We’re Getting a Makerspace

This is an embarrassing confession for a reporter to make but here goes: sometimes, when I read news stories, they just wash over me in a wave of acronyms and quotes and dollar figures, leaving me no better informed than I was before I began reading.

This is rarely a reflection on the story itself. In most of these cases, when I get around to re-reading the story (because I’ve discovered it’s actually about something I’m interested in) I realize it contains all the pertinent details. I just didn’t engage with it, for some reason.

All this by way of explaining why I haven’t been following the Momentum Initiative properly (I mean, besides the fact that the name sounds like a junior high competitive dance team).

An article in this week’s Cape Breton Post finally pierced the fog for me and got me a little bit excited — it also got me wondering what constitutes a “makerspace,” because apparently, we’re getting one.

"Kinetic Origami," makerspace Berlin, 2016. (Photo by By re:publica from Germany, CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Kinetic Origami,” makerspace Berlin, 2016. (Photo by  re:publica from Germany, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)



Here’s how Tom Ayers, who was paying attention, reported on the launch of the Momentum Initiative June 2017:

 The federal and provincial governments are putting nearly $1.9 million over the next three years into a technology startup hub intended to support entrepreneurship in Cape Breton.

The money is going to Innovacorp, which will oversee the Momentum Initiative in the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation — the former Holy Angels convent, a fixture in downtown Sydney’s north end for about 130 years.

The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency is putting in $1,395,500 over three years and the Nova Scotia government is adding another $500,000, it was announced Friday.

The money will be used to rent space, purchase equipment such as a computer numerical control machine, a mill, welding and soldering gear, and a high-end 3D printer, among other things, and to hire people to support tech startups.

The first year will mostly be spent getting organized, finding space and getting set up within the New Dawn building, said Bob Pelley, Cape Breton regional manager for Innovacorp and the Momentum Initiative’s executive director.

Here in Cape Breton, the Momentum Initiative is to be a cooperative effort between Innovacorp and a number of other organizations and entities, including New Dawn, Cape Breton Partnership, CBU, Navigate Start-Up House, NSCC, the National Research Council of Canada and Propel ICT, some of which also have offices at the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation.

I asked Pelley what he considered the Initiative’s main accomplishments to date and he told me:

[A] lot of what we’re doing is around events and programming, helping technology entrepreneurs with the right kind of help when they need it. And so, to that end, we’ve got an entrepreneur in residence in place, and his name is Permjot Valia and he was entrepreneur in residence at CBU but he transitioned over to the Momentum project last year. He went rather seamlessly from CBU right into the Momentum Initiative. [Permjot Valia also lives in Halifax, which raised some eyebrows when he was first appointed at CBU]

And…we’ve done some pretty great things to help companies in the past year, we’ve had programs around project management, sales training, focused specifically for technology companies. We had the head of communications for Twitter Canada was here to do a session on building your brand using social media platforms. There’s a long list of training and workshops and events.

In addition, he said, the “coordination of getting the makerspace up and mobilized has also been a lot of work.”

Which brings me back to my initial question: what is a makerspace?

"Digital meets print," Berlin makerspace, 2016. (Photo by re:publica from Germany [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Digital meets print,” Berlin makerspace, 2016. (Photo by re:publica from Germany, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Just make it

I decided to ask Kim Desveaux, formerly of Brilliant Labs, a company that creates makerspaces in schools. Desveaux is now a program coordinator with Digital Mi’kmaq a company bringing makerspaces and digital skills-training to Nova Scotia’s First Nations schools. She told me:

A makerspace, typically, is more about the activities that happen there versus what’s in it, so makerspace is just a space where people go to make things…It’s just meant to be a creative space.

I asked how she felt about the prospect of having such a facility in Sydney and she said she loved the idea and felt it was “desperately needed” in the community. But she had some thoughts on what would be necessary for it to succeed:

I think the key will be to have…the right people running it. The most important thing will be to get people in the door, so there needs to be a variety of courses and workshops and tours and sessions…Because a lot of people outside of the school system don’t know what a makerspace is and only now, because of people like Brilliant Labs, do the people in the school system know…But…you have to provide the training, whether it be soldering or…3D printing, whatever the skillset happens to be or whatever the equipment happens to be. They really need to have constant mentorship…in the space. That would be my biggest hope, is that they’d be offering a wide variety of courses and workshops and meetups.

Desveaux also felt it was “imperative” the director be a maker.


Back to the Future

Pelley told me they’ve hired a director for the makerspace and he will start May 7. He wasn’t ready to reveal the successful candidate’s identity just yet, so, remembering my conversation with Desveaux, I asked instead if the new director were a maker. Pelley said:

Yes, he absolutely is. I don’t know if he would define himself as a maker, I think he would for sure. But he’s also entrepreneurial, great with people. I think he’s an ideal candidate for the position.

As for the actual space (they’re looking for about 2,000 square feet in downtown Sydney), Pelley says they’ve narrowed it to two possible locations, one of which is the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation (he would not name the second possibility). They’ve “almost finalized” a deal and hope to have a soft opening in May with the official opening scheduled for June 13th.

Pelley says that while supporting tech entrepreneurs is the Momentum Initiative’s overriding goal, the broader public, including artisans and craftspeople,  will have access to the makerspace:

I think it would be a tragedy to have a space like this and say, “No, no, we don’t want crafters and artisans.” So that was the intent right from the beginning…We’ve had conversations with various partners in the community, the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design was one of those. They already have wonderful facilities for jewelry and pottery, painting and fiber so we’re not focusing in any of those areas. We’re focused on robotics, electronics, we’ll have some metalworking, some woodworking space as well, and while our focus is on technology and product development, the space is available to others in the community who have an interest or would like to take programming or courses that are happening. I fully expect that the Centre would be interested in offering some courses or programs and we’re wide open to that.

"Learn how to code with Arduino and the Garoa Dojo Shield," makerspace Berlin, 2016. (Photo by re: publica from Germany CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Learn how to code with Arduino and the Garoa Dojo Shield,” makerspace Berlin, 2016. (Photo by re: publica from Germany CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Asked if there were any particular model or blueprint for the makerspace, Pelley didn’t point immediately to similar facilities elsewhere in Canada but rather to past facilities right here in Cape Breton:

If you look back 20 years ago, when companies like Protocase and Advanced Glazings were just being started, they both had small machine shops that would allow people to come in and tinker, if you will. And combined with their capabilities there was also a very accessible and phenomenal resource at CBU in the CAD/CAM Centre that was there, it was operated by Bill Bugg at the time. So, there were resources available in the community that people could tap into. You might say they were a bit underground, because if you didn’t know somebody you might not be able to get access, but they were there and they were actively being used.

And then, as those companies grew, their customer base became such that security measures [increased] — you had to get a visitor pass to come in — and so access to those facilities, even among friends, disappeared. So…if there was a model of what it’s based after, it would be that model, of what people had access to at one time and no longer do. But then, also looking at the latest and greatest in makerspaces globally. So, robotics, electronics, things that will inspire the next generation as well.

I also asked Pelley if he felt two years would be enough time for the makerspace to prove its value, and he said:

I think, based on the conversations we’ve had with people in the community, there’s a lot of interest and I think it’ll confirm what we think is the need of the community and should give us space to then move forward for additional years, whether it’s funded again or…I think it would be possible for it to become independent if it were necessary and continue on. I really do think that there’s a strong desire for this and I think once it’s open we’ll see exactly how strong that demand is for what if offers.

Desveaux also believes the demand is there:

[W]e are a community of makers, we’ve just been doing it in our backyards and our homes and our garages. We do have a very diverse set of skills so it’s just a matter of bringing those people in, leading workshops, letting people know that they actually can make. That’s the hardest part…Once people realize that they can make and do then they’re off and running.





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