Makerspace Communities and Ecosystem Strategy: Co-Creating Social and Operational Infrastructure

Data Visualization / Design Research / Co-Design / Ecosystem Strategy / Interdisciplinary Collaboration / Makerspaces / Rapid Prototyping / Social Impact

Advisors: Nicole Koltick (Design Futures Lab), Diana Nicholas (Design Research for Health), and Daniel Newman
Work type: Design Research Master’s Thesis, Drexel University
Dates: September 2021 - June 2023

This thesis was featured in ‘Student Spotlight’.

The final book was designed and written to provide a detailed picture of my research trajectory and design process, from start to finish. The full publication can be found at (Contact for full access.)

The Cards for the Collective ideation card deck and workbook were displayed at Philadelphia Design Week, October 4-11th, 2023.


How might we... more intentionally grow the maker movement, rooted in equitable practices that address educational, economic, and environmental issues?

This 18-month thesis project examined the impacts of various types of makerspaces on their local communities. This project explores the makerspace ecosystem, and the capacity of these 'third spaces' to promote interdisciplinary collaboration, access to hands-on learning, entrepreneurship, open-source innovation, and systems of small-scale local manufacturing. 

Makerspace (n). - A place where people with a shared interest in making come together to build, innovate, and collaborate on a wide array of projects using various manufacturing tools and techniques. Makerspace facilities exist on many scales with diverse operational models.

Makerspaces hold the potential to support entrepreneurship, small-scale manufacturing, access to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) education, and impactful community engagement. 

Although these spaces foster value creation and social cohesion/capital, makerspaces globally face many challenges including scalability, sustained funding, inclusivity, and accessibility.

A visualization of the diverse scales and resources available to makerspaces.

Mixed-methods research:

Contextual inquiry
Interviews & in vivo coding
Observational study
Data visualization, diagramming
Collage, analysis-through-making
Co-design, participatory workshopping
Rapid prototyping

Spatial Collage 2: Maker-Mall.

Collage techniques inspired by Archigrams and the Metabolist movement were used as a ‘research-through-design’ approach, synthesizing concepts into plausible speculative futures ideas and solutions.

The ideation card deck and 10 categories.

The research culminated in the development of an ideation card deck and ‘game board’ used to facilitate collaboration and strategic discussion.

A digital and in-person participatory workshop shaped the co-developed Cards for the Collective. This versatile tool can be brought into a framework or method to shape the community's particular goals.

Over 160 cards and 10 categories were created.

‘Game board’ printed as a broadsheet.
‘Game board’ in use with the card deck.

These artifacts provide grass-roots maker communities and small-scale makerspaces with an interactive tool to co-develop equitable, sustainable, and accessible programs and operational goals.

Research Process

Research process diagram.

There are 5 iterative phases of this research, each overlapping or interacting concurrently, indicating that developing an idea or solutions for complex problems happens through non-linear, iterative, and flexible stages, and at various altitudes of focus/granularity.

Click the thumbnails below to learn more about the research process

Gather Phase. The gather phase includes initial topic discovery and knowledge building to inspire the direction of the thesis. It is a continual collection of research that shapes the theory, questions, and potential applications of researched areas.

Analyze Phase. The analyze phase is the refining of questions in relation to the topic and the application of research methods. This includes conducting historical analysis, observational study, and interviewing to expand the research scope through information collection and comparison with early findings.

Synthesize Phase. The synthesize phase looks at the research to identify connections and differences in the data, and uses the findings to formulate coherent understanding of the topic. This was achieved through data visualization/ diagramming, participatory mapping, and extracting themes from the research.

Conceptualize Phase. The conceptualize phase is dedicated to experimenting, generating, and evaluating ideas for a final recommendation or designed artifact. Various creativity and research tools were used to frame speculative questions, ideate, sketch, and prototype a final concept.

Test & Validate. This phase includes co-design through participatory workshops, performed with individuals and groups, to collectively develop the prototyped concept and validate the research hypothesis and recommendations.

Topic Background

Developing Essential Workforce Skills through STEAM Education.
STEAM education cultivates skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and constructive collaboration, crucial for addressing contemporary challenges like climate change and social inequality (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Advocates argue that STEAM builds essential habits of mind for 21st-century life and work, reinforcing these sought-after skillsets. 

The Role of Makerspaces in STEAM Education.
In higher education, STEAM is integrated into disciplines like Engineering, Industrial Design, and Architecture, blending art into STEM for a more comprehensive understanding. Makerspaces, often appended to school libraries, further enhance this learning style, emphasizing interdisciplinary projects ( While K-12 and university settings embrace STEAM-based education, accessibility to tools and training for making remains limited beyond these environments (Dell-Erba, 2019). 

Challenges and Opportunities for Makerspaces.
Makerspaces, equipped with tools, materials, and entrepreneurial support, could contribute to more equitable futures in making, learning, and entrepreneurial innovation, fortifying local manufacturing and encouraging sustainable practices (Holman, 2015). However, barriers such as the lack of universal operating standards, mismatched resources to community needs, scalability issues, and gaps in diversity, equity, and inclusion persist (Holman, 2015).

Research Topics Explored.

This study explored US- based makerspaces in addition to a high-level global overview, for a systems-level understanding of the challenges and opportunities.

Project Outcome & Objectives

Academic research landscape analysis, keywords.

Academic research on the topic of makerspaces is relatively new and there is a notable gap in design research studies using co-design and participatory methods. This project aims to serve as a valuable resource for makerspace’s programmatic and organizational assessment, strategy, ideation, and future speculation.

1. Promoting STEAM Education. Advocate for the integration of Art into STEM education to enhance interdisciplinary learning and collaboration.

2. Expanding Makerspaces networks. Increase accessibility to tools, materials, and skill-based programming in makerspaces to foster local networks of entrepreneurship, innovation, and critical thinking.

3. Supporting Local Manufacturing. Provide resources and support to makerspaces to fortify local manufacturing systems and encourage sustainable production practices.

4. Addressing Barriers to Success. Work towards establishing universal operating standards, addressing resource mismatches, improving scalability, and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in makerspaces.

Concept Collage: ‘Maker Multi-Verse’, 2023. Mary Kahle

What are the objectives of this research?
  • Utilize exploratory research for an in-depth understanding of makerspace communities, including cultures, origins, operations, and impacts.

  • Explore the barriers affecting stability of makerspaces, encompassing financial and communal aspects.

  • Discover strategies for makerspaces to evaluate and enhance their cultures and systems, co-creating inclusive programs and environments.

Who will benefit from this research?

  • Underrepresented/ Marginalized Groups within Makerspaces 
  • Local Community Members
  • Non-Traditional Learners
  • Craft Enthusiasts, Small-Scale Makers, and Collaborators 
  • Grassroots Organizations

How does this area of interest approach the idea of human diversity?
Interdisciplinary work is often a collection of individuals with diverse disciplinary backgrounds – with some overlapping knowledge of each other’s discipline – who come together to collaborate on various projects (Castan Broto et al., 2009). Makerspaces are places where individuals from various disciplines with interests in making can collaborate. However, the predominant users being majority-white cis-gendered males can create environments that may lead to behaviors of discrimination and marginalization. (Smit et al., 2020). 

Focus should be placed on fostering an inclusive atmosphere that enables all members, especially historically marginalized communities, Womenx, LGBTQIA+, POC, and Minorities to engage in these spaces confidently and safely.

Research Questions

What conditions contribute to the operational sustainability of makerspaces (consider development, funding, and community engagement)?

How do makerspaces cultivate inclusive cultures, ensure accessible learning, and promote entrepreneurial growth within their communities?

What are the primary barriers preventing makerspaces from realizing their potential for sustainable making practices and facilitating larger-scale systemic changes in production and consumption?


Utilizing co-design methods, such as workshops or toolkits, can assist makerspace leadership, members, and communities in achieving a shared vision and mission. Providing a framework or tool early in the development stages can unlock the full potential of makerspaces, regardless of scale. This approach fosters alignment and ensures that the ecosystem serves the diverse needs of all stakeholders.

Research Design, Approaches, and Methods

Research Trajectory
This master's thesis trajectory is aligned with a combination of approaches, each implemented at various points in time according to an adaptive project plan.

Research for Design is used to identify precedent work to inform the design or outcome. Reference materials are gathered to understand and analyze, based on evidence, that you are making the right product or recommendation for the design (Frayling, 1993; Baytas, 2021).
  • Exploratory Research - Gather/Analyze
  • Literature Review
  • Thesis Trajectory Planning

Research into Design occurs more often in academic research, as scholars from various disciplines (often interdisciplinary) will study the process of design and creativity, with a focus on designers as subject (Frayling, 1993; Baytas, 2021). Aspects of this research dive into creativity and personal reflections on the design process as part of the research itself.
  • Naturalistic and Participatory Observational Studies
  • Interviews, Preliminary Coding for Themes
  • Workshop Development
  • Research, Analysis, Usability Testing

Research through Design offers researchers access to knowledge that may have been difficult to gather otherwise (Frayling, 1993). Design approaches used in this phase include experiments in prototyping, usability testing, and generative/participatory co-design workshops.
  • Sketching and Prototyping Final Artifact
  • Diagramming, Visualizing, Collaging
  • Final Artifact Development and Testing
  • Workshop and Card Deck Pilot

The three phases of 'Research For', 'Research Into', and 'Research Through' Design were introduced by Sir Christopher Frayling in an article published in 1993 titled, Research in Art and Design.

Techniques for 'Looking', 'Understanding', and 'Making' are influenced by the Luma Institute's, Innovating for People.

Other research approaches used

Exploratory Research:

Exploratory research is used because the problem is complex or not yet clearly defined. There is little knowledge about the problem or issue, therefore gathering preliminary data is needed to understand the ecosystem of makerspaces to generate a hypothesis. This is accomplished by using interviews, literature review, and observational techniques. 

Critical Theory: 
Critical theory, involves critique of knowledge and power aimed to transform practices in society. Some aspects of this type of study were employed to get a more rigorous understanding of issues that can be supported through qualitative assessment of interview coding, process diagramming, and analysis. 

Constructive Design Research (CDR): 
In constructive design research, research experimentation happens continuously and iteratively. Situated between design practice and research, meaning it has to build on practices that make it intelligible to many audiences. CDR refers to "design research in which construction—be it product, system, space, or media—takes center place and becomes the key means in constructing knowledge...” (Bang, 2012)

Auto-ethnography and Ethnography: 
The goal of (auto)ethnography in research is to observe and interpret the social and cultural systems at play in places, aiming to uncover patterns or categories derived from observational study, interviews, and analysis. Auto-ethnographers compare and contrast their lived experience to the observed phenomena meanwhile, ethnographers observe phenomena as an objective outsider. (Creswell, 1998)

Themes and Design Principles

This mixed-methods research forms the basis for extracting overarching themes and establishing principles and research/ design lenses and typologies to guide the project.


Typologies -
serve as structured classifications or categorizations that aid in organizing and understanding different forms, structures, or models within a given context.

Participatory Design Tools: Integrate participatory design tools to encourage collaborative decision-making and active engagement, tailored to makerspace communities..

Boundary Objects: Create prototypes of boundary objects that facilitate effective communication and consensus-building.

Speculative Design Innovations: Explore speculative design or design futures methods and activities to prototype out-of-the-box but plausible concepts for makerspace innovations.

Lenses -Represent specific perspectives or frameworks through which researchers view and analyze a subject or problem.

Social Impact and Equity:
Assess the product or initiative's impact on society, prioritizing equity and accessibility.
    • Broad Accessibility: Ensure the tool is accessible to wide audiences, both in terms of content and activities.
    • Accessible Language and Terminology: Use language and terminology that are easily understandable for a diverse audience.
    • Inclusive Physical Interaction: Design activities with physical interactions that are accessible to all people.
    • Inclusive Learning Opportunities, Promoting Maker Education: Develop accessible and inclusive opportunities for maker education and hands-on learning.

Community Engagement: Emphasize the use of tools and methods to collect and communicate metrics for evaluating community engagement within the makerspace (i.e. qualitative data gathering and visualization)

Ecosystem Analysis: Utilize a mapping for ecosystems analysis to understand the broader impact and interconnectedness of the makerspace within its community.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Assess the degree of interdisciplinary collaboration, examining how different disciplines contribute to and benefit from the makerspace.

Prototyped Concept and Workshop Tests

I was particularly interested in exploring systems-level and strategic approaches to providing effective tools for makerspace development. Makerspaces are vital community assets, uniquely serving the needs of the local residents.

A growing recognition of the need for inclusive and thoughtful solutions in this dynamic field led to the concept of "seeding the ecosystem".  This guided my focus, leading to the development of an ideation card deck/ toolkit and subsequent workshops.

The insights made evident that the means of makerspace development should emerge from the communities themselves. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Therefore, offering tools that maximize collaboration among stakeholders becomes a fundamental opportunity. 

The emphasis on co-design and the provision of "seeds of thought" aims to intentionally, gradually, and collectively address systemic challenges, ensuring makerspaces continue making a positive impact with their communities. 

To learn more about the card deck and workshop development please refer to the conceptualize phase of my research.

Limitations and Next Steps

This study's focus on a specific geographic context or cultural setting may limit the generalizability of findings to a broader, global context. The sample size for testing the prototype card deck were relatively small, comprising of one to three participants at a time. Further group-testing is needed.

Additionally, the absence of a glossary booklet during the prototype testing phase may have hindered participants' comprehension and engagement with the cards. The need for deeper understanding of each card and category emerged as a notable consideration for future iterations. 

Future Development

The future development of this research involves several key steps to refine and enhance the understanding and application of the ideation card deck:

Inclusive Engagement: Seek perspectives from individuals with varying levels of familiarity with makerspaces and diverse cultural backgrounds to uncover potential biases and enhance the inclusivity of the ideation card deck.

Global Perspectives: Conduct testing in makerspace communities across different geographical locations and cultural settings to assess applicability in diverse contexts.

Glossary Inclusion: Introduce a glossary booklet during testing to improve participants' understanding of card definitions, enhancing clarity and overall user experience.

Diversified Testing, Cross-disciplinary Exploration: Explore the application of the ideation card deck in cross-disciplinary settings beyond makerspaces, such as educational institutions or innovation hubs.

Quantitative Measures: Use surveys or other quantitative instruments to gather data on user satisfaction, perceived effectiveness, and overall outcomes of the card deck use.

© Mary Kahle, 2024