Can indie-minded tinkerers get comfortable in the corporate world?
By Reena Jana
On a recent rainy morning I walked through the front door of a former bank in downtown Brooklyn to find myself in a dusty lobby with cracked windowpanes. An elevator ride took me to another floor where I found cluttered rooms filled with lopsided bookshelves, used beakers, and dirty wine glasses. Finally, I arrived at my destination: a NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION called Genspace, where an unlikely community of artists and attorneys, high school students and Ph.Ds, VENTURE CAPITALISTS, and architects regularly come together to get their hands dirty, literally—experimenting with, say, growing synthetic leather from bacterial cellulose.
That’s what the lively Genspace lab, behind its dingy façade, is all about. “We offer the possibility of getting into science hands-on,” Ellen Jorgensen, a TEDGlobal speaker and co-founder of the organization, told me. “We help people become able to talk more about and understand biology. Potential inventors can learn here.”
On the day I visit, a teenage boy tells me excitedly he’s working on genetically engineering the photosynthesis process, while a former lawyer acknowledges that he quit his job at a big New York City firm to become a full-time biology student after taking weekend classes at Genspace. This is a place where you can play around with living cells as if they are pencils and paper, where biological matter forms creative building blocks accessible to all. With varying DEGREES of knowledge, from absolutely none to professorial training, Genspace visitors make new materials or come up with ways to deploy organisms in fresh commercial contexts (like the “victimless leather” mentioned above) or engage in just plain adventurous projects.
Yet Genspace is more than a fascinating model for a laid-back, membership-based science facility that offers equal respect for weekend hobbyists, eager adolescents, and middle-aged pros. It’s also a striking example of how a cultural and philosophical trend known as the Maker Movement is evolving and starting to influence how the general public and big business alike understand new technologies.
A Significant Shift
If you’re unfamiliar with the Maker Movement, it refers to a scrappy, do-it-yourself approach to tinkering with robotics, electronics, SOFTWARE, industrial design, and, in the context of Genspace, biology. The Maker Movement gets its name from an event series known as the Maker Faire, launched in the 2000s by Make magazine, the DIY bible. Initially attended mostly by electronics geeks who read the publication, Maker Faire events now take place as far afield as China and Africa (the latter organized by TED Fellows consultant Emeka Okafor). Genspace participates in the New York Maker Faire. And beyond these conferences, “makers” are identifying themselves on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and in professional bios. They use DIY kits that provide basic hardware and software, and 3D printers, to make what they please. Why buy a mass-market, manufactured automated cat feeder when you can make—and customize—one yourself?
The movement is catching the eye of ACADEMICS, businesspeople, and investors, too. Economist Jeremy Rifkin described the Maker Movement “as significant as the shift from agriculture to the early industrial era” in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Oliver Medvedik, a co-founder of Genspace (and TED Fellow), notes that such spaces lower barriers to entry because everyone pays the same rate. “VCs are always wanting to come in,” he said. “They’re investing in biotech and want to find out about it for themselves, first hand.”
And companies that might feel threatened by the DIY movement are instead embracing the trend. In 2011 SOFTWARE maker Autodesk acquired Instructables, an online community of makers. Since early 2012, General Electric began hosting what it calls GE Garages, temporary workspaces that provide prototyping tools. The 2012 Maker Faire in the Bay Area featured non-DIY corporate sponsors as diverse as E-surance, PepsiCo, and Ford. Organizations that are committed to supporting engineering EDUCATION are also aligning themselves with the Maker Movement. In June, Intel and Cognizant, for instance, pledged to support an educational initiative called Maker Corps. Even the United States government is eager to channel the Maker Movement’s momentum. In May, DARPA (the U.S. Department of Defense’s agency for Defense Advanced Research Projects) announced that its new Adaptive Vehicle Make PROGRAM formed an alliance with TechShop, a national chain of maker workshops.
All of which leads many makers to question how the recent influx of curiosity and commitments—and venture capital—will impact the largely independent movement and possibly alter the spirit that defines it.
A Very Nice Elephant
Catarina Mota and I took up this topic while attending TEDGlobal this summer in Edinburgh, where she spoke. A slim young woman with a soft voice and a very slight Portuguese accent, Mota is an advocate of open-source design and a researcher of “smart” materials.
“I have been thinking a lot about the upside of corporations embracing making,” Mota, a TED Fellow, told me. “Of course, the downside is that it seems as if corporations are appropriating something that’s fresh and hip, like appropriation of graffiti. When companies tried to tap into graffiti culture, it was diluted and became branded.
“But makers are also about open-source: We’re not a club. We’re giving away instructions and information, sharing ideas to make more makers. So hopefully if large corporations create maker spaces, the movement will get more visibility. Through corporations, we can reach more people, have more resources.” In other words, Mota figures, if makers by nature have a “more the merrier” state of mind, corporate support can only help keep this sensibility alive.
The next day I posed the same question to Massimo Banzi, the Italian creator of Arduino, an easy-to-use SOFTWARE and hardware platform that lets makers create simple machines regardless of their age or computer programming abilities. Banzi, who also spoke at TEDGlobal, shares Mota’s blend of skepticism and optimism regarding the union of the Maker Movement and big business.
“Companies have been discussing consumer-driven innovation for a long time. In the Maker Movement, you see it become real,” Banzi, who is as warm and affable as Mota is, explained. It’s up to companies to be clever, to tap into networks of people who are hacking a product. I would think that if this happened, it would mean lots of excitement for a maker. And it would be exciting for businesses. There can be a lot of opportunities for both.” Banzi, bearded and dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans, believes that the Maker Movement is currently in “phase one” of its relationship with companies. That means there is considerable interest on the part of companies although they might not know yet how to harness the power of the movement, beyond its hipness.
“A metaphor for corporations that makers use is that they are elephants in the proverbial china shop,” Banzi said. “They are very nice elephants, but every time these big creatures move, they risk breaking everything. They don’t realize they’re breaking anything.” Problems can include misunderstanding the concept that makers can’t quickly produce goods on a huge scale—even if a well-funded backer puts up the cash. For their part, makers are more interested in the art, the humanity, and the craft of the very hands-on nature of product making, rather than the selling of the results of this process.
Banzi himself has embraced the corporate infrastructure. Since the start of 2012, more than 5,000 stores around the world—including mass-market retailers like Radio Shack—now sell Arduino. When asked about the impact of this business alliance, he offered a memorable anecdote. “I was in San Francisco, where I was supposed to host an Arduino workshop,” he recalls. “But my package, filled with Arduino kits, was stuck in customs. So I then went to Market Street where I heard there was a Radio Shack. I said I needed to build something for a demonstration, and the guy working there said, ‘Do you know about Arduino?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know a little about it.’ So I bought it. It was a good feeling. And I was able to give the workshop.”