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Public engagement

Date interview: January 1 2016
Name interviewer: Georgina Voss
Name interviewee: [Anonymous]
Position interviewee: [Anonymous]

Social-technical relations Positive side-effects Networking Negative side-effects Media Interpersonal relations Inclusiveness Emergence Connecting Altering institutions Academic organizations

This is a CTP of initiative: FabLab 2 (Southern England)


This CTP describes the decision made by the Institute to set up a dedicated public engagement program, enabling former members and wider publics beyond the host institutions to engage with the organization.   The membership of the Institute has been heavily shaped by its location in a university structure:

“In one way, it’s for UCL only. But once you get in, it’s for anybody [so] whilst being closed in one way, in another it’s very open, and that’s quite radical in a university”. One result of this model has been a “natural decay” in the lifespan of members – “If someone brilliant comes along, you might only have them for 3 years, and that’s the end of it. It’s a shame we lose people, but there’s always someone new coming through”.

As a means of countering this decay, and also widening the participation possibilities of the organization, the team set up a program of events and workshops, available to any member of the public. These events permit the Institute to be more open: “They’re saying to the public, we know you can’t be a member, but you can come to events, and they’re free, and that’s what we can offer you at the moment”.

The breadth of the events have also allowed the Institute to emphasis the scope of their interests, preventing them from being pigeonholed.   In the period 2015-2016, the Institute held 26 events which were open to the public, including masterclasses, research, library evenings, open days, and factory visits. These events have run alongside, and sometimes in collaboration with, the members only events (including factory visits), and corporate events.

The events have been unexpectedly popular, creating a larger community for the Institute than that afforded only for the members. Working with a public mailing list of 10,00 members, events with an open door policy tend to have over 1000 attendees; ticketed events, which can be for small groups of around 20 people, are sold out “within 1 minute of going live online, and we spend the next 2 days dealing with people upset that they can’t come”.


Running events was shaped by the financial and resource-based support offered by UCL, allowing the Institute to open, staffed, at weekends and hold free events. The location of the Institute in a central city space also supported this CTP, making it accessible to a wide body of members of the public across the city than if it was located further out:

  “On open days, we get family groups, Royal College of Art hipster graduates, general middle-class museum attendees, a couple of retired people with a project that they don’t have anyone else to talk to about. Its brought a hugely different audience to public events. People come in who have never been through the doors of a university before, they come before it’s free, and that’s important because they couldn’t pay otherwise”.  

Finally, the prior experiences of running a library space made the co-directors realize that they needed to create public engagement, but in a way that made it accessible and open to as large a body of people of possible: “We do research projects and large public engagement, but we don’t call it that. We call it events so people will come to it”.  

The outcomes of this CTP have been expanding the community of the Institute beyond its members within the university (both students and staff) to include members of the public, members of professional communities such as engineers and jewelers, and wider industry bodies. This expansion of the community also extends out to other hack, maker, and tech spaces (DIY and otherwise) around the city, creating paths for current members to slipstream should they leave UCL, and thus lose their Institute membership: “We deliberately link up to other spaces in London so that once people aren’t a member here they know where they can go to next”.  

Events have allowed UCL members to get a sense of what the Institute could offer, reaching beyond the known crowd of engineering and tech enthusiasts and lowering barriers to entry: “We never knew who the members would be but had the courage that if we explained, it could be for you, people might see it as for them. Some won’t, but those who it’s for would sniff it out and we want to make sure they can find it quite easily”.  

Events have also brought people into the Institute, and thus UCL itself, from outside: “An administrator in Engineering came to one of our open days before applying for her job here and thought yeah, I’d like to work here”.

Related events

Related events which scaffolded this CTP included support from UCL; the location of the Institute in a central city space; the prior experience of the co-founders in running a library space.


Interviewees reported no particular politics or tensions around the running of events. As described below in Anticipation, some of the interactions with members of the public were unexpectedly difficult for the hosting staff, but not so much as to cause risk or damage to the Institute or its members.


One outcome of the events was that they materialized the unexpectedly strong feelings that both members and publics held towards the Institute. As one of the co-founders described:   “I didn’t expect people to be so emotionally involved – I mean, I am, the team are, but everyone else? I knew that if something was for you then you want to engage, but the degree to which was a surprise. I knew if it was good then people would get something from it, but I didn’t anticipate the extent to which they’d get something from it”.  

At the public events, visitors described deeply personal and emotional elements of their lives to Institute hosts, including details about family members in jail, drug use, co-oerced sexual behavior. Some also used the workshops as a way to work through fears, such as one young child who told staff “I’m going into hospital for an operation, and I’m a bit scared but they said they’d use silicon and I thought, I’d see if you had some silicon I could see and maybe I wouldn’t be so scared”. The staff had met this child on various occasions and felt that the Institute was an environment where they felt comfortable sharing such personal information: “He’s in his little Institute apron, it’s safe for him”.  

The co-directors felt that they didn’t necessarily have the best skills to deal with these unexpected and sometimes distressing engagements. “I’m not equipped to deal with it, but we’re not trying to be anything other than we are. You just have to be open”. They also recognized that, as a university-enclosed space, the Institute was likely to be protected from more frequent and difficult encounters with members of the public that other public hack- and makespaces might have:

  “There’s an element of ‘care in the community’ – people who don’t feel that they belong to anything come. If you operate a fully public space you probably get more of that, you may have a larger percentage of people there who it provides something for that you can’t get anywhere else. We’re lucky because our pool of potential members comes directly from a university, so we already get people who are engaged, educated, and self-motivated to come to something like this. That’s already different”.


The Institute’s events were central in allowing it to meet its transformative aims of inspiring people around materials and making; and locating the Institute at the heart of an international making community, recognizing the professional elements that went beyond the DIY maker ethic. The members-only events also catalyzed the relationships between members and subject experts, allowing them to gather collaborators for new research projects.   The events also acted as a continual break on the Institute (and its identity) being pigeonholed, introducing members to new areas of interest and skills that they might not otherwise have explored:  

“Events help us communicate the breadth of what we’re interested in and expand the perception of what they think the space is about. People will say ‘Oh I came in for a certain workshop but didn’t realize that there was a library too. It helps us not to be ghettoized – ‘Oh, you guys just do robotics stuff’.”  

Challenging preconceptions also extended to demographics, with events demonstrating that the Institute had a roughly even gender split in its membership, in contrast to how people might have imagined technology institutes to be.   With such a broad scope, the events allow members to try out different skills:

“You don’t know what you want to make as a member, but you know you like the idea of something, then you find the thing that makes you sing and you’re off. It’s the ethos, have a go at something”.

As such, many of the events have been influenced by areas which the co-directors and staff were keen on – “I think, I really love doing this so I bet there must be someone else who loves doing it too. Right now I’m totally obsessed with carbon, so I’ve made that the theme for an event, you know, digging up coal and trying to make some diamonds”.  

The events have permitted the Institute of fulfilling its aims in recognizing and working across the continuum of amateur to DIY to professional ‘maker’ communities: “We [do events] to celebrate the experts in these areas, celebrating the professional community – people who have dedicated their entire life to this”. The frequency of events – ie. Not just as a one-off – has allowed outside visitors to visit the space repeatedly, building up their own relationship with it.

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