The Long Read - Wavemaker Part I

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Sean DIssington || November 30th

What makes a maker? It’s an easy enough question, no? I write and take photographs – am I a maker? I tend to think not. I’ve never pored over a design book, sweated over Illustrator, got my hands covered in grease and oil (I did once do an oil change on a Fiat Panda in 1997 – but I’m not convinced that counts). In short, I’m not a maker. I’m envious of people who are; as like many people, I’m convinced that it’s something that other people do.

Wavemaker want to change that. Their slogan “Making making work” is easy to dismiss as a cute marketing play on their name, but once you meet the team you understand that the passion and determination mean that it’s a matter of when rather than if, they will meet their goal of enabling ‘maker culture’ in Stoke-on-Trent. They want to get people in the city to feel that they have the talent to make things, and they want to be the ones to facilitate it.

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One question you might want to ask is “why bother?” and that’s understandable. The truth is that community art projects, making spaces and community spaces have a proven role in regeneration. By proven I mean the likes of Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Arts Council and The Scottish Government have all found links between community empowerment, art/creative activities and the regeneration of communities and urban spaces.

I met with Alex – Wavemaker’s Operations Manager on one of the open maker nights; a free event where attendees can meet the team and see the equipment that’s on offer, as well as ask all the questions that they want to. There really are no stupid questions here: The range of equipment they have is bewildering; from sewing machines to Raspberry Pi computers and countless other tools. A laser cutter named Major Laser sits in one corner opposite an Apple Macintosh connected to a mixing deck and reference speakers, and computers with Adobe software running into thousands of pounds are waiting to be used.

“Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Arts Council and The Scottish Government have all found links between community empowerment, art/creative activities and the regeneration of communities and urban spaces”

One commitment that Wavemaker insist that all space users make is that they respect the intellectual property of others. That way as users of the space you as a maker of a new object can ask me as a photographer what I think of your idea, safe in the knowledge that I’ve committed not to steal your invention. This not only promotes a culture of open idea sharing, but allows makers to forge meaningful, trusting connections that they might not have been able to in a different kind of space. The value of feedback and connections that can come about from ad-hoc conversations is immense and allows new space users to get involved with their project, and get to know new people, and learn new skills quickly.

A couple of days later I caught up with Ben McManus – CEO at Wavemaker. We all know people with a big personality, and some of us know people with huge personalities – Ben’s enthusiasm for Wavemaker is beyond huge. No sooner had I started to sip my dry cappuccino than he was talking to me about the importance of STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Art, Maths) both at a curricular level – and from the point of view of an education system producing talented, skilled and “capability resilient” young people, those who have the skills and confidence to take on a challenge or cope with an increase or drop in demand for a particular skill in the labour market. As someone who attended school in the 1980s, the closest I came to making was a woodwork shop and an Apple Macintosh so I needed a run down on everything that the team do.

A key element is outreach, Ben advised me. Team member Emma will work with a school, college or community group to either help them make the best use of equipment that they have, but aren’t using in every way that they could – or will help to engage them in new projects. Some of these tie together real world demands with learning new skills so that learners feel engaged and that they are working toward something that’s real.

The second of their offers is to support makers – both current and budding, professionals, students and the generally curious through their Open Maker nights, and themed sessions. Here attendees can get support on a project, valuable feedback and advice on production methods and their product or idea as well as help with the tools to use. Whilst it’s not a manufacturing space, a budding designer could certainly turn an idea into a concept and start some small-scale manufacturing here to get themselves into a position where they could see the Bank Manager for a start-up loan. That these facilities are on offer to 12 year olds as well as 52 year olds speaks volumes. The ability to get something to a proof of concept stage with a much lower cash outlay means that Wavemaker can help people who have no way of funding their own idea.

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I’ve written a lot of articles for REBEL, and I think every one has the word passion in it. It’s palpable at Wavemaker, it’s almost visible in the air. There’s a burning desire amongst Ben, Alex and Emma to get people involved, to motivate young people, adults, everyone to have a go at making something. It’s impossible not to feel inspired. I’m very good at being apathetic, but after two hours in Alex’s company I was doodling an idea of something to make myself. And why not? Of all the places that there should be makers surely it should be Stoke-on-Trent? Our forebears took clay and made it beautiful, they made bricks, steel, iron – there’s a history of making in Stoke-on-Trent. Wavemaker want there to be a future.

Many of us have been in a situation when learning where we’ve had to produce some work for an assignment, but the project and the end use are fabricated. You go through the assignment because you must – but it feels arbitrary, and frankly pointless. Wavemakers’ approach is to work with a local business or organisation who have an actual need, and then to tie that in to the brief for the learners. From the outset they know that what they are doing is not only a real need, but will be used and visible in the world; to get your stuff out there is the dream for anyone who is creative. These commercial links not only assure makers and learners that they are doing things that matter in the real world, but they put makers in touch with some of the creatives and entrepreneurs who are driving the resurgence of our home city – and as any Rebel reader knows, there are some big names out there.

“Of all the places that there should be makers surely it should be Stoke-on-Trent? Our forebears took clay and made it beautiful”

For me then, Wavemaker is a gem. It’s where ideas meet determination, where inspiration meets skill and where there’s a laser cutter with a daft name. To be able to talk to people who don’t know you about an idea is valuable. You won’t get the dismissive “You can’t do that” or the blindly approving “You’ll be amazing” that friends or family might give you. You’ll get the truth, you’ll get support and with your determination as well as Wavemaker behind you, you’ll get there. I am off on a journey that involves a T-Rex that swears a lot, for no reason other than I’ve never made anything before, so why the hell not?

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