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.
Disgraced former PM’s remarks fuel speculation that he is aiming to regain power on ticket of withdrawal from euro
He may have been jeered from office last year. He may be on trial accused of paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl. And last week a prosecutor in Milan asked for him to be locked up in jail for three years and eight months for allegedly shady business practices.
But this weekend, Italy was abuzz with speculation that Silvio Berlusconi is planning a comeback – and could return to lead the right into an early general election, perhaps as standard-bearer of a party bent on withdrawing Italy from the euro.
The media tycoon gave his clearest indication yet that he is planning a return at the end of last week, when he told an audience of young rightwingers: “I’m working on solutions. I’m still here.” And then, as if speaking from a campaign platform, he added: “Give me 51% [of the votes].”
His cry brought his audience to their feet, chanting: “Silvio, Silvio.” Speaking as if he had already taken back the leadership of the Freedom People, the movement he founded in 2007, Berlusconi said he intended to change its name and ensure that half its candidates at the next election were women.
It was the latest in a succession of interventions that have Italy’s political class wondering about a Berlusconi comeback in a more eurosceptic guise. The former prime minister recently warned that Germany “should get out of the euro, or others will do so”. Last week, he said that regaining its own currency would have advantages for an export-led economy such as Italy’s.
It’s all a far cry from Berlusconi’s ignominious exit last November, when, having governed Italy for eight of the previous 10 years, he handed in his resignation to the strains of “hallelujah” from a crowd outside the presidential palace.
By then, a flood of leaked claims about his “bunga bunga” parties, including allegations of half-naked showgirls dressed up as nuns and policewomen, had turned the billionaire politician into a figure of international ridicule. In the final weeks of his leadership, fellow EU leaders made strenuous efforts to avoid being photographed with him, and almost his only high-level friendship was an intensely controversial one with Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin.
Berlusconi’s party still has the votes in parliament to bring down the unelected technocratic government led by Mario Monti. A snap vote in the autumn would have effects far beyond Italy, because it would bring down the curtain on Monti and his team, put into office last November to pass unpopular measures demanded by Italy’s eurozone partners that Berlusconi’s government had been reluctant to introduce. Their fall would almost certainly plunge the euro into renewed crisis.
The yield on Italian government bonds – a benchmark indicator that moves in the opposite direction to confidence in an economy – has been creeping higher since mid-March, though the rate dipped last week to close on Friday night at 5.77%. Berlusconi said the rise in Italy’s borrowing costs showed that, since he left office, “the situation has not changed”.
Some observers doubted whether the TV magnate could reverse his decision to hand the leadership of the party to his former justice minister, Angelino Alfano. But his chief opponent when he was in government did not rule it out.
Pierluigi Bersani of Italy’s main leftwing group, the Democratic party, quoted an old Italian proverb: “There’s no limit to the worst.” Ironically, the PD leader was himself presented at the weekend with a new and powerful leadership challenge.
Italy’s colourful but long-stagnant political scene has been thrown into confusion in recent weeks by the seemingly unstoppable ascent of the Five Star movement, founded by the comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo. Its growing success has gone hand in hand with mounting dissatisfaction with Italy’s mainstream politicians and increasing anger over an economy that has been stalled for more than 10 years.
The Five Star movement’s programme makes no reference to the euro. But Grillo has described the single currency as an “ever-tightening noose” and said Italy’s exit ought not to be taboo.
A poll released by the La7 television channel last week indicated that the Five Star movement could emerge from the next election as Italy’s second-biggest party, ahead of the Freedom People.
Introducing a further element of uncertainty to the political scene, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who has been widely canvassed as the leader of a rejuvenated centre left, on Saturday threw down the gauntlet to the PD’s existing leaders. Naming one by one the party’s barons, the 37-year-old Renzi told a conference he had organised: “You’ve done much for the country, much for the party. But now Basta!“
In a speech packed with metaphors of successful renewal, Renzi pulled out two cameras, each made by Polaroid. One, he said, took 10 minutes to produce a black-and-white photograph. The other could turn out a colour picture almost instantly.
The executives at Polaroid, “knew how to renew the brand”‚ said Renzi. “Let’s try it ourselves.” The PD is to hold a poll before the end of the year to select its candidate for prime minister.
The PdL is to do the same. But several political commentators and pollsters said there were marked differences between the two leadership struggles that appeared to be taking shape.Maurizio Pessato of the polling firm SWG said the face-off within the PD was taking place within a structured framework and would eventually lead to the choice of a leader accepted by all, or most, of the party. But, he said, “On the centre right the situation is a lot more difficult.” Berlusconi had stepped aside, but he was having second thoughts, a situation that was “putting the brakes on everything,” said Pessato.
Seumas Milne is right to condemn the undemocratic nature of the European project (In or out of the eurozone, we must ditch this failed model, 23 May). Yet when it comes to questions of complex economics, the left have a tendency to place too great an emphasis on referendums and elections.
The vast majority of people haven’t the time or energy to keep up with the daily shifts of the financial crisis, so referendums can offer little guidance on what is best for the electorate in terms of economic governance. Governments’ approach to the eurozone crisis should not be a question of direct democracy but of representative democracy. The people’s representatives must be expected, and pressured, to consider more carefully the wishes of the electorate in relation to economic minutiae that we the people cannot be expected to comprehend in full.
Electorates must, instead, be able to trust their representatives to respect their wishes. In Greece the electorate reject their government, reject austerity, but want to keep the euro. The people do not trust their representatives; this is the root of Europe’s democratic deficit.
Harriet Smith Hughes
• Gaby Hinsliff points out the perils of the Labour party fanning anti-EU sentiments (Beware, Ed, you stoke this anti-Europe fire at your peril, 22 May) by adding its voice to calls for an “in or out” referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union. But it may well be the only means of ensuring at long last an informed nationwide debate on Britain’s place in the changed Europe that will eventually emerge from the ashes of the eurozone crisis. If Britain is to stop sleepwalking towards isolation and loss of influence, a start needs to be made now and a lead given – by Labour, and also by the Lib Dems, if they could only unshackle themselves – to promote responsive and accountable institutions and progressive and socially responsible policies for the EU. That would be the best way of safeguarding Britain’s interests in Europe.
• Promising a referendum on British membership of the EU would show how low Ed Miliband will stoop for a supposed tactical advantage. In 2005 there was a legitimate and compelling reason to put the proposed European constitution to a popular vote. Now there is only a scheme to outflank the Conservatives on their own right wing. It may seem very clever in Westminster circles, but the political stature of anyone who aspires to lead a whole nation cannot be built on bluff and manoeuvre.
Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands
• Christopher Denne of the European Movement says the UK is now marginalised in Europe and that the pro-Europeans “saw it coming” (Letters, 22 May). However, if the European Movement’s views had been heeded, the UK would be part of the euro, and we would be in a far worse position than we are.
An ideological enthusiasm for European unity blinded too many people, including the European Movement, to the simple fact that one currency (and therefore one interest rate and no possibility of devaluation) for several economies does not work in the long term.
As a consequence, millions of people in Greece, and to a lesser extent in Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy, are suffering devastatingly high rates of unemployment and wage cuts. The pain will continue until participating countries dismantle this foolish project.
• There is an almost instant revisionism going on with the reassertion of German economic competitiveness. The story is being told that the sacrifices that were made over the past 15 years were a conscious effort to increase competitiveness in the international economy. This is a byproduct. Those sacrifices were made to facilitate German reunification. The resistance of the current German government to any generosity on behalf of the “euro periphery” makes it look as if they only care about the Volk.