“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Kathmandu Maker Faire is unlike any I’ve ever been to. In a city still recovering over a year later from an earthquake that killed tens of thousands and leveled buildings across the country, there are abandoned and uninhabitable structures everywhere. Concrete residential buildings and ancient temples are scabbed in bamboo scaffolding, and wooden posts shore up canted walls in old courtyard shrines. Looking around, it’s sometimes unclear what is being demolished, what is being repaired, and what has simply been left empty. Everything here is makeshift, everyone here is making do, everyone here is a maker. It may not be pretty, it may not be safe, but it works.
The makerspace set up at the heart of the Faire was built in 6 shipping containers donated by the UN, and fitted out into a workshop and two classrooms by the amazing people of Nepal Communitere and their founder, Sam Bloch, with help from Chris Breedlove of Burners Without Borders.
Out of these containers and a few thousand dollars worth of donated tools, a makerspace emerged over 2 days and is already reaching deep into the heart of the community, inspiring and delighting.
Partnering with the Robotics Association of Nepal, and Kharkana to run the workshops for kids, this place is teaching and inspiring young and old alike from all around Kathmandu. Nepal Communitere, though initiated by Sam Bloch, is now entirely staffed by locals, trained and empowered to bring making as a tool for rebuilding their nation, strengthening their community, solving their own problems.
Unlike so much of what falls under the heading of humanitarian aid, their work is not charity, because charity only ever looks down with pity. This kind of work, this humanitarian making, gives the recipients not charity, but agency, self-governance, and dignity. And the only kind of charity that’s worth a damn is the kind that intentionally makes itself obsolete.
This theme — of dignity over charity — ran throughout the entire event, and seemed to exemplify this notion of humanitarian making, and indeed gets at the heart of the Maker Movement itself. Not just what do we make, but why?
Some highlights of the Faire included Alaso Haiti, a company that turns the omnipresent styrofoam waste in Haiti into a lightweight and earthquake resistant building material. The founder, Michael Spinola, has trained up a team in the framing and construction practices necessary to make a safe and sturdy house, and empowered them to apply culturally appropriate design and execution of these practices. Now he goes back to advise and coordinate, but not because they need him to do the job.
Tikkun Olam Makers, or TOM, is an Israeli group that hosts hackathons around designing solutions for the disabled. But not the disabled in general, or even some broad category. They make contact with specific people, who they refer to as the “need-knowers” and integrate them directly into the design and prototyping process. They have designed solutions for paraplegics, quadruple amputees, mountain climbers who lost their fingers, and so on. They have used off the shelf parts and 3D printing to turn a manual wheelchair into a motorized one. They are working on prototyping solutions like these in their international hackathons, and setting up a global marketplace for these inventions to find the people who need them.
Field Ready is another group squarely in the middle of the humanitarian aid and maker worlds, bringing to bear strong engineering backgrounds as well as supply chain logistics, and with a keen eye towards empowering local people to affect meaningful and culturally appropriate change. With so many maker organizations focused on product and market, it’s refreshing to see a group with the bigger picture of supply chain and logistics. It’s all well and good to design and 3D print a part to help with refugee camps or disaster sites, but what if you put the locals who already sell the same thing out of business? Andrew Lamb, their Director of Innovation, spoke eloquently about the dangers of well meaning aid without the ability to draw from and feed back to the local supply chain and economy.
The founder of Global Innovation Gathering, Geraldine De Bastion, gave a presentation that is in many ways the inspiration for this article, on what she called Critical Making. Posing the question to us all, “If we can make anything, what do we make?” she spoke compellingly about the very real problems facing the world, and the ease with which we can respond only to the problems that are within our bubble, or easily monetizable, or simply low hanging fruit. She spoke of the difficulty being faced by the emerging maker community in Iraq, where they are trying to convince the government that they are legitimate craftspeople and not ISIS bomb makers, even though they order the same materials. Her work has brought together makers and innovation hubs around the world, in particular throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, creating a social and political framework for mutual support, impact investment, and policy change.
Liter of Light, a global non-profit foundation bringing cheap solar lighting to slums around the world, teaches people with limited or no access to electricity how to use recycled plastic bottles and locally sourced materials to illuminate their homes, businesses, and streets.
Nepal Innovation Lab, a project of the World Vision International organization, takes a much broader approach to this same theme of building resilient, self-sustaining, and interconnected communities, by marrying the best of the international aid sector with the innovation and expertise of the private maker and business sectors.
On the rooftop of the main Communitere building, Japanese architectural grad student Kintaro Oiwa’s experiment (and thesis project) was taking shape. A house made entirely of CNC plywood, something that could be produced in a makerspace and flat packed, then assembled on site without fasteners.
I gave my own presentation, representing the maker incubator, Pollen, as well the maker networking platform, MakerNet, speaking on the challenges facing the Maker Movement as a whole, and the myriad ways that makers around the world are reaching towards some sort of cohesion. I spoke about our work over the past year in building a platform to network all the makerspaces in the world together, to provide free logistical and administrative services to all. I spoke about our vision of a free and open MakerNet, that allows makers to move freely among spaces around the world, and our vision for a distributed incubator model that reduces risk and distributes rewards for successful innovation among the community.
If you’ve attended any Maker Faires, it rapidly becomes clear that it’s difficult to imagine something beyond the scope of our ability to create. The commonplace of today was the science fiction of 10 or 20 years ago, and the most far-fetched ideas of today are already starting to take shape in the minds and hands of makers, thinkers, and engineers around the world. All this begs the question, though, that if we can make anything, what do we make? Why do we make it, and for whom?
The Maker Movement came out of the desire to create and play, make mistakes and try again, to get our hands dirty and solve problems for the simple fun of doing so. What is less often talked about in the developed world, though I think no less important, is that this movement also arose out of a universal desire for the dignity that comes from creating rather than consuming, from preferring our own imperfect solutions over the polished and impersonal products sold to us every day. And this is the common thread, and the reason why I see this humanitarian Maker Faire as so important. Because the world is changing rapidly — everywhere, people are struggling, social contracts are dissolving, the climate is destabilizing, and storms are only getting stronger and more frequent.
While it’s true that we all have the right to play and experiment, to make for the sake of making, or to make money, we also need to remember to ask why we make. If we are making to help solve a real problem, are we offering charity, or are we offering dignity?
The Communitere makerspace and the efforts of those involved are wholly sustained through the generous donations of our supporters. Please consider becoming a part of our movement by making a contribution here.