Just listening to MadLab Director Rachel Turner speak leaves me out of breath; as I follow her down the corridor of their three-storey, 3,000 square foot former Industrial Revolution-era Weavers Cottage-turned-office-space hanging on to every last word that she half-mumbles under her breath, I struggle to count off the organization’s activities. Turner spends the next hour and a half showing us around and speaking about MadLab on the eve of her trip to Karachi as part of the group’s collaboration on a project called DIY City with the Karachi-based award-winning arts collective Numaish.
Located in Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter, MadLab (The Manchester Digital Laboratory) is, according to Turner, “10 different companies under one umbrella.”
“We have different aims and we’re working at the moment to separate them, but we are a fablab, we are a community center, we are a village hall, we are a training organization, we provide workshops, we provide professional development training, [we provide] consultancy – nationally and internationally, and we also head projects and events. We have also been a shop but we also soon will be a low volume manufacturer,” says Turner.
First established in 2009 on the heels of a trip that co-founder Asa Calow made to California when makerspaces were just gaining momentum internationally – although they had yet to boom in the UK – the MadLab has been going strong for eight years. Turner adds that the venue also acts an incubator and coworking space, hosting three companies and 10 freelancers, most of whom work in tech, in addition to hosting an additional six to seven freelancers in the group’s fablab or makerspace.
Ultimately, one of the organization’s main aims is to make art and tech accessible. And while the space is hardly small, community peer-to-peer groups meet at MadLab “three, four, five nights every night of the week including the weekends, so we have to shift things around,” says Turner.
We buzz out of the main building and into another one. “This is the Makerspace,” she says, pointing to 3D printers and laser cutters in the MadFabLab, which is housed in a space just under a thousand square feet in a building adjacent to the group’s main office. And while MadLab has always had a fablab of sorts, the MadFabLab in its current form is barely a month old when we visit. “We have quite a few members at the moment, but it’s capped at about 30 because we want it to be pleasant for everybody who is attending it. But we think that it will probably have more demand, so we’re looking at a bigger space for MadLab – not within the next few months, but within the next two-three years or so, so everything can be on one site.”
Once we settle down at a café across the street from their office to have a chat, Turner explains that, what started out as a short-term project has now snowballed into a pulsating heart of the community. “When we got here, it was tumbleweed and crackheads,” she says, pointing outside to a street that bears no resemblance to the one she is describing. The day is sunny (a rare occurrence for a city notorious for its overcast skies), and the street is populated by hipster café’s and small shops – just a couple of symptoms of the gentrification that is quietly creeping up on the city’s Northern Quarter. Naturally, the transformation of the neighborhood has resulted in rent rises – something that MadLab too has felt.
But Turner stresses, above all, MadLab’s commitment to community work: “We think that the narrative is quite steered towards big investment, big companies. [We keep hearing] “fintech fintech fintech” and big companies and, what we say is, you can never bring on a region unless you bring on its people. So that’s what we are focusing our work on.”
Indeed, although MadLab is headquartered in Manchester and staffs about 10 full-time employees, its work extends to the Greater Manchester region, as far afield as Brazil, where the group holds an event called CodeUp – a free training program for adults who want to learn to code. So far, MadLab has set up 12-13 CodeUp training programs, most of which are in Manchester. “So the idea behind that is you get people who are great coders who earn a decent amount of money who want to train people in the shit that they really get excited about, so we get them all together in a room, bring a load of equipment, people bring their own laptops, and they spend two-three hours socializing and basically getting through the stuff they really want,” Turner explains.
Similarly, the group collaborates on a Tech & Tea scheme for seniors over 65 in Salford in Greater Manchester. In addition to learning basic computer skills that can make their lives easier (“learning to navigate their Tesco,” as Turner explains laughingly), the group gets a basic orientation on how to use Rasberry Pi – a small single-board computer that helps users learn programming.
Another program – Make Stuff – which Turner estimates has been held 17 times since its launch last year in the Greater Manchester region – has attracted an estimated 10,000 people. The scheme, which offers free coding, making and tech events for adults and young people, has so far had events in Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, and Wigan. She explains that the scheme focuses on regeneration and skills-building. “[Make Stuff was] developed in-house last year, and it takes excellent volunteers and universities as well inventors, technologists and asks them to volunteer a day of their time – once a week or once a month – and it’s kind of a very well put together a day of events,” she explains.
Through their various programs, the MadLab reaches an estimated 30-40 thousand people, says Turner. “We have 15-16 thousand people [just going through] this building,” she says as she points across the street to their office, “and another 10 in the region with MakeStuff.”
“That’s just in this country – we don’t count overseas really,” she adds.
Turner explains that the City Council has been “really supportive” of Madlab, although “at first they didn’t get it,” she laughs. In their early years, it was Manchester Digital Development Agency – which no longer exists – that gave the organization the boost that it needed. Former head of the agency – Dave Carter – has been a strong ally of the organization, initially helping them set up shop, and today chairs MadLab’s board.
MadLab – which is funded through a combination of regeneration funding, City Council Culture funding, communities’ funding, and a Section 48 AGMA (Association of Greater Manchester Authorities) Grant – still struggles to make ends meet. Turner explains that offering training programs and courses are just some of the ways that the team is looking to bridge the gap between their costs and their income. Other ways of raising funds include taking on ad hoc projects for third party clients through their small-scale manufacturing facilities. And although the company manages to raise money for its activities, she notes that funding to makerspaces like MadLab in Manchester is negligible compared to the massive funding that goes towards similar spaces in large cities like London.
Another challenge that the group faces is ensuring that they have the calibers to deliver high-quality trainings and programs to participants in the tech sector. “It’s kind of difficult with tech because you have a lot of people who are paid a lot of money, so why they hell would they work for you as a volunteer or why would they work for you on a regular basis when they can get five times as much somewhere else?” she says. “We have the same issue with staffing as well.”
Turner explains that the City has strong sentiments to make Manchester a creative international city – a movement that started with the launch of Manchester International Festival. While MadLab continues to reach out international collaborations, it is in their home in Manchester that they truly have a footprint. As part of these efforts, MadLab is collaborating with FutureEverything – an annual digital culture and innovation festival that was established in Manchester in 1995.
MadLab’s international ambitions are particularly strong in China, where Turner and Calow visited Shenzhen’s Fab12 last year. “All the local Shenzhen people were like we’ve been doing this for 25 years, and we’re poodling about here thinking [we’re] doing something new. It’s so pathetic – we’re so behind,” she laughs.
The team is also collaborating on a Horizon 2020 project provisionally titled LibreCod to build self-driving open-sourced electric vehicles in Manchester. “We’re going to be the UK outpost for the project. [We’re basically building] teeny tiny scooters and the idea is that community technology organizations make them across Europe,” explains the convivial Asa Calow, who joins us to talk about his brainchild – The Institute of Unknown Purpose.
The Institute of Unknown Purpose, which Calow laughing calls “ridiculous” and talks passionately about in the same breath, was conceived at a conference organized by the National Academies Keck Future Initiative. The Institute is an art and science collaboration that’s being funded through the U.S.-based National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and the Keck’s Future Initiative. He explains that MadLab co-founded the Institute in collaboration with U.S.-based mathematician, physicist and Director of the Complexity Sciences Center at University of California, Davis, James Crutchfield. The Institute, which has a website comprised of one landing page that says very little about what it actually does, aims to engage audiences in new ways to make tangible the wonders of modern science in California.
Crutchfield, whom Calow describes as “a force to be reckoned with,” was part of an infamous group of Stanford graduates in the 1970s that went to Las Vegas with a series of hidden computers capable of calculating the motion of a moving roulette ball, effectively predicting outcomes (a book titled The Eudaemonic Pie has since been written about the scheme, and Calow says that a film is in the making too).
So what does the Institute actually do? “Ostensibly, it’s a new technical institution put together to solve many of humanity’s grandest challenges,” says Calow, explaining that organizations like the Los Angeles-based Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and The Long Now Foundation – all of which work on addressing questions of the future of humanity – have been huge inspirations to the Institute. The Institute, which is focused on understanding how humanity will live in the next 10,000 years, contemplates the tools and technologies that will allow humans to live “in unbounded leisure,” explains Calow laughingly. “The thing we’re [working on] at the moment is the future of leisure. So everyone is talking about robots putting people out of jobs. What we want ideally is unbounded leisure time, and how we can backfill so we can find less work for people by applying robotics,” he adds.
As we wrap up our conversation, it is clear that – while no modern city can compete today without makerspaces, hackerspaces and techhubs – organizations like the MadLab, which are all of those things rolled into one plus much more, are perhaps the real game changers. By focusing on changing their community, MadLab promises to take tech and art out of their silos, enabling them to have a meaningful impact on the lives of real people.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mentioned that MadLab’s collaboration with Horizon 2020 was on the EU-LIVE (Efficient Urban Light Vehicles) project. MadLab’s collaboration with Horizon 2020 is on Project LibreCod.
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