Makers, come together

Barn Raising in Lansing, from Wikipedia (Copyright expired).

Barn Raising in Lansing, from Wikipedia (Copyright expired).

For several years now, I’ve been turning over the idea of a gathering of makers. Not a Maker Faire, that aims to bring new people into the fold, but a coming together of people who are already makers, or who are interested in making as a practice, a progressive movement; an energy that demands critical reflection. For want of a better word, let’s call it a conference, without dwelling too long on the baggage that brings with it.

There are other people doing things in this area, and there are people I know who would like to work on something along these lines. So in the interest of giving the idea some oxygen, I’m writing this up to set out how I feel about it today, see if it resonates, and plant a flag.

Old news

So let’s start by acknowledging the good work that’s already being done, and consider what we could draw from this, and how it could be different.

In the US, Maker Media have been running MakerCon for a couple of years, and Hardware Innovation Workshop before that. I was at the 2015 event in San Francisco, and it was noticeably focused around the idea of the hardware startup. A Silicon Valley take on makers. I was also at the Crafts Council’s Make:Shift in 2014. This was an excellent event – it brought out the richness of the idea of making in the UK, and showed how much innovative activity and well-considered debate there is. There are also meetup groups, including the long-running IoT London and more recent Hardware Startup Lab, also in London, which I sense (I’ve never been to either) are very successful at bringing together the community. And then there are conference strands to other events. We’ve done one several times at Brighton Mini Maker Faire, as have other Maker Faires. I’ve been to excellent conference programmes at both Dublin and Newcastle events. And outside of the Maker Faire brand, events like EMF have also had strong conference strands. And there are many stand-alone making-related conferences such as All Makers Now?  and Made North (at which I’m speaking next week). I’m sure there are many more. If you know of one, please share it.

[Update: Here’s another one, with a strong academic bent: Making Futures at Plymouth College of Art]

For clarity, I should say: all of these events are great in their own way, and my interest in this does not come from a sense that they are failing us in some way. But as with fields like design or software development, I’d like to see a year-round calendar of maker gatherings that cater to different regions, tastes, budgets, agendas and disciplines. There’s room for more.

Who’s it for

Well, makers. But that’s an ambiguous term. I come to this from the perspective of someone who’s run Maker Faires, and reads Make magazine. I know about the Maker Movement (with uppercase Ms). But in the UK at least, that term has a different meaning that goes well back into the 20th Century, and a tradition of craft and design that has nothing to do with Arduino and 3D printing, and is much more closely related to art, design and trade. And as the Maker Movement gains momentum, the term is claimed on behalf of an ever-increasing band of people. I’m not interested in debating who does or doesn’t get to use that label, but it is worth considering who such a gathering might be for. If you think it’s for someone else, then you will probably also think it should feel different, and have a different format or content.

So first, let’s narrow it down. I’m talking about the UK. And I’m talking about the making of physical objects, with some kind of human craft or work involved – so not pure software, and not the manufacture of Happy Meals toys. But pretty much everything else.

And next, let’s broaden it out. I’d include artists (those who actually make something themselves); craftspeople who make one-offs to sell to collectors, but also manufacturers of craft goods; manufacturers that employ skilled workers to assemble products for specialist or mass markets; product designers and engineers, hardware startups, but also micro-manufacturing enterprises outside of the VC-funded model; engineers; materials scientists; people who make for fun, for profit, or to solve a problem. I’d also include researchers, writers, educators, makerspace managers, academics, policy makers, evangelists, critics, investors and others who play roles around the core activity of making. And people who work alongside the core makers: people from manufacturing supply chains, cloud services developers or UX designers for IoT hardware, retailers and online networks and marketplaces for makers.

That’s what I mean by ‘maker’. YMMV.

What should it feel like

Clearly it should be inclusive, if it seeks to cater to a broad audience like the one I outlined above. I think the opportunity is partly to expose ourselves to wildly different viewpoints: from people from different disciplines or traditions, but also different cultures. What does a maker from a fine leatherwork tradition in Italy have to say; what about someone working with constrained resources in the developing world; what about someone who’s developing new materials for extreme use cases, or someone who pulls their material straight out of the earth.

So, yes, radically diverse and open to all.

A gathering of friends. It’s not about experts on a stage; it’s about the people there, and an event providing the excuse to meet old and new friends. To engage with new people, and to feel confident doing so. This is tricky to do, and needs careful venue selection, and consideration of format, layout, staging and programming. But I think one of the strongest qualities of makers is our comfort in being both teacher and student; an appetite for learning all the time, and an openness to expertise coming from anywhere or anyone.

Made by makers. My Big Hairy Audacious Goal is for the event to start with a barn raising, maybe with a giant hall, like a huge version of Tog Studio’s boathouse on the Isle of Tiree. I’d like food, chairs, tables and lighting, printed material, badges all made with intention, craft and critical reflection. And I’d like us to make the programme together too, focused curation notwithstanding. Taking something in spirit from the unconference format (In my experience of EMF, this ethos worked very well.)

What could it achieve

If everyone leaves with new friends, connections and ideas, I’m happy.

Conferences help build momentum. I know from feedback from Brighton Mini Maker Faire that when people come to events and meet people like themselves, they feel part of something bigger; and that gives them energy to do and create new things. Gatherings create a sense of community, of critical mass, a sense of inevitability that is fertile soil for ideas and entrepreneurial spirit.

There is a lot of boosterism within the Maker Movement. That has benefits, but if it comes at the expense of critical reflection, it can be dangerous. People waste energy on things because they’ve been over-hyped, when they could be using that energy more effectively elsewhere. People can dream of utopian futures that crumble over time, and then they become disillusioned and disengaged. (For a crude parallel from recent history, we dreamt of The Well, and we got Facebook.) With only a shallow understanding of what’s happening, what needs to be built or fixed, and where the opportunities are, we make poor choices. As informed participants, we’re better placed to create the kind of future we want, rather than have someone else’s future imposed on us.

And finally, we rely on support from others: government, investors, industry, etc. Better informed partners are more likely to offer useful support.

What now?

This is my sketch. It’s a way for me to figure out roughly what I think about this now. I’m sure my views will be very different in 6 months, in large part because I hope others will have differing views, and help change my mind. So I’m sharing this in part as a straw man. I also want to bring partners, supporters, funders out into the open; some of them already are; we always need more. I’m going to keep pushing at this, and I’m looking forward to doing that with others who feel in some part the same.