Open Innovation / Smart City / Tech News

The Makers, or the crowdsourc​ing of creativity

On Friday, May 16th, Prime’s Open Innovation Club (OIC) organized a workshop on the FabLab & Makers’ culture. It was a unique opportunity for large corporations to  meet with makers, founders of FabLabs and people fostering the Maker movement. The workshop was introduced by Ariane Zambiras [www.ArianeZambiras.com], a sociologist in Silicon Valley currently working as editor of the http://www.silicon-valley.fr/ blog. A few months ago, Ariane wrote an article for the blog silicon-valley.fr about the “Makers“. Today, we are glad to be able to publish her article in English for our readers!

There are only a few words inscribed on the back of the luminescent tablets that we hold in our hands: “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China”. A few words that make us realize the distance between spaces of design (Cupertino and the surrounding area), production (China), and consumption (Appleland). However, new players are disrupting this system. They are releasing the professional tools of design and production to the great joy of everyone involved.

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Who are the Makers?

The Makers are tinkerers: they are developing 3D printing, experimenting and creating electronic objects, robotic instruments, and they deserve our attention in a climate where delocalization and automation always separate and distance production lines. If the practice of tinkering is long established (we’d feel the need to reference the oldest job in the world if the expression was not already taken), its increasing presence in the collective imaginary and its usefulness in daily work is starting to take notice.

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These ordinary tinkerers are adapting objects and diverting their intended usage. The term “objects” is here meant to imply a very large spectrum: small GPS-enabled tactile screens installed instead of the old car radios in order to navigate cities, the custom-made construction of a tree for a cat, or a garden for butterflies, the automatization of a sprinkling system, a radio-controlled airplane, a laser keyboard projected on a block of Plexiglas in order to take notes on the best ideas that always come to us when taking a shower.

The term “hacker” is also used to designate these tinkerers, but many hope to distance themselves from it because of the negative connotation associated with those perceived as pirates of the Internet.

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What are they doing?

The Makers possess transformational competences: they know how to code, sew, weld, dismantle, reassemble, drill, polish, and play. As we might expect, men are over-represented in this industry as well as those who work in the technological sphere (programmers, engineers). All would like to add a playful, creative, and often artistic dimension to their daily life. The community therefore formed collaborates in adventures that aim to improve our collective living space, both in a practical as well as esthetic sense.

The elaboration of a community of know-how

The community dimension is at the heart of the movement. In fact, in the interviews, the Makers immediately explain that their know-how is elaborated on collectively, and that they want to make it accessible by the largest number possible. This ambition of sharing and making things accessible is visible in the elaboration of documentation supplied for open-source projects, typical of open-source software for example, where the entire community participates in writing the documentation following  the “wiki” model that allows for a collective writing form.

The articulation of the individual contribution to the community

There are common courtesy rules that coordinate individual contributions for a collective project: the original conceiver of the project, whether it’s software or hardware, must always be mentioned. Each person who modifies the original product must precisely explain the nature of their contribution: their work is also identified as an individual’s input for all other to see. It is also prohibited to change the type of license characteristic of the object: a “open-source” object must remain open and cannot be “closed”. It will remain the property of the community.

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The emergence of a Maker movement, in which the collective force surpasses the sum of small tinkerings that compose it, was facilitated by the places that allow these communities to exist. These places are both virtual and real. On the virtual side, we find discussion forums on the Internet, “wikis”, that is to say these collective writing platforms that facilitate the writing of documentations for use by software or the conception of tools. The real places are where the Makers are, “hackerspaces”, open places free for the public where all sorts of tools are offered to build objects: 3D printers, precise milling machines, laser die cutters, drill presses, etc.

[For more information on the hackerspaces, we could turn to the podcast done by Colas Zibaut for Silicon-Valley.fr]

What goes on in a hackerspace?

A few examples: you can sit on a pivoting chair in front of a small extension that resembles a head of a vacuum, but in reality is a 3D scanner. The image is transmitted to the software that then gives instructions to the printer for the production of your portrait in the manner of a roman bust.

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[For more info on the magic of 3D printing, we could reference the work of the specialist in question: Mathilde Berchon.]

High-precision drillers are used in jewelry boutiques, at the dentist, and by carpenters. Some people come in to program small Raspberry Pi computers that are the size of two credit cards and install the Navit  interface navigation system to make a small custom-made GPS. Others work on fabrics and print customized t-shirts.

Since 2006, the Makers have their own trade shows, the Maker Faires, large grounds for games and demonstrations where “DIY” (Do It Yourself) enthusiasts congregate. The first Maker Faire took place in Silicon Valley in San Mateo in 2006, and since then, they have flourished around the globe and reunite several thousands of interested people. The activities of fiddlers coexist with the collective and political reflections, like for example the reform of learning methods at school, the manners to make humanitarian aid more efficient or even the ways to create new forms of energy.

And where is the business in all this?

When the passion of innovation coexists with value creation, venture capitalists, business angels, and business plans are never far away. If it is the uninterested spirit of sharing and of community contribution that motivates most Makers, certain projects are developed with the ambition of commercial success.

Crowdsourcing (the practice of obtaining ideas or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people) is the perfect catalyst for this expansion. Whether it is to obtain initial financing, with crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter, or for the development of common ideas (peer production, open source, user-generated content), the new web interfaces allow for efficient collaboration of scattered individuals and the implementation of commercial projects.

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The firm Makerbot  is an example of successful commercialization. The business sells its kits to the public so each can build their own 3D printer, the same way we build a cabinet bought from Ikea. The projects are developed under an open-source license, that is to say all the instructions for assembly and the materials to choose are all available for free. Makerbot simplifies the process by regrouping all the materials and instructions in one package. The printers continue to improve thanks to a “multitude of alchemists” users that contribute to the updates. To aid the commercialization of the kits, the capital-risk firm The Foundry Group has invested ten million dollars in the project in 2011.

[I am borrowing the notion of a “multitude of alchemists” from Dominique Piotet, in his book co-written with Francis Pisani Comment le web change le monde, Pearson, 2011].

The hybridization of profit and open-source

The coexistence between open-source projects, which are built and improved by many contributors, and the search for profit sometimes provokes some tension, as when Makerbot announced in 2012 that it  would keep private the information needed to build the printer model “Replicator 2”.

Nevertheless, this space of collaboration between open-source and commercialization is a motor of innovation that deserves all our attention, inviting us to think about the notion of “open” intellectual property, to renew or change our economic models and to better consider the role of the participative web in the construction of collective knowledge.

By providing all of the tools necessary to build prototypes to the public, the hackerspaces contribute to the decentralization and the democratization of conception and innovation processes, which are no longer reserved for “professionals”.

[To dig deeper into these ideas, we could reference chapters 6 and 7 of the book Comment le web change le monde  cited above]. 

A proliferation of production sites

The change in the designing processes, more and more delocalized and scattered, is supported by the democratization of production lines. Chinese factories are accepting an increasing number of made-to-order items for those who wish to commercialize their prototype. This expansion of access to production is taking place even close to us. The production workshop TechShop, which is providing public access to industrial quality tools of production, is considering following the model of Kinko’s and could open a number of production workshops accessible to the public at large.

In conclusion

Not all homes have 3D printers that lounge in a corner of the living room. However, the mechanisms that produced this Makers culture are for us an occasion to deepen our thought and understanding on the following points:

– The externalization method of mass production;

– The generalization of the pleasure of creation;

– The innovations brought by returning to the object and the world – a polite dis to the critics of virtual reality;

– The extension of learning methods and the diffusion of know-hows.

Ariane Zambiras

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