understand them today, i.e. novel products or services that are market and profit driven, meaning that the goal of critical making lies somewhere else.

Innovation in maker practices: Discontent was expressed towards the status quo in making and innovation as such activities require a privileged position. What is often left out of the mainstream understanding and narrative of making is that being able to innovate requires accountability and transparency, but also access to information and infrastructure, such as electricity, internet and tools, which comes at a cost not everyone can afford. The participants asked for more tech literacy for all: education was deemed as ultimately what democratizes access and practice. The participants agreed that making has purposes other than innovation, it was about the process, yet they also recognized that making without tangible outcomes would be disappointing. The true purposes of making as an opportunity for education, developing skills like confidence, social skills and attitude, but also conflict resolution was mentioned, and to help people experience their ability to have impact. Participants associated values such as respect instead of judgement, empathy, and a safe space with the term making. The participants pointed out that intersectionality was necessary in making and innovation processes, including class, race, gender, nationality and caste.

When attempting to localize innovation in the maker movement, they chose a strong dichotomy and distinguished between bottom-up, grassroots hackerspaces and those that are financed or founded in a top-down manner: they agreed that innovation happens in freedom from any political or financial influence and through exchange, e.g. through cooperative, collaborative methods. They raised the issue that controlled environments (government or corporate sponsored spaces) and controlled methods stifle innovation processes. They stressed the difference between hackerspaces and top-down spaces in terms of the purpose of the space and described a type of in-between, “gray area”, referring to commercial spaces offering access to tools.

Social innovation, open-source innovation and commons: Open source, commons and impact-driven innovation through making was a central thought. The participants expressed critique towards Western funding agencies’ approaches focusing on impact: criticizing that drastic, fast impact does not just happen overnight and nurturing social innovation takes time. The question of how impact can be measured in a helpful way was raised. To break the cycle of relying on external funding, the participants expressed the need to invent new (business) models for commons-based organisations, so that these can become financially sustainable while sharing concepts: “we have to overcome the idea of ownership of ideas!”

3.3.2 Question 2: What is critical making for you?. Although the organizers had shared the state-of-the-art and current definitions and practices of critical making, they were confident these ideas would not limit the participants when it came to reflecting on and grounding the concept in their own grassroots.

Figure 2
Figure 2: World Café Answers to Question 2. Photograph by authors.

Frugal innovation: Participants associated critical making with the term frugal innovation, which is often used to describe bottom-up innovation practices with ad-hoc tools that solve local problems mainstream innovation does not have the interest in solving as the solution could rarely become profitable. Vis-à-vis profit-driven and exploitative innovation they mentioned the importance of meaningful impact and causing no harm, making “with focus and from the heart”.

Non-Western viewpoints and local contexts: The participants urged academia to observe critical making from a more nuanced, e.g. non-western perspective. From such a perspective contexts and communities are taken into account, where aside from practical making, processes of knowledge transfer and sharing stand in the foreground. Focusing on the purpose of critical making, they mentioned that bottom-up and top-down need to merge in a localized context, with an understanding of the use of local resources and know-how, as for example practiced by the Gathering of Open Science Hardware, GOSH8 .

A culture of discourse, reflection and responsibility: Critical making, in the opinion of the participants, fosters a culture of discourse. It is focused on process rather than the outcome or a product. This process is ecological, sustainable, socially progressive, human-centered, economically viable and self-reflexive. Critical making is thought provoking: it asks, what is critical? Does one criticize their own work, thinking or action? Does it criticize maker culture to improve it? Does it answer pressing challenges: is it democratic?

Ideas similar to those of responsible research and innovation (RRI) frameworks were mentioned, such as the importance of a balance of ethics and users owning their data. Participants also focused on the reflexive/self-reflexive process and highlighted that this needs to take place with a human/user-centric design approach. The process of critical making needs to be multidisciplinary and involve all potential stakeholders: policy makers, users, citizens and technology while critical makers need to be aware of the privileges they might hold.

3.3.3 Question 3: Aren't all makers critical makers? Why should they be critical at all?. This final round asked a circular provocative question: Is criticality inherent in all making, as one of its aims is to open the black box that was designed to remain closed, or democratize technology so anyone can innovate and solve societal problems? And why should makers be critical at all, when making could be seen a learning experience, a hobby, or could be a tool for entrepreneurship? The participants raised the following key points:

Figure 3
Figure 3: World Café Answers to Question 3. Photograph by authors.

Making, critical making and ethics: Every product developed by makers that has impact needs to automatically require that the development process includes “critical analysis”. From the viewpoint of the participants, this distinguishes makers from critical makers: a maker is someone who finds a solution, while a critical maker is someone who doesn't stop there but continues working on the solution, meaning that service design takes place and people are integrated into the process. Participants raised the point that “the personal is political”. DIY being a grassroots activity, the DIY ethos cannot be institutionalized and thus inherently embodies empowerment and grassroots. If making requires reflexive methods and evaluating the work one does, this is something most practitioners instinctively do. The participants said it is imperative for makers to be ethical and to be aware of the status quo through its systematic analysis.

A community-based practice: Critical making requires a community: makers cannot be critical makers alone. The assumption was made that makers already know the context they work in, they are experts of their own contexts and thus, they do not reflect on situating their work. This assumption led the participants to a related question: is user-centered design needed, if you yourself are the user? Here, the participants mentioned the maker community's dilemma: making happens in a common/shared space, where at some point the community needs to take a decision whether it gets political or commercial funding, or goes in a more anarchistic, radical, or arts-based direction.

Comparison with the hacker culture: Making was compared to hacking: the hacker is seen by the participants as someone who does more political work, i.e. who does something to change the status quo and works more holistically. Makers seem to have their work commercialized or their projects are seen as “for fun”. While hackers change systems, makers today are representatives of a popular trend.

The question of diversity: The question of privilege and access was highlighted, pointing out that while most people have to make money to survive, learning about making and making as a hobby or activism is a privilege. The maker movement thus seems to be a homogenous group: where are the people who try to make ends meet? At the same time, as women have less time and disposable income, gender is a major issue, thus being aware of the (gender) culture around the craft is crucial.

4 DISCUSSION

Although the time available for discussion was limited, the workshop had the advantage of engaging practitioners whose daily work is deeply embedded in critical making. Their presentations provided insights into emerging topics in critical making, such as: the importance of intersectional makerspaces, the need for guidelines of how to build technology for diversity and inclusion, or how making can enhance educational curricula. Grassroots practitioners interpret critical making through responsibility, ethics, and community-based approaches. Spaces in which people can safely express critical thoughts play a vital role in facilitating the emergence of critical making; be that makerspaces as localized physical spaces, or workshops as temporal spaces. The participants co-created such a safe space during the workshop through mutual appreciation, and explicitly wanting to learn from each other's successes but also failures without judgement.

Through discussions of the differences between critical making and social innovation, it became very clear that we need to move away from the Western understanding of making. The term critical making still cannot serve as an overall description of the activities, processes and aims of grassroots innovation communities focusing on collaborative technology development in the Global South, however, it proved to be useful in discussions between these members of the global assemblage of makers. While being aware of the shortcomings of any one term to summarize all different practices, critical making provided a framework both open and narrow enough to identify, discuss, share and better understand the different hyper-local, scattered processes which reflect the plurality and reflexivity of the global assemblage itself. The workshop participants shared a deeply critical outlook towards mainstream definitions, although the points of departure and experiences which brought them to that outlook varied greatly.

In the workshop, we could thus observe and simultaneously contribute to the repoliticizing of maker culture through the reintroduction of criticality, as Hertz phrased it in 2015, while it also served as a space for much-needed exchange between academics and Grassroots Innovation Movements (GIM) who together could further explore the diversity and situatedness of what constitutes as making.

Critical making was at an even more explorative stage in 2019 than it is now, and the workshop served as one opportunity to collaboratively explore it in depth and think out loud. This workshop as well as conversations with other participants of C&T2019 and Regina Sipos’ ongoing research on Critical Technical Practice have led to the Critical Making project9 .

Both bureaucratic and funding-related reasons remain essential as to why non-academic practitioners might not attend academic conferences. We consider the lack of representation and exchange with practitioners in the academic arena a shortcoming, which we along with many colleagues in academia, especially conference organizers, started to find creative solutions for - with much room for further improvement. We also reflect about how we as researchers can give back to the communities we work with [20]. The Critical Making project involves practitioners and uses participatory action research and reflexive methods, including feedback loops. Dedicated funding is available to pay practitioners for their time and expertise.

The Covid-19 pandemic further affects how we evaluate the workshop in hindsight: back in 2019, we decided against blended online/offline participation, because we could not have guaranteed equity of participation in terms of cost and quality of connectivity as well as a good balance between physical and digital presence, which often negatively impacts the quality of exchange. With people being more used to remote tools, we would now stream the presentations, and possibly follow a remote-first approach with everybody participating online, even if they are in the same room. In the above-mentioned Critical Making project, we successfully conducted a first co-creation workshop with around 30 participants and open interaction with an online audience as a fully remote event.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We would like to wholeheartedly thank all the practitioners who applied but could not make it and those who joined our session and shared their ideas, expertise and practice during this long workshop: Sunoj Das Shrestha, Stefanie Wuschitz, Raashi Saxena, Ignatia Nilu, Rudolf Krecht, Ricardo Ruiz, Daniel Wessolek, Laryssa Tarachucky, Katrin Proschek, Jana Fehr, Maria Murray, Marlene Wagner. We would also like to thank the Technical University of Berlin and the University of Siegen, where the second author of this paper was a research associate at the time of conducting the workshop, for supporting our research.

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FOOTNOTE

Corresponding author.

1House of Natural Fiber: www.honf.org

2See e.g. the “Retas dari Rumah” hackathon in Indonesia focused on locally relevant social innovation through rapid prototyping https://honf.org/tag/retasdarirumah/, the Careables project, in which makerspaces in Brazil designed and produced PPE https://www.careables.org/story/a-maker-lab-fighting-covid-19-in-brazil/ and online repositories for sharing blueprints and information were created https://guides.library.unlv.edu/coronavirus/makerspaces

3A global network of innovators, formally based in Berlin, Germany: https://www.globalinnovationgathering.org

4 https://criticalmaking.globalinnovationgathering.org

8 https://openhardware.science/

9 https://criticalmaking.eu

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3461564.3461572