This is a CTP of initiative: FabLab 2 (Southern England)
NB. MATERIAL ASSOCIATED WITH THIS CTP IS FOR INTERNAL TRANSIT USE ONLY
This CTP relates to the pivot in funding strategies that the founders of the Institute were required to make when it became apparent that their host institution would not permit in-house online payment methods. When the Institute was first brought into UCL, the co-founders considered what funding models might work best for the organization. UCL had already provided considerable financial and material support in terms of space, materials, resource budgets, and staff salaries; thus, the need for membership fees was not so vital as it had been in other similar tech shop spaces.
Nonetheless, the founders considered charging an annual fee to demarcate out serious members:
“We did initially think we would charge for membership, £20 a year, just to separate out those who signed up because it’s free and why not, then get inducted and never use it; and those who think ‘This sounds great and it’s only £20’.”
It was, however, “amazingly difficult” to gather this money through the university infrastructure, which had not been constructed to permit such payment systems to exist; nor, by its scale, could these structures be adapted for the Institute’s use. In response, the co-founders decided to make membership for the Institute free for all UCL members (although, as described in previous CTPs, the unexpected popularity of the Institute limited this intake via a bottleneck of inductions instead). This forced pivot into free membership also allowed the co-founders to reframe the Institute as an experiment, and reconsider the nature of their responsibility towards it.
This CTP was co-produced by the presence of existing and non-malleable web payment infrastructures at UCL, and the wider web service network. At UCL, online payments to the university were made through a credit card portal, which only the UCL Online Shop was permitted to host (university fees were paid through a different system). This meant that any payments which the Institute wanted to collect would have to be made through a different website. The Institute was also not permitted to gather cash payments:
“We can’t collect cash at the university because they don’t want us to have a till. The logical thing would be to put in a university address and email on the Institute website, we could make a profile for you, and then you could sign up too and pay £20 too to book you induction. But we weren’t allowed to have a credit card portal on our site because only the UCL shop could do it. We could have done it via the shop, but then you would have to leave the Institute website, go to the shop website, make a profile on the shop website, and then it wouldn’t automatically direct you back to book your induction. No e-commerce experience is like that”.
The issue was exacerbated by the hosting of the Institute’s site itself. Prior to the Institute’s arrival at UCL, the co-founders had created a website for the materials library which had been “designed to a very specific look, with the font that I wanted”. On arrival, UCL asked the co-founders to place the website on the university’s online platform, requiring it to be redesigned in line with the university’s own branding and assume the functionality of the the university system. Neither of these factors were acceptable to the founders, who made the strategic decision to keep the Institute’s website out of UCL control, even whilst being hosted there.
This CTP was co-produced by the presence of existing payment infrastructure at UCL, the wider web platform network, and the treatment of cash by the university itself.
The issues around payment systems and website hosting were a source of tension between Institute directors and UCL, but also frustration as the indicated that the the university would rather lose out on gathering large sums of money than adapting their online payment policies:
“It was absolute madness, for the sake of £20. We explained to [the authorities] that we could be generating a big income for the university through this, but you’re not letting us enable us to put a normal system in place, so we can’t do this”.
At the time of interviews, the Institute had 6000 members – had the proposed membership fee been in place, the university would have gathered £120,000 from them. Whilst the Institute itself was already well-supported by the university and was not dependent on this additional income, the money could have been put to any number of uses to increase outreach and access, both for Institute members and the wider university population. This CTP also highlighted the friction between the university wanting to adopt and host an institution with an existing (sub)cultural reputation and status, and co-opt its identity.
As one of the co-founders described:
“I made aesthetic choices [on the website] that make sense of what it [the Institute] is, how it’s made here, and how it’s represented outside. I’m not prepared to just get rid of our branding and adopt another one. You want this certain image. But can your website enable people to book certain machines? Can it enable people to sign up for events? It couldn’t. So we’re not on the UCL web system because I don’t have the control I want over it regarding the functionality. Plus it’s not as nice as what we’ve already made, so why go backwards?”
Rather than leaving the university or falling in line with their policies, the co-founders resolved the situation by adapting their funding model and keeping their own website away from wider university control.
Both the request to shift website hosting to the university platform, and the change of plan around membership models were unexpected. It is difficult to estimate what counterfactuals would have happened in the absence of these events. Were the Institute able to collect fees, it would have generated significant revenue for the university – however, it is not clear to what end this money would have been put towards. Likewise, it is possible that being forced to use the existing university web service platforms would have deterred potential new members, but difficult to make any definitive claims.
Rather than creating networks within the university, the decision to keep the Institute website away from centralized control separated the organization away from its host; but, in doing so, permitted it greater freedom in its activities: “Having our own website enabled us to do other things which we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise”. When the challenges around collecting online payment became apparent, the co-founders decided to shift instead to a free membership model. This then became a intentional choice which permitted them to re-frame the nature of the Institute, and manage the expectations of their members: “We had to make a strategic choice around payment when we said it’s free – and that enables us to say that it’s [the Institute] an experiment. If people say ‘I can’t get in’ we can say ‘It’s an experiment’. People now can’t just say, ‘I can’t believe I paid for this, and…’ so it has worked. What we wanted to do and then couldn’t do, we turned to our advantage”. This management of expectations became particularly important when (as described in other CTPs) the number of members far exceeded initial expectations and the management team had to explore new ways of delivering induction and managing numbers: “The problem now is not not having who we want, but that we have too many and we can’t accommodate everyone”. This CTP contributed to the Institutes core aims inasmuch as it permitted its founders to continue with their vision of how access to the library and workshop could happen, without bending to the will of the wider university.
Stay informed. Subscribe for project updates by e-mail.