The latest edition of the ideas festival at Edinburgh was abuzz with the ‘maker movement’: a phenomenon that aims to take manufacturing out of factories and put it into people’s homes
Once upon a time, if you said you were doing a spot of DIY, everyone would know you’d be doing something involving wobbly ladders, pots of paint and, depending on the decade, either stripping your floors or recarpeting them.
No more. Or at least ladders and pots of paint might still be involved, but the end result could be a aerial drone you’ve built yourself. Or a biotech lab.
Last week’s TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh – the festival known as “Davos for optimists” – shone a light on the DIY revolution – a movement that encompasses items ranging from manufacturing to synthetic biology to medicine. After a decade in which digital technologies have disrupted industries from music to the media, it’s capitalism itself that is now under attack. A decade ago, open-source software revolutionised the internet. Now the idea has entered the realm of physical things: open-source hardware. Why stop at making your own website when you can make your own PC? Or car? Or satellite?
Catarina Mota, a 38-year-old Portuguese PhD student, is typical of the new breed of DIYers, or, as they tend to call themselves, “makers”. She’s a member of a 40-strong “hackerspace” in New York – a co-operative workshop where members share tools such as laser cutters – and develops and makes “smart materials”, ones that can change colour when you touch them or react to voltage. In the three years since she began, the maker movement, fuelled in part by the rapidly decreasing cost of 3D printers – devices that create objects layer by layer out of liquid plastic – has become a phenomenon. Mota’s hackerspace, NYC Resistor, is one of the oldest, but there are now 1,500 in the world.
Like most makers, she’s self-taught. “A lot of people were doing these sorts of things as kids and then stopped,” she said. “As manufactured goods became cheaper, we became consumers. But now everything has changed. We don’t accept things as they are given to us. We make technology work for us. And we can make a living from it: it’s not just a hobby. It has the potential to change economics profoundly. Companies can compete on quality no matter what their size.”
At localmotors.com, you can download blueprints to make your own car; at diydrones.com there are designs for remote-controlled four-rotor helicopters and at opensourceecology.com, you can download plans for everything you need to build a civilisation – wind turbines, ovens, cement mixers, tractors, bioplastic extruders…
Marcin Jakubowski, the Polish-American TED fellow behind the ecology project, is a passionate advocate of the movement. “People are hungry for meaning They see problems with the economic, social and democratic systems and they think – WTF? … This is all about enterprise and low-cost access to blueprints and it will have profound effects on society: production is going to be in the hands of the people.”
If this sounds like Marxism, a world in which workers own the means of production, it is and it isn’t. One of the speakers at TEDGlobal, author Rachel Botsman from Sydney, who has coined the term “collaborative consumerism”, says: “It’s definitely capitalism. But it’s more democratic forms of capitalism.”
She points out that the website Airbnb, which allows anyone to run a bed and breakfast operation in their spare room, received a $1bn valuation last year “and only 30 companies in the world have ever done that” – and that, in the face of a broken financial system, other forms of venture capital, such as the crowdsourced finance site Kickstarter, have sprung up.
It’s also a phenomenon perfectly suited to the austerity age: mass unemployment, says Andrew Hessel, a biology futurist from California, might even be the necessary catalyst. “Before, people would just go and get a job in retail. Now that’s gone. There are millions of jobs that are not just coming back. But you can go and set up your own business for $100 and compete with the biggest companies out there.”
What’s more, the ideas, as evidenced by their high visibility at TED, are just starting to go mainstream. Bruno Giussani, the European director of TED who curated the programme, believes we are on the cusp of something radically new – not least because, according to Massimo Banzi, one of the founding fathers of the field, “you don’t have to ask for permission”.
Banzi is co-creator of the Arduino – a cheap, flexible, single-board computer that’s at the heart of thousands of DIY products, from a plant that will tweet you when it wants watering to the ArduSat, an Arduino-powered satellite.
“I made this little book to explain what I was doing and for the cover I took this image from a 1970s punk fanzine which said: ‘Here’s three chords, now form a band’,” says Banzi. “The DIY movement is tech punk. You can do what you want.
“Big companies limit your freedom. Look at the iPad. This is the TV set of the computer age. They’re designed for you to consume media. We have to teach children to make their own. Once you consume something, you accept these predetermined solutions.”
So, are the big corporations running scared? “Not yet. It’s still pretty scruffy and disorganised. But then, look at Apple. They were just a couple of hippies once.”
Build your own mobile phone network
Or maybe not. Though it’s possible: a drug cartel in Mexico has built its own encrypted network that operates across the country. As Marc Goodman of the Future Crimes Institute thinktank points out, technology is all very well, but it’s not always in the hands of the good guys. He worries that it’s not just schoolchildren and Brooklyn hipsters who are going to want to get their hands on DIY biotech. Criminals are always ahead of the curve, he says: drug dealers had cellphones long before Michael Douglas got his hands on one in Wall Street. ‘Weaponised flu’ and 3D-printed guns are what happens when DIY goes bad.
Become a venture capitalist (or borrow money from one)
Anyone can set up a business or have a creative idea. But raising the money to finance it is another thing. Existing forms of finance simply aren’t working – which is where new grassroots forms of lending come in.
Online collaboration has become a growing source of entrepreneurial capital. The US website kickstarter.com is the most famous ‘crowdfunding’ site, with more than $230m pledged to different projects by private individuals, but there’s also petridish.org for science projects, fundageek.com for technical ones and the British spacehive.com for social projects.
According to Botsman, it’s one of the main planks of the new DIY economy. “Kickstarter is lending more money than the US National Endowment for the Arts. It’s the greatest source of creative funding in the States.”
On 9 February, the site saw the first project to raise $1m – for an iPhone dock. Three months later, the Pebble, an internet-connected ‘smart watch’ with an e-paper screen like a Kindle’s, broke the $10m mark. You don’t need your bank manager’s permission any more; just the kindness (or savvy financial acumen) of strangers.
Study cryptography at Stanford
Failed your GCSEs? Dropped out of college? Fear not: Daphne Koller and her colleague at Stanford University in California, Andrew Ng, want to teach the world for free.
When Ng videoed his course on machine learning and put it online, more than 100,000 people signed up. That led he and Koller to develop an entire online learning platform with lectures, coursework, exams and certification. Choose between analytic combinatorics at Princeton, neuroethics at Penn State or cryptography at Stanford. It’s already being called an education revolution.
Make your own satellite
Remember the days when Nasa made rockets and the European Space Agency sent satellites into orbit? So old-fashioned! The latest innovation to be powered by the Arduino microcontroller – a palm-sized open-source computer co-created by Italian technologist Massimo Banzi – is the ArduSat, a DIY satellite that is the idea of a physicist and two aerospace engineers. No time to make your own? For $350 you can buy space on the ArduSat to conduct your own space science.
ArduSat is the latest in a long line of inventions powered by the Arduino, which was developed by Banzi with five friends while teaching at design school at Ivrea in Piedmont. You can download designs from the net or buy the board readymade. It has been used in countless ways, including in a glove that interprets sign language into words, a Geiger counter used to share radioactivity data after the Japanese tsunami, and the ArduPlane, an unmanned drone. And the ‘Enough Already’ controller, a device created by a Brooklyn DIYer called Matt Richardson to mute his TV whenever the words ‘Kim Kardashian’ are uttered.
“On the one hand, there are the people inventing things like a chair that will tweet when you fart,” says Banzi. “On the other, I’ve had some incredibly moving emails. There was a severely disabled man who couldn’t use a computer mouse until somebody made him a personalised Arduino version.
“Sometimes you need products you can’t find, or they exist but they’re too expensive. Tools like Arduino lower the barrier. More and more people are able to create.”
Do your own DNA testing
Genspace in Brooklyn, New York, was the world’s first community biotechnology laboratory, or ‘streetlab’, but the UK now has its own (MadLab in Manchester) and DIY molecular biology is a trend that is growing fast.
Ellen Jorgensen, Genspace’s co-founder, says the possibilities are endless. “It’s impossible for me, as a mainstream scientist, to imagine what an artist, an architect or even a lawyer may come up with when they get their hands on this technology.”
Jorgensen believes everybody should have the chance to do science, and says molecular biology is one of the most exciting branches out there: “It’s primal. You are literally engineering yourself.”
More practically, one of Genspace’s early users DNA-sequenced dog excrement on a local pavement and tracked down the offending dog.
Print your own 50-cent microscope
The problem with doing a lot of science at home is that the equipment – supercomputers, rocket launchers etc – can be pricey. Which is why Manu Prakash and his team at Stanford have developed a new type of microscope: it can be printed out on paper and folded into shape and costs only 50 cents. It will be unofficially unveiled in a few weeks’ time, but Prakash, who grew up in India without a fridge, understands the power of microbes and wants children everywhere to be able to do the same.