The term “makerspace” captures the core of what Gearbox is — a space for people who design and make things — but it is not a term that sits easily even within Gearbox’s own community. To many of the designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs who have passed through Gearbox Lite over the last two years, the term “maker” implies a hobbyist or tinkerer, and generally holds a connotation of unprofessionalism.
Outside of Kenya, the word “makerspace” often gets conflated with related terms like “Fab Lab” or “hackerspace.” For the uninitiated, Gui Cavalcanti wrote a helpful description of the differences between these kinds of spaces in Make Magazine, although his definitions are still far from universally applied. In the US, places called makerspaces are popping up in schools, libraries, youth centers, and corporate headquarters, and can range from a small room in an elementary school with a 3D printer and papercraft tools, to a space like First Build in Louisville, Kentucky, with 35,000 sq. ft. of advanced prototyping and low-volume manufacturing space.
What most of these spaces have in common is that they are open to the public, and they provide tools for making physical things. By being open to the general public, Gearbox has seen people with a tremendous variety of backgrounds pass through its doors. Students and lecturers have collaborated on business models growing out of shared research; local business owners have come to seek out talented designers and engineers; Kenyans from “up country” have traveled hours to use the machines to make tools or parts they can’t find elsewhere. By providing access to tools, space, and skills that are hard to find in Kenya, Gearbox has seen projects that range from medical equipment (Sato’s foetal heart rate monitor), to novel water treatment systems (Usafi Comfort), to tools for preventing human/wildlife conflict (#Innovate4Wildlife), to agricultural technology (a low-cost chicken brooder that alerts farmers to problems via their mobile phones).