MAKING a better world?

This post is part of a series about Governing Emerging Technologies that I’m writing for a UCL course of the same name.

Last month, I was fortunate to visit Rome for the first time. I was there to present a UCL project I am involved in – Darwin Toolbox – at the European Maker Faire.

Maker Faires, MAKE magazine, and the world wide growth of Fab Labs (Fabrication Laboratories), including UCL’s own Institute of Making, are all part of the wider Maker Movement, a currently trendy form of DIY and DIWO – do it yourself and do it with others. Making has blossomed especially around technologies such as home 3D printing, and accessible “maker-friendly” microcontrollers.

The Maker Movement is at the heart of user-centric innovation. In Democratising Innovation, Eric von Hippel asserts that technology developed by users usually has a better market-fit. This does not sound surprising. Indeed, MIT‘s Neil Gershenfeld, one of the pioneers of “personal fabrication”, has described the “killer app” of Making to be the process of creating products for the “market of one”, ie. a truly personal product. This is maybe best exemplified by the current obsession in 3D Printing – at the Maker Faire in Rome alone there seemed to have been hundreds. These days when “3D Printing” comes up in conversations it strikes me as having an symbolic quality. A 3D printer turns into an almost magical device, akin to a replicator from Star Trek.
(Unfortunately, a 3D printer is not going to make you an “Earl Grey Tea, hot” any time soon, although a group of mechanical engineering students at UCL is working on a 3D chocolate printer…)

MakerBot vs. Star Trek

3D printers are not just 3D printers, they are a promise of empowerment. This concept of empowerment is one of the key values of the Maker Community. One particular network of makers I’m involved with is DIYbio, which specifically deals with biological materials. A few years ago, at a meeting in London, the community pro-actively discussed the issues of ethics, responsibility and values of “do it yourself biotechnology”. This culminated in a poster that visualized the desired responsibilities and values that DIYbiologists should aspire to, including being accessible, having a beneficial impact and following safety standards to minimize risks.

DIYbio Code of Ethics

In this way, both the resulting objects as well as process of Making itself is often value-laden and seems to inherently support concepts such as openness and democratisation of innovation.

Intuitively, it would seem that this model of innovation would make technology “lock-in”, the concept that certain technologies become so pervasive that we can not stop using them, a lot less likely. Traditional innovation tends to be seen as linear, favoring innovation without diversions towards the development of one technological platform. By contrast, this user-centric, open, personal innovation model instead seems geared towards breeding diversity.

On the other hand, many of the projects of makers rely on “standards”, one of the guiding principles of engineering that enable fast and accumulative innovation in the first place. An example for a standard amongst the Maker community is the Arduino, an open source microcontroller.

An Arduino costs between £5 and £15 and has made prototyping and rapid development of electronics extremely accessible. As an example, UCL’s Institute of Making hosted a number of workshops that taught students without experiences in electronics or programming to build circuits that controlled multiple LEDs controlled by switches, sensors, etc., all in one short afternoon.

Could we say that the Arduino is one of the technologies that the Maker Community is “locked into”, or is it just a standard that enables innovation and sharing of designs? These seem to be two sides of the same coin. (This topic really deserves its own blog post, but for now, I wanted to at least sketch this idea).

So far, the examples of making we have seen concentrate around rich countries – makers as hobbyists – but if personal fabrication is about serving the needs of markets currently not served, then the real potential lies in the marginalized communities of the bottom billion countries. A lot of debate around technology centers on the question of how to make an impact to “poor people” and how to avoid phenomena such as 10/90 gap, which describes the inequality of research spending in medicine – only 10% of the worldwide budget targets issues that affect the poorest 90% of the worldwide population.

Could personal fabrication in these areas lead to solving problems that really matter?

One of the best talks from 2009’s TED India was given by Anil Gupta, a business professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedebad. He founded the Honey Bee Network to facilitate bottom-up innovation for and by those who are economically marginalized, yet not, as he puts it “marginalized minds”. I really recommend listening to his story of the origin and results of the Honey Bee Network! (I also have a word limit to stick to, so I shall not go into more detail here…)

A particularly interesting point from the talk was the idea of “cycle based technologies”. Is the cycle a mechanical standard and innovation enabler, in the same way that the Arduino is for electronics?

Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 01.52.58

I found some of these examples very inspiring and uplifting. A lot of the discussions around emerging technologies that we have in the course (for which I’m writing this blog post) focus on the problems and issues, the aspects that should leave us sceptical. The Honey Bee Network and Maker Community in some ways reminded me that innovation and technology is not just something for big companies to create and STS students to criticise, but the act of innovating itself is empowering and integral to the human condition.

As long as we don’t fall into the One-Laptop-Per-Child, “let’s give each poor child a 3D printer so they can print themselves out of poverty” trap, I think creating the technical and social infrastructure for personal fabrication and innovation could be of tangible benefit to the economically marginalized. Obviously, this is not a silver bullet against poverty, in the same way that Internet access alone won’t save the world. But empowering those people, who few companies see as interesting markets to innovate for, to become innovators in their own right, seems to me to be undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

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