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Watermelons, Makerspaces, & Designing for Impact

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

Earlier this year I planted some watermelon seeds, and a few days ago harvested...butternut squash. I am certain that the seed packet said watermelons (and have even had my very sceptical wife double check the seed packet I used). A few weeks after planting, though, while a couple of watermelon plants did spring up, the others were not...watermelons. While this is the first time this has happened to me in my gardening career, this reminded of one of the reasons I started gardening in the first place.

In 2013, I helped Auckland Libraries set up makerspaces, physical spaces where people could explore creative digital tech - 3D Printers, robotics etc. When working with Panmure Library, staff spoke to their community and suggested that they would much rather have recording facilities. So we set up what we could, with rescued computers from the Ports of Auckland, open source software, modems from Meshed, and some microphones. The teens loved the space (created by liberating the local history content into the main collection), and immediately began using it, even figuring out the more challenging software. They were in the space every afternoon, practicing the songs they were going to record. I was very glad, and was beginning to dream of sing-offs and dance-offs with similar spaces in other libraries, creating a makerspace YouTube, maybe even a radio station? That kind of interactive creativity was certainly what I was trying to design towards. Except...

Whakamā. The teens were practicing their songs, recording them on the computers, and then...deleting them. They didn't want other people to hear, they were doing this just for themselves. I was quite despondent, this was clearly a failure. While I was glad the teens enjoyed the space, it wasn't producing the outcomes I had planned and designed towards.

Around this time, Katie, the library manager, showed me some tagged/graffitied library furniture, waiting to be cleaned. 'This', she said, 'is a six-week pile'. The significance hit me only when she followed up with 'before the maker space, this would have been. one-week pile'. It turned out that while the teens were not using the space quite the way we intended, they loved the space that they helped create, and were both more productively engaged, and more respectful of the rest of the library space!

And this was the big bloody hole in my thinking. Caught in a mechanistic view of design - input>process>output - I was missing the larger picture and the richness of outcomes that could actually emerge from such a process. This realisation led me to gardening as a way to think of design...while still cognisant of inputs/outputs and processes, gardening constantly reminds me of the contexts and conditions that also govern outcomes. There are rhythms such as day/night, seasons and growing times that I cannot control. There are conditions such as soil, weather and other organic life that I can plan for...but still not control. And there are magical surprises such as butternut squash that come from watermelon seeds.

So while I still think the Auckland Libraries Makerspace Big (Online) Sing would have been brilliant, and will plant watermelons again, I can gladly accept fewer tagged pieces of furniture, and some butternut squash for dinner.

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