In March 2011, an earthquake and following tsunami rocked Japan, culminating in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. While the government focused on stabilizing the situation, the people of Japan were terrified of radiation, unaware whether it was safe for their families to stay in their homes.
A group of Makers out of Tokyo Hackerspace found a quick solution to lack of information by building a cheap and easy-to-use pocket radiation detector using an Arduino (a pint-size computer that’s relatively easy for anyone to program). They began making them, and most importantly, sharing the instructions online for anyone to reproduce. Through a partnership with Safecast, they were able to get the radiation data off of people’s phones and onto an online platform. Within a month, thousands of data points had been picked up, and people could determine whether they should evacuate. Even today, people all over the world are building these radiation detectors, iterating on the original design for new purposes. Fikra Space, a hacker group in Baghdad, has amended the design to track Depleted Uranium pollution in their region.
I use this anecdote as an example frequently as a glimpse into the power of the Maker Movement. A term that’s been widely popularized by technologists as of late, Makers are not necessarily persons with huge engineering prowess. Neither are they hackers with malicious intent. Instead, the term Maker defines a movement combining simple technology with the right culture of innovation and collaboration, to have impact at a scale that most startup founders, corporate innovators, and city legislatures only dream of.
What is a Maker?
Makers represent a subculture of tinkerers, artists, and engineers. It’s a culture that is akin to punks and Goths – it represents not just a style, but a lifestyle. It has crossed decades and countries effortlessly. It is an ethos: a fundamental belief that the world is made better by building, and taking things apart.
Makers thrive on several things:
1. Finding novel applications of existing technology
They are interested in breaking or hacking things to make them better, more efficient, or just more fun. ArcAttack is a band of musicians using massive Tesla Coils, alongside live and robotic musicians to create a spectacular show of musical prowess and technological innovation. Anouk Wipprecht, fashion designer and former Autodesk Artists in Residence created a Faraday Cage dress for this past Maker Faire in San Mateo, and people watched in awe as she performed alongside ArcAttack as bolts of lightning struck her on all sides without doing any harm.
2. Exploring the intersections between seemingly separate domains
Because the barrier-to-entry to be a Maker is so low (read: nonexistent), new domains of expertise and collaborations are the process on which they thrive. 3D printers, once an expensive technology allowed for the elite few companies that required them and those who knew how to operate them, is now at a price point and skill level that many can afford. Similarly, this technology is being used for everything from printing clothing to live organs and skin. The opportunities are endless.
3. Curiosity and voracious appetite for continued education and Do-It-Yourself
Why buy something when you can build it? Why not learn how to solder? (Think of the possibilities!) These are the fundamental questions that drive Makers. From craftsmanship to electronics, Makers build things that are inherently valuable to them at that moment, whether it’s building a smart coffee maker to building a table. The pride that you feel from learning a musical instrument or a new language is the high that drives Makers to learn more, and do more.
Community (Makerspaces, Hackerspaces, FabLabs, Oh My!)
Makers rarely work alone. Instead, they interact with an ever growing global community of hackerspaces, makerspaces, fablabs, and other collaborative spaces to share ideas and resources. Makerspaces have cropped up all over the world to give people access to tools, education and collaboration normally reserved for universities and corporate environments. These membership-based organizations range in size and structure, but share common tools such as 3D printers, CNC machines, electronics components, and more. These gyms for your brain have grown from several hundred to over 2,000 globally in a few short years.
Makers in collaboration can lead to some advantageous financial results. In 2008, Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer and Zach Smith schemed up a small, inexpensive and easy-to-use 3D printer within New York’s hackerspace, NYC Resistor. Later that year, they released their first version for consumers. 6 years later, MakerBot has sold over 44,000 printers, built a leading brand, and was recently acquired by Stratasys for $403M. A company born out of the Maker Movement, MakerBot has ushered in a new industrial revolution, characterized by collaboration and open-source culture. They’re not alone in this endeavor, companies like Adafruit Industries, Arduino, and countless others are blurring the line between play and profit.
The Art of Playfulness (or, How to Fail Often)
When communities are built on resource-sharing and experimentation, there is considerably less stigma around failing. You simply try again, plus some well-earned knowledge and battle (soldering) scars, along with the thousands of others within the community.
The Power Racing Series understands all too well the educational benefits of failure and have embraced it with a friendly competition. Power Racing Series was schemed up at Chicago Hackerspace Pumping Station: One by Maker and designer Jim Burke. The challenge: build a working electric vehicle, starting with a kids Power Wheels and $500. Race it against a dozen others at Maker Faires all over the country, and compete for both technical prowess and “moxie” points awarded by the crowd for the most creative and ridiculous teams. Chassis’ fly off, cars catch on fire, and general, hilarious mayhem ensues.
This race has gained tremendous traction as a friendly competition between makerspaces all over the globe , as a learning tool for engineering and imagination. Makers have competed from i3 Detroit, NIMBY, and even MIT. While the teams are competing against one another, they also share knowledge, tools and tech between one another during the race. Currently the races are held at 7 Maker Faires in the US, and they are opening up a high school league to encourage use of the races as a STEM education platform for students.
Companies like Power Racing Series have grown organically from embracing the inherent silliness that is a result of constant, quick-fire iteration. They also understand that it offers a unique hands-on way to learn engineering sans classroom or textbooks. Similarly, littleBits has found a way to teach the basics of electrical engineering with magnetic Lego-like blocks that can produce anything from musical instruments to internet of things devices with a few snaps. Sugru has made an entire business out of fixing broken things with a fun new material with the texture of Play-Dough that fixes everything from soldering irons to motorcycle windshields.
Impact (Produce Locally, Share Globally)
Makers think big. They don’t think in terms of revenue or projected growth, they think in terms of impact. Unburdened by fear of failure or lack of resources, they make things because they are useful, or present a unique challenge. Because of this, and ingrained roots stemming from the open-source software movement, the technology created has the ability to be adapted and used all over the world, outside the bounds of traditional gatekeepers.
Makerspaces have permeated every corner of the globe, from Nairobi to Nicaragua, allowing access to shared resources not just within their individual spaces, but across borders. Just as Bre Pettis and team sought to solve the problem of expensive 3D printers, Makers are building things that are equally useful to them, and their communities.
BioCurious, a community of biohackers (yes, that’s a thing) in the Bay Area has found a way to make real vegan cheese by engineering yeast, raising over $37k on Indiegogo to fund the project. Two years prior, 4 girls in Lagos debuted a urine-powered generator at Maker Faire Africa, which provides 6 hours of electricity for every Liter of urine. While both projects are prototypes, both are reactions to clear, yet strikingly different needs of the individuals and communities involved.
Arduino, the pint-sized computer from Italy, is a tool for making an open-source micro-controller board and development environment that was inexpensive, cross-platform, and easy-to-use. Founder Massimo Banzi has succeeded in this endeavor, as Arduino boards have become the micro-controller of choice for Makers, and are used to power a variety of devices, from the previously mentioned bGeigie Nano to a variety of internet-of-things devices. The fact that Arduino is open-source allows anyone to iterate on the boards, whether creating smaller versions for wearables, or printing your own on paper.
DIY Drones, a website started by former Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson, sought a way to bring UAVS (Unmanned Arial Vehicles) from military to hobbyists. In a few years he’s been able to bring together an impressive community of Makers building drones and drone parts for a variety of purposes. Matternet has taken this movement and applied it to a very specific problem: the 1 billion people in the world that do not have access to all-season roads. This means, even though many of them have advanced telecommunications infrastructure, they cannot get food of medicine during an emergency. Founder Andreas Ratopolous saw the potential in UAVs far beyond what was being explored by hobbyist and has turned it into a viable business with massive impact.
What’s Next for the Maker Movement?
The Maker Movement has garnered a lot of attention over the last 5 years, but it’s not without it’s flaws. Hackerspaces and makerspaces, though great places to learn and innovate are difficult to scale, and can come with a host of organizational and cultural problems. Though there are a whole host of success stories of profitable business by Makers, most of the innovation is still culturally insulated and doesn’t ever make it to a business. Large brands have been attempting to leverage the Maker community to encourage internal innovation, but with little success. Why? By being exactly what the Maker moment loathes: large, secretive, and profit-driven.
The Maker Movement needs bridges, people who are passionate about everything that is at the core of the culture who are able to connect Makers to each other, and to the resources to translate ideas into tangible products.
As humans, we’re made to make stuff. It’s a fundamental part of our survival. The Maker Movement has built a culture on that core belief, and the creativity that it has unleashed has massive potential for the future of innovation across all domains, turning anyone from an engineer to a large organization into an entity capable of astronomical innovative potential.
Written by Madelynn Martiniere, this article was previously published on October 27, 2014 on Medium.