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MakerSpaces in Army: Encouraging innovation through non-linear thinking

The beginning of this journey could be characterised as an unorthodox approach to solving a problem Army did not know it had. This work was originally designed for Dr Thompson to explore a non-traditional learning methodology but as interest grew, the scope expanded beyond her role as a researcher at the Australian Army Research Centre. This interest and subsequent support allowed her to access people and ideas that would eventually evolve into a yearlong joint research project and a practical activity involving soldiers, a university and a robot named Edison.

Lesson 1: Ideas come from where you least expect

The MakerSpace concept is not new. It is not even necessarily new to Defence. What is new, however, is the way and the why of how we are implementing it. Interest in MakerSpaces was piqued by BRIG Ian Langford, who mentioned them several times across various events. Given the context was always about developing Army’s intellectual capacity, it neatly fitted into Dr Thompson’s background in adult education and decision-making within an innovation context. She researched the concept and, based on her understanding of Chief of Army’s strategic intent documents (Army in Motion and Accelerated Warfare), identified a space within which MakerSpaces could fit. Framing the approach as having the potential to develop creative thinking in Army personnel—within the context of future needs for fast, creative problem-solving—as well as for imagining what the future environment of conflict looks like. After speaking about possible research, BRIG Langford requested a brief—an alien task for a social researcher.

As a civilian researcher in the Army, Dr Thompson quickly learnt that some of the social ‘norms’ and Army’s staff work model was not readily transposable over a traditional research paradigm. After struggling part of the way through her first brief, she identified that she would need a collaborator and requested a co-worker—LTCOL Warwick Miller—to which BRIG Langford kindly agreed.

Lesson 2: Identifying and developing an idea – do your research and make it relevant

The authors have co-written about MakerSpaces in another Land Power Forum article but, for the uninitiated, they are literally spaces where you can make things. Depending on the type of MakerSpace, tools and materials can range from the very low tech (hammer and nails) to high tech (such as 3D printers). The MakerSpace is not just a workshop however; it is situated within a cultural context that is designed to foster the development of community, sharing knowledge and skills, and typically innovating (whether large or small) to serve personal needs, rather than creating a commercial product (however that can also happen).

A similar type of space is the FabLab (fabrication lab) which tends towards the high tech end, with equipment ranging from 3D printers to laser and water cutters. These spaces are often found in universities and tend to be geared towards innovation for solving larger scale problems; the results of which are more likely to be scaled up, whether it be a part of machinery or an energy solution. Within the university context they can also be implemented as part of coursework, so have a focus beyond just ‘tinkering’.

Lesson 3: Find others with different perspectives and be open to serendipity and opportunities

There have been a number of incidences when being open to new opportunities, people and collaborations have impacted the trajectory of this project. LTCOL Miller’s initial assistance with the project morphed into collaboration as it became obvious that there were similar interests in the idea and its possible contribution to Army, but also because he brings an Army perspective. This perspective, informed by a wealth of experience and knowledge of the Army innovation system, has proved vitally important to making sure the project is relevant.

A continually developing network of robust, like-minded individuals and organisations has formed, facilitated through both our research and our current roles. For example, we are now working with Flinders University to implement a MakerSpace pilot at their facilities in Adelaide. There are connections into Defence Science and Technology Group, the U.S. Marines Corp and U.S. Army Futures Command. These have all come about through being open to recognising opportunities to improve on the original idea—whether it be through the refinement of the model, implementation or the potential for expansion into international or multi-service environments.

Lesson 4: Be prepared to modify and evolve your ideas

By virtue of being open to opportunities and engaging with new people and different perspectives and contexts, the project has evolved. The original objectives remain the same:

  • Research objective: Encourage and develop creative problem-solving while shifting organisational culture to embrace alternative ways of thinking.
  • Pilot objective: To evaluate an alternative educational model for Army’s junior leaders that encourages innovative thought.

These original objectives have remained intact despite the framing, potential for future models and context all being modified throughout the life of the project. We have identified different pathways and ideas that have needed pitching to different audiences at different phases of the project. We have also identified potentially new projects with different foci that will also require pitching. This leads to another learning.

Lesson 5: Be prepared to pitch and re-pitch

Projects are not static and at different points along the development pathway/s pitches will need to be made to new stakeholders, sponsors, funders, finance teams and policy officers (to name a few). Each component or phase of the project is likely to need a pitch tailored to the objective of the different stakeholders involved. This can mean being prepared to do research on your target audience so that your communication is effective.

Our MakerSpace project is still evolving, particularly after engaging with a diverse range of institutions in the U.S. involved in MakerSpaces and innovation including:

  • U.S. Marine Corps, who maintain a network of local and mobile MakerSpaces, providing an opportunity to learn from a military model.
  • Massacheusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who developed the FabLab concept and manage a global network of FabLabs.
  • Google X, who provided a great opportunity for learning from a commercial business model of innovation that fosters a creative approach to problem-solving
  • Stanford University, who were an opportunistic addition while in the U.S.; they have a dedicated space supporting the process of creative problem-solving and idea-development with a MakerSpace culture (similar to Google X).
  • U.S. Army Futures Command, who provided learning from an innovation model designed to facilitate expedited innovation processes, as well as one engaging in multi-stakeholder partnerships and non-traditional avenues for sourcing expertise and talent (e.g. through Hackerthons—another related ‘maker’ concept focussed on software and I.T.). Each of these institutions were identified through research and/or opportunistic encounters.

Lesson 6: Be like water

Perhaps a bit corny or clichéd but—as a researcher—persistence, learning and flexibility are key. The philosophy of not giving up on a good idea without exhausting as many avenues as possible—whether that requires reframing, re-pitching, engaging new people or re-engaging with others—remains crucial. Being like water means being prepared to ride the waves of high and lows and move up, down, sideways, around and even through to achieve your goals (however, we don’t recommend beating your head against a brick wall, or trying the same thing over and over—a bit of judgement is required!). Ultimately—take calculated risks, be prepared to fail, learn and re-group.

by Dr Lyndal Thompson and LTCOL Warwick Miller


The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.

Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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