British Council Creative Economy

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4 October 2015

In Focus: MadLab

MadLab is a self-styled “grassroots innovation organisation”, harnessing the creative technical potential of diverse communities in Manchester and beyond.

© MadLab

MadLab has a simple, bold mission; “to help people to make things better, together.” After even the briefest introduction to their work, it’s clear that there’s a world of ambition in the above “things” –  from electronics to biology to the very diversity of maker culture and digital space, MadLab take it all on. They are advocates of hacking in the broadest sense; lets take things apart, figure out how they work and re-purpose or re-imagine them.

We spoke to Asa Calow, self-taught creative technologist, co-founder and hacker-in-residence at MadLab. In his words, “it's a community space for science, technology and art... with more than 20,000 visitors a year, with moe than fifty active communities – everything from app development and electronics, through to writers' groups and traditional arts & crafts.” No wonder UK innovation agency Nesta call them most active 'grassroots innovation' institution in the UK.

All this activity is packed into a 3000 square foot Industrial Revolution-era former weavers’ cottage, set amongst the red-bricks of Manchester’s Northern Quarter. "Alongside community meet-ups, we have a professional development programme", Asa explains, "and we engage in specific projects working alongside other groups, from universities to voluntary organisations, and local councils.”  

MadLab's modest frontage

Madlab makes a concerted - and effective - effort to engage a diverse range of people, beyond the 'white, male, with an engineering degree' often found to be lurking in the UK’s makerspaces. From Code Club Salford (aimed at young people) to Digital Skills for Women (up-skilling Manchester’s unemployed), the organisation is engaging people that other tech-focused spaces don’t.

We ask Asa to run us through some of the practical hacks and workshops which he’s had a hand in. Here is his “non-exhastive list.”

  • DIYbio: workshops, science hack events and installations, introducing the public to biotechnology.
  • Co-designing hardware for improved health and wellbeing with Lancaster University and hard-to-reach communities in Morecambe, UK. Our prototype is now being taken forward by 15 local organisations via Big Lottery funding. 

© Manchester Space Programme

What space looks like from Manchester

  • Manchester Space programme - a DIY community space exploration initiative, funded by the UK Space Agency. They have had three successful launches of high-altitude balloons (and pico-balloons) to date, each to ~35km above Earth. 
  • Pararchive - an AHRC funded project led by Leeds University, investigating community use of open digital archive. Working with the BBC, Science Museum, MadLab groups Bokeh Yeah (DSLR film-making) and Arduino Manchester.

    The portable LabEasy in Deptford Market

  • LabEasy pop-up community biolab - at The Arts Catalyst's East London HQ. Winner of the award for art-science innovation in 2014.

“MadLab also incubates other organisations," Asa explains, "for instance Hackspace Manchester  started off on our ground floor and is now next door, and Manchester CoderDojo , which reaches more than 150 young people a month.”

Madlab has catalysed the creative technology ecology in Manchester, growing organisations, individuals and communites and inspiring best practice for similar spaces worldwide. Its clear they really are making 'things' better.

Asa is a participant on 'Living Research: Making in China', helping us to understand Chinese maker culture through practical creativity and collaboration.

MadLab's most recent initiative is their Arts+Tech accelerator, which will give artists working with digital making a grant, guidance and the facilities to develop their practice. It all kicks off in January 2016 and you can apply for a place here.