[Cultural Policy Bulletin Vol.6] Maker Culture Promoted by Public Institutions – Focused on the Case of Korea’s Idea Factory

YU Mansun

Researcher of Gwacheon National Science Museum

The Idea Factory were makerspaces supported by the former Korean government which devised the concept of “creative economy.” At that time, the government ran these spaces in order to attain its goal of “strengthening the innovative capacity of science and technology.” I planned, made and ran Korea’s first Idea Factory at Gwacheon National Science Museum in August 2013. On the basis of what I experienced there and on what I discussed with various makers I have met, I would like to elaborate on what I think of Korean public institutions’ projects promoting the maker culture.

In 2013, I was emptying part of the museum’s underground storage and preparing equipment to create a prototyping space for exhibits displayed at the museum. Such equipment included digital processing devices such as laser cutters and CNC routers. This led me to take charge of making Korea’s first idea factory at Gwacheon National Science Museum.

I remodeled two small buildings in the museum’s backyard and finally opened Korea’s first idea factory in August 2013. I named one of the two buildings the “Imaginative Discussion Room.” Here, I decided to run two programs: 1. Twinkling Imagination Program (for new ideas) and 2. Imagination Knowhow Program (about design and production process intended to realize the ideas). I called the other building the “Imaginative Craft Workshop.“ I planned to bring digital production devices (e.g. 3D printer, laser cutter and CNC router) in order to transform the ideas and designs coming from the Imaginative Discussion Room into actual products.

The idea factory was a half success. The Twinkling Imagination Program was just regarded by many as one of the existing “kids creative programs” run by other education institutions. Consequently, many users came to the program, contributing to its positive results. However, that was it. Most of the program’s users were elementary or middle school students so they didn’t like to participate in production processes that looked complicate and felt tired. Some users even misunderstood the concept of the Room; they thought that they were just there to come up with "ideation" for new products that would be made by professional technicians working there.

Later on, I was quite surprised to hear that many of the works submitted to Korea’s invention contests are not actually made by idea holders. I had a chance to talk to a German education expert who said that in Germany, children learn how to use tools (e.g. glue, scissors, nails, hammer and chisel) before attending classes about developing ideas. In contrast, Koreans tend to just write down and submit new ideas and they sometimes learn how to transform them into the “intellectual properties.” In other words, they are satisfied with bringing new ideas, without realizing them. Hearting about and looking at this reality in Korea, I made up my mind to make the idea factory a “space of making experience” rather than a “space for new ideas.” This was to help its users make something with their own hands.

The Imagination Knowhow Program, which was about enabling users to think of how to realize their ideas, didn’t draw much attention. On the other hand, the Imagination Making Program, which allowed them to use digital production equipment freely, was very popular. Most of its users were adult artists, architects and freelance engineers who had already familiarized themselves with using a 3D printer and laser cutter. They weren’t working for particular organizations so they freely visited the idea factory during its opening hours in the daytime. They amazed other visitors by making interesting artworks, miniature structures and devices. Moreover, they had richer philosophy and experience regarding the maker movement than I. Thus, they greatly helped me extend the idea factory later on.

Running the Imaginative Craft Workshop, I realized that these adult makers were not just consumers for the idea factory service but also potential service providers or producers. Indeed, at the idea factory, they naturally provided amateur makers with advice and training and they sometimes expanded their artistic fields by exchanging ideas with each other. Meanwhile, I also realized that a maker space run by a public institution may cause damage to other private maker spaces or small manufacturers that are run in difficult conditions. Indeed, as the idea factory were opened nationwide, some of the existing maker spaces, which had been running "charged" maker workshops, had to be closed. I was also concerned that the country’s increasing number of maker spaces would pose a threat to small manufacturers such as skilled people in the Cheonggyeocheon and Mullae areas.

The following year, the idea factory was extended to become a large space of about 1,653m2. As I designed this new space, I tried to solve the problems I had mentioned. First of all, I minimized “idea classes” while I brought equipment and facilities providing users with a “making experience.” In addition to these new facilities, the space also had a separate design room, electronic parts workshop, traditional and electric tools space, painting booth and recording and filming place.

Inspired by the maker slogan of “Learn, make and share!”, this space classified its programs into several categories. In the name of the “Da Vinci Academy,” the space provided not only the existing programs developing ideas but also other training programs such as workshops and seminars for adults and joint programs prepared with other organizations. Second, with its “Medici Project,” the space received publicly feasible themes suggested by makers and supported them with material costs and the right to use the space’s facilities. Lastly, an event called “Jang Yeong-sil Durae Durae” held exhibitions of final products and gave makers an opportunity to share their experience.

This newly designed idea factory was filled with diverse making tools. Modeled after the US model of TechShop, the idea factory provided its users with training on safety and basic use of tools. Each user is given a “capacity card” and if he or she passes a test on specific equipment, he or she is given a sticker to be attached to the card. The user is then allowed to handle the equipment. For about three years from that time, I ran Korea’s largest idea factory. I met many makers and saw interesting projects.

Nevertheless, I would like to ask myself to which degree the idea factory, whose goal was to provide ordinary citizens with a “making experience,” was successful both quantitatively and qualitatively during this period. To that question, I honestly have to answer that the space still has a long way to go. What is regrettable is that major users of the Room were always “professional” makers and that ordinary citizens coulnd’t find any reason or freedom to use the space. If the idea factory was unable to help them feel free to visit the space, at least it could have suggest them certain reasons or grounds to use it.

It is true that professional makers participated in the Da Vinci Project to achieve numerous meaningful results. I reflected on what message the project’s process and results would have conveyed to the general public. I do believe that ordinary citizens would have agreed with the project’s meaningfulness and value. Nonetheless, I think that they would also have become afraid of using the idea factory after seeing the "professional" results. Instead, if the idea factory showed cases of meeting ordinary citizens’ daily needs (e.g. repairing their children’s broken toys or making simple objects to be put on the table), it would have attracted more of them to the maker community. That may be why I don’t like it very much when I see recent maker or coding training programs dealing with professional themes such as VR, drone and 3D printing.

I also remember makers I met at Fab. Lab. in Munich, Germany. Engaging in their maker activities mostly at night, they were working for technology companies such as Bosch and SAP. While they used “digital manufacturing technology” to earn a living, they also used it to make something they wanted at Fab. Lab. after work. However, a korean maker I met at the idea factory stands in contrast to these German makers. He was working for an engineering company and he was afraid that the company would know of his hobby. I understand that if a company secretly provides its staff with technology or knowledge for its business, it will have enough reasons to keep its employees from disclosing it deliberately. Nevertheless, if the employees has to censor even their leisure activities and become afraid, I believe that it is Korean society that has problems. I once watched a documentary on the term “technology of leisure time.” For this term to be recognized in Korea, technology holders should be able to share their knowhow and experience in an open-minded manner.

Finally, I ask myself this question. “Do adults users of the idea factory have to be college students or young people?“ Today, Korea’s public institutions encourage young people to start their own new businesses, thus giving them a dangerous challenge that is even never experienced by the staffs in the public institutions. Although it is the right direction for Korean industry to shift its paradigm from large businesses to small ones, it is problematic for the government to easily make decisions for young people’s life and to force them to start a difficult journey. On the other hand, behind the country’s numerous policies on young people are small manufacturers who failed to draw attention even after running their business for dozens of years. Going through economic hardships, they have developed their own knowhow of making shoes and clothes. They have also paved their own way to survive. For them, digital manufacturing technology will generate a synergistic effect that would be as great as that generated for young people starting their professional career.

The maker movement may have to do with young people creating a new business or job. It may also concern a new form of education for children and adolescents who are future leaders. It may be related to “culture” in a more fundamental way. Therefore, when a public institution, which has different divisions, plans to make policy out of the abstract, global trend of the “maker movement” and to implement it as a project, the institution may also wonder if the project is part of a “business creation movement,” “education movement” or “cultural movement.”

Nevertheless, what is certain is that whatever team or division at public institutions may launch a “maker project,” the maker movement will play a great role in making a social change from "consumption" to "production." Moreover, public institutions’ proper participation in the maker movement will greatly contribute to such a change in Korea, a country that doesn’t have a long history of “playing” with technology in leisure time due to its rapid industrialization.

A robot traning babies to toddle, produced by an office worker-maker(Oct.2014)


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Focused on the Case of Korea’s Idea Factory

YU Mansun, Researcher of Gwacheon National Science Museum


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#Bulletin #Bulletin Vol.6 #Cultural Policy #Fourth Industrial Revolution #Maker Culture #Public Institutions

@YU Mansun

    • Cultural Policy Bulletin Vol.6

      Publisher/ Sul Won Gi, President of GyeongGi Cultural Foundation

      Editorial Planning/ Office of Cultural Policy : GyeongGi Cultural Foundation

      Editors/ Kim Hyun Tae, Kim Sunghwan, Ahn Kyunghwa, Yoon Kahye, Cho Eunsol

      Translation/ Chang Yu Kyung

      Design/ hongdesign

      Printing/ CANA C&P

      Published by/ GyeongGi Cultural Foundation

      Published on July 2018

      ⓒ2018 GyeongGi Cultural Foundation and authors. All right reserved.

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    Writer/ GyeongGi Cultural Foundation

    About/ Everything about the GyeongGi arts and culture, GGCF

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