Fablab Munich

Experienced or expired?

Elderly participation in Fablabs and DIY maker spaces

In context of the EU project GRAGE (short for ‘Green and Grey in Europe’), I visited Munich for two weeks. GRAGE focuses on the growing population of older adults (55+) in European cities. The programme aims to accumulate knowledge about environments that support green and healthy lifestyles for an aging population. We look at ‘aging’ as a creative challenge, instead of a burden, and investigate how elderly can (continue to) contribute in a so-called ‘silver economy’.

During my trip to Munich I explored if, and how, Fablabs and DIY maker spaces can support ‘elderly citizens of the future’ in living and aging more healthy and independently. Can elderly citizens really benefit from these contemporary facilities as users, designers, or both? Although most places I visited did not specifically focus on elderly, I gained insights in the added value that ‘making’ could have for this generation.

Tinkering stimulates creativity
First of all, the activity of making, or ‘tinkering’, seems to have a positive effect on wellbeing. In an era in which we spend most of our time behind screens (computer, television, or mobile phone), creating tangible ‘stuff’ is extremely rewarding. Tinkering stimulates creativity and a problem-solving way of thinking, which are increasingly valuable skills nowadays.

This links to a second value: Fablabs and maker spaces provide a place to develop technological skills that enable citizen to make or repair products themselves. According to Matthias Dorsch, making products is loving products. Matthias is the workshop manager at Haus der Eigenarbeit in Munich. He believes that ‘making’ can be seen as a movement against consumerism, providing an opportunity to develop a more sustainable, local economy.

Another interesting perspective came from Martin Landlinderer, founder of HobbyHimmel Stuttgart. Martin believes in a sharing-based economy. Exponential economic growth, as we have ‘enjoyed’ in the previous century, cannot persist in the 21st century. Rather, he says, we should build an economy based on sharing: sharing time, knowledge and matter. This way, seniors will be increasingly valuable, as they have obtained a wide range of skill and knowledge during their lifetime.

Do It Yourself Together
Most Fablabs and maker spaces I visited did not have a lot of members aged over 50, however. They all expected that the people currently engaged in ‘making’ will continue to find their way to Fablabs and places alike when they get older. Fablabs and DIY maker spaces also have an important social function. They serve as meeting places where local citizen, from all ages, can go and work together. In German this is beautifully called ‘gemeinsam selbermachen’: ‘Do It Yourself Together’.

One place that does have a lot of senior members is Fablab Neckar. According to their experiences, the ability to learn new technologies does not depend on age necessarily. More important are time and willingness to learn. Robin Broadfoot, co-founder of Fablab Neckar and over 50 himself, worked as a self-employed designer for most of his life. He founded this place because he wanted to stimulate learning from and to others. “The best form happened to be a Fablab.” Robin does not believe in retirement, as he has “nothing to retire from”. He rather keeps on learning, and making.

All in all, I think that through making, elderly citizens can deploy and enrich their expertise. Therefore, we must be careful not to approach this generation as ‘expired’ but rather as ‘experienced’. It doesn’t really matter if elderly citizens participate in Fablabs or DIY maker spaces as users, designers, service providers, or a combination hereof. What matters for now is that these places seem to offer promising opportunities to enhance quality of life as people age.