Thinking About tinkering

So as expected, I am properly bad at regular blogging. But I will claim that's because of being busy doing things instead of blogging about them, when of course I ought really to be doing both. 

Anyway - I'm a year in to working out what being Creative Director in At-Bristol means, and people often ask me how I'm finding Bristol as a city. Answer = pretty brilliant. I’ve been really struck by what an incredibly energising and creative place Bristol is. People DO stuff. They are generous with ideas and resources. And the city operates in a sort of Golden Ratio of number of people to surface area to geography that offers a very life enhancing balance of nature, culture, good food, inspiring horizons, art, music and all without having to queue for as long as you do in London. Of course there are huge social issues and divisions as in almost any city, but here I also feel I encounter a good proportion of people in the cultural sector with authentic desire and effort to address those imbalances, tough and intractable as they are. 


So, I'm loving it. The buzzy busy nature of the place means it's a great city to launch a new Tinkering Space, which is exactly what we did in At-Bristol last week.

It's a project that has seen At-Bristol working much more collaboratively than before - both across departments and teams in house, and also externally, notably with the delightful team at the Knowle West Media Centre Factory.  Our space is just one space of many in the maker movement - it's easy to spiral off into detailed definitions of fab labs, hackspaces, maker faires, but suffice to say that we've taken inspiration from the wonderful variety of spaces and makers that we've encountered and have inspired us - for me including the maker space at KWMC, Ryan Jenkins and the Tinkering Studio in the Exploratorium, Science Gallery's MakeShop and Sabrina Barucci from the MUSE Fab Lab.  These people, true to the maker movement, share ideas, plans, recipes for workshops, facilitation methods and more, in an open source, open hearted style. So our versions of the air table, ball run and shadow boxes all came to life through the skill and imagination of our At-Bristol workshop and exhibitions team and exist in other forms elsewhere too, descendants of the experiments and tinkering exploits of many minds out there.


So why Tinker?  Everyone will have a slightly different answer to this - for me, Tinkering is simply an itch that gives me great pleasure to scratch - as a kid I was always told to STOP FIDDLING!  And, PLEASE PUT THAT THING BACK TOGETHER -  so I am personally beyond delighted to have a space on the floor dedicated to poking, prodding, pulling apart, breaking and making again. 

But Tinkering is much more than that. The idea of a Making space for At-Bristol was born long before I started here and in fact the notion of Making and Tinkering really sits at the heart of what an interactive science centre is all about. We are lucky in Bristol to have a workshop and in house team behind the scenes and so everything you see on the floor here is the result of Tinkering with a capital T. 

At-Bristol picked Tinkering partly coz we just like the word, and it means we get to have a Tinkering Officer, which felt like a job title we wanted to be able to say out loud a lot (it's had some great reactions) - and partly because it has a sense of open ended creativity about it. It’s about trying new ideas, being given permission and freedom to improvise, and make unexpected surprises and discoveries. Tinkering has just a hint of mischief about it. 

A Tinkering Space is a multi-disciplinary mash up of workshop, laboratory, art and design studio and garden shed. And crucially, it has its door wide open with people ready to share ideas and skills and help you get stuck in.  

A Tinkering Space is for everyone. It’s a place for conversations to happen, a social experience, supporting each others ideas, and celebrating and learning from the things which don’t work as much as the things which do.

Humans on the planet today face a number of so called Wicked Problems - the complex challenges that require a connected multifaceted approach - climate change, social inequalities, a rapidly growing and ageing population, pressure on global healthcare, antibiotic resistance, equal access to education, the existence of Donald Trump, the list goes on. Many great advances in science of the sort that might assist with these problems, have come about through Tinkering of some sort - through a serendipity of events borne of curiosity.  Rutherford was essentially tinkering when he set his student a task to see what happens when you fire alpha particles at some gold foil - and discovered the structure of the atom.  Newton tinkered with glass in his lab to split visible light into the rainbow. Tinkering is about connecting heart, mind and hands to try something out, adapt existing tools and available materials to solve a problem or test an idea.

There’s a vital skills gap to address in STEM - science technology engineering and maths - we desperately need more people to be inspired to take up careers in STEM and spaces like this can make a difference - whether we spark a lifetime of curiosity in Tinkering, or provide a first step to boost confidence in thinking and making that grows elsewhere, at school, at home. We want to nurture ideas and people and remove barriers to getting started.   

But let's not get hung up on learning outcomes and direct sprouting of STEM careers. We don’t all have to become scientists - we just want to enable citizens of planet Earth to have agency in shaping our collective futures. We’re also launching our Robot Encounters programme along with the Tinkering Space - in a landscape where second wave robotics and a tech revolution offers us great potential as well as concern about impact on jobs, we want to enable informed conversation and empower all of us to have a voice and, to realise that any one of us can potentially pop the lid of our robot assistant and Tinker - technology should no longer be something we simply consume, but something we can help shape ourselves. 

And aside from the heavy stuff, it’s all about the pure joy of making something where there was nothing before. It's about freedom to play, something we forget to do as adults. It's been a joy to watch the first people playing in the space, naturally starting to Tinker, unprompted, adding weight to handmade fliers on the air table, tweaking 'wings' to create more lift. The human instinct to tinker is in all of us. We just need to give people time and space to Tinker, because wonderful things can arise when they do. That’s what our new space is for, and we really are curious and excited to see what everyone will make of it and in it. 


Photo by Katherine Jewkes

We were very lucky to have three brilliant change makers find time to give us a little provocation each at our Tinkering launch.  Check out KWMC for inspiration on how technology and tinkering can change lives - the social agenda set out by Carolyn Hassan and her team is truly inspiring and truly making a difference. She gave us the provocation at our launch, to consider the need for Tinkering and Making spaces to be popping up all over the city - something we can all take action on. 

You really must also explore the work of Rusty Squid, led by the gently polymathic David McGoran, highly trained and skilled puppeteer, dancer, roboticist who implored us to wade into the magically murky waters where art and science flow together.

And to counter the scare stories of AI and robotic job apocalypse, Jonathan Raines of Open Bionics painted a picture of the future of robotics and wearable tech. Open Bionics are an award-winning Bristol startup who exemplify what happens when we apply open tech for good - 3D printing affordable prosthetic hands for kids. 


The space will only fly when people use it, and share skills and ideas. If you are a maker, tinkerer, hacker, artist, designer with something to test out with an audience, or a workshop you'd like to run, or need to try an idea out on a 3D printer or laser cutter, get in touch. If you do not (yet) identify as any of the above but have ideas for what you'd like to do in the space, or what you'd like us to try, let us know!