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AARC Update – Army’s Makerspace Initiative – Reflections from the program’s first year

Army MakerSpace logo colour

Future Land Warfare Division’s MakerSpace program is quietly creating the foundations for a new generation of creative Army thinkers, ready to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex and uncertain security environment.  In this Land Power Forum (LPF) update, we review the program’s objectives and progress over its first 12 months.

A recurring theme in commentary submitted to the LPF is the necessity to break the shackles of conventional military thinking.  Whether we are capability specialists, strategic analysts, or operational experts, we question whether our habits of decision making are well adapted to the challenges we are facing now, and will continue to face in the coming decades. As has previously been observed in this Forum,  Army recognises that ‘enhancing the way we think, train and educate is a critical component of preparing our people—individually and collectively—to face future threats in an environment categorised by a multitude of technological innovations arising from Artificial Intelligence, human-machine teaming, quantum computing, cyber, space and robotics.’

So it is encouraging to reflect on the progress being made by the Australian Army’s MakerSpace program to foster a generational change in creative problem-solving within Army, and to shift organisational culture so as to embrace alternative ways of thinking. 

The MakerSpace initiative actively supports creative problem solving through a combination of education and practical application.  Whereas the concept of education attracts a stereotype of ‘chalk-and-talk’ lecture-based learning, MakerSpace takes education out of the classroom and places it firmly in the workshop where intellectual endeavour comes face to face hands-on practice. 

The educational concept upon which MakerSpace is founded is not new, but it is novel in an ADF context.  Reading previous articles on the initiative, LPF readers will know that the concept owes its origins to a theory of learning called constructivism which is founded on the idea that people create new knowledge based on their experiences.  Taking this theory a little further, ‘constructionism’ suggests that learning is more meaningful when it occurs outside of the head through the construction of physical objects.  It is from this constructionist foundation that the MakerSpace program is beginning to show real potential to change conventional habits of problem solving in Army.

The MakerSpace program unfolds in three phases.

In phase one, participants are educated by Deakin University in the principles and practice of creative thinking and problem solving using problem-oriented design based learning (POBL).  POBL is a learned-centred approach - integrating theory and practical learning - that is a specialisation of Deakin's School of Engineering. Learning offered by Deakin University has adapted the Double Diamond innovation process (developed by the Design Council) and the Design Thinking process (developed by Stanford University’s Supporting the POBL learning method, the Sprint methodology (popularised by the Agile project management framework) is used to support prototyping.

The objective of phase one is to develop participants’ problem solving and creative thinking skills so that they can apply the learned techniques to future problems, whether or not they are clearly defined. Concurrently, participants also learn technical skills using a range of technologies - from soldering irons, through 3D printers, to laser cutters.  The combined cognitive and technical skills are used in phase two.

In phase two, MakerSpace supports Brigades to run their own problem solving activities. In order to reach additional participants, each MakerSpace location receives additional courses in creative thinking, Lean StartUp, and Agile. Participants then operate in teams to complete a Sprint process focussing on a set challenge to develop solutions to problems they identify within the scope of that challenge.

The third phase of the project allows for personal use of the MakerSpace. Once inducted into the space, and trained to a specified level of competence on each tool or technology, participants can experiment within the space during their own time. This further encourages an innovation and creative problem solving mindset and provides more in-depth experience on the tools available.

Since the MakerSpace program began in 2019, it has achieved all of the milestones that were set for the concept development phase.  These include:

  • the successful trial of the initiative with 1 Bde in late 2019 utilising Flinders University facilities
  • the recruitment of six MakerSpace locations across 5 Brigades including one from 2 Division (13 Bde) .
  • the ongoing establishment of 6 MakerSpaces around two models – fixed site and portable. Of the fixed site MakerSpaces 2 Cdo has been up and running since late 2019, while the remainder are finalising their infrastraucture. Portable MakerSpaces will be delivered to 1 Brigade North and South in July.
  • proven the concept of the MakerSpace, coupled with the Innovation and Experimentation Group (IXG) model.

The introduction of MakerSpace has set education within a new cultural context for Army; designed to foster the development of a community, sharing knowledge and skills. While establishment of the workshop locations to support a MakerSpace approach to problem solving is important, unleashing the program’s full potential depends on an inextricable connection being maintained between the learning space and the educational concept upon which MakerSpace is based.  While a workshop will always be a good place to tinker, a MakerSpace is a place where a new generation of Army men and women can build their capacity to develop creative solutions to problems - whether those problems are technical, administrative, operational or strategic in nature.

With the MakerSpace concept development phase now successfully completed, the program is about to enter its implementation and evaluation phase which will inform decisions concerning Army’s future adoption of the concept.  The time has come to quantify the value of MakerSpaces to the Australian Army in its quest to develop both an intellectual edge and to foster creative problem-solving.

The Land Power Forum looks forward to keeping you informed of how this promising program develops.

With thanks to the Army Research Scheme Manager, Dr Lyndal-Joy Thompson, for her update to the author on the progress of MakerSpace.

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.

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