Art, watch parties and an Unconference are new at 2023 Open Source Hardware Summit
In conversation with Make: editors, Dale Dougherty and David Groom, Chair lee wilkins provides an overview of this year’s back-to-in-person Open Source Hardware Summit, which takes places this weekend in New York City. You can also attend virtually.
Dale: We’re talking to lee wilkins who is the Chair for the Open Source Hardware Summit this weekend. Can you give us more details?
lee: The Open Hardware Summit is this Friday and Saturday. It’s a two-day event. It’s the first time that we’re back in person after two years of being away. So it’s super exciting. It’s also the biggest summit yet. We’re having two full days of programming and all kinds of different things. It’s the first time we’re having workshops. It’s the first time we’re having an unconference, so there’s a lot going on.
Dale: It’s in New York City,
lee: Yes, it’s in New York City at the NYU School of Law.
Dale: What are you hearing from people about being in person again?
lee: It’s interesting because this is my first year chairing the summit while it’s in person. So I started during the pandemic, so it’s new for me too. I’ve never actually been to an open hardware summit in person, so it’s pretty wild to be chairing the event. One thing we definitely learned is that the community, as we had always hoped, is becoming more and more distributed. We have many people joining us from around the world, and we even have remote speakers that are joining us from around the world.
So even though the summit is physically taking place in New York, we’re still trying to keep alive this momentum. We got through the pandemic, which allowed us to have a much, much more diverse range of speakers.
Dale: So you’ll be streaming the event and people can be virtual attendees?
lee: Exactly. We’re trying to encourage people to have watch parties. So we have a page on our website that tells people how you can get like your local makerspace or whatever cool group is interested in open source hardware to get together and support the summit and have a local party of your own.
Dale: That’s a really good idea. Getting groups of people together. In the broad scheme of open source hardware, what do you think is changing or what’s new in this area that you think might be touched on at the event?
lee: We have a lot of really creative speakers this year. Whereas in the past, there’s been a lot of a focus on utility. Over the pandemic, there was a lot obviously on emergency response. This year we have a lot of really creative talks and workshops, taking a more artistic approach to open source hardware. This is not only directly how to do one specific thing, but how to take these technical concepts and expand on them to have your own artistic practice or your own creative practice or even solve problems that are much more local to different parts of the world.
What I really love to see is people taking the skills that they’ve learned and all the tools that we’ve made as makers and applying them to the specific things they’re interested in.
Dale: How do you explain to someone coming from say the art world, what is open source hardware? Why would I go to a hardware conference to talk about art?
lee: My background is in art, so I feel excited to answer this question. I feel like it’s something I talk about a lot with my other colleagues in other parts of my life. We, especially people who aren’t engineers or don’t have that kind of traditional technical background, might not know a lot about how the things we use are made; we might take it for granted, too. Maybe you think okay, this is just a tool that I use. Understanding the process that goes into making something and all of the work and all of the code, and all of the design, all of the people that are thinking about making this one specific object also opens up the creative ideas you can have with those tools.
It means something. The process used to build something has meaning. I think the words “open source hardware” don’t mean anything to a lot of people. But I try to explain it, thinking about how something is made and all the parts that go into it, and like demystifying that kind of black box that technology often is and what kind of activism we can do with it.
Dale: Artists share techniques with each other, and they’re used in very different ways. And this is another way of encapsulating technique in software. David, do you have any questions?
David: I’m going to be there. Perhaps tell us about some of the workshops and speakers and the keynote. I’d love to hear about that.
lee: I am super excited about our keynote speaker, Carlotta Berry. She is an amazing roboticist and educator and she’s talking about open hardware for the streets, and she does this amazing slam poetry about robotics. So I’m super excited to hear about that.
Dale: What are some of your favorite parts of the program? I know this is always a hard question to ask.
lee: I know. I want to highlight everyone. I love Andy Quitmeyer’s Bubblepunk Workshop. I’m really excited about that. I don’t even know what to expect. It sounds exciting. How could it be bad?
David: I’m definitely excited to go hands-on with Joey Castillo’s Open Book. That’s more of a traditional open hardware topic, but I’m really excited to check that out in person because his stuff is always great. Also the picture that I used for the blog post that I wrote about it was from the Feminist Radio Workshop, which I’m very excited about.
lee:. I absolutely love their work and I know they’ve been featured in Make a couple times.
David: Also the Kolam Antenna Workshop.
lee: That was the one I was looking forward to because there are several workshops about making hardware beautiful. That’s what I really love. For example, Alexandra Covor was one of our fellows last year. We actually have a bunch of folks who were fellows and who are now speakers, so that’s really satisfying. Alexandra Covor and Senja Jarva were both fellows and now they’re speakers. I’m also really excited for Amy Wibowo who’s talking about putting the personal in your personal computer. Amy’s done a ton of really cool work, just like making electronics “cute.” She’s done work with keyboards, work with making these like beautiful kits, as well as making really awesome zines. I’m really excited for that. Actually zines are like a theme this year.
Dale: I saw that Friday ends with a Zine workshop.
lee: So we’re trying to just get people out of the mindset where you just sit all day and then you go for a beer after. And that’s a conference.
At the end of the first day, we have a zine making session where we’re going to lead everyone to fold one of those little eight page zines and leave them with those zines for the night and let them fill in like some of their favorite piece of info they’re really passionate about or something they’re really excited about.
Then we’re going to scan them all and put them all on our website so we can just share some knowledge. On the second day we have an unconference, so we’re going to let people vote on the things they want to talk about. We had so many submissions this year, I think we had like between 80 and 100 submissions and we just didn’t have that many slots. There’s a lot of great things that just didn’t get featured.
We noticed one thing that was really interesting in a lot of the submissions. A lot were geographic-specific pitches that we just thought might be difficult to pitch for the whole conference, but with our breakout rooms and stuff, we can let people kind of form smaller groups and have discussions.
Dale: You’re going to do the unconference also virtually. People can participate remotely in that as well.
It’s going to be a lot to juggle.
lee: It is. It’s a bit intimidating. But I am super excited and I think the community is too.
Dale: What’s the state of the Open Source Hardware Association?
lee: We’re still certifying open source hardware, of course, as we’ve been doing the whole time. So you can go and have your project certified. We also have a lot of other programs. For example, this year we ran the Trailblazers program, which just helped fund people working in academia on open source hardware to further their projects. So a lot of our Trailblazers are also speaking at the conference.
We also have the fellowship program, which supports people who are emerging creators and funding them to be able to come to the summit. We are also providing them with mentorship and networking, which is amazing. As you can see, we have some folks who I think have never spoken at a conference before or haven’t had this kind of platform who received the mentorship this year in the network and now are able to present this year.
Dale: I believe the first Open Source Hardware Summit was at Maker Faire in New York City. The Summit has expanded and was held in different places over the years. The early conferences were a lot about defining the licenses for open source hardware and how to extend software licenses to hardware. Then, it evolved to what does open source hardware really mean? How strict is it? Ultimately what are we trying to encourage? Now it sounds like the Summit is about the free-form applications of open source hardware.
lee: Absolutely. I think definitely, the way the community understands open source hardware has changed in the last 10 or 15 years.
Anyone who knows anything about electronics has heard the words “open source hardware,” whereas at that time I don’t know that the conversation was happening quite as much. We don’t even necessarily require that all of the projects or all of our people who are involved have their work certified. Of course we encourage it. We would love that they did but we don’t require that they are all certified. We hope they uphold the philosophies of open source hardware.
Dale: Sometimes the discussion of licensing gets very technical, but at the heart of the maker community was the interest in sharing your work so that others could build on it, benefit from it, understand it better. We don’t force sharing on people. They can choose to do whatever level of sharing is appropriate. But open source is just a method for sharing, a set of established rules that can be considered fair for all.
lee: Absolutely. There’s different philosophies on it too. Is your project open source versus is every piece of your hardware stack open source? A lot of people sometimes get really bogged down in those details. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people submitting to the summit. They say but I use this and this hardware and it’s not really open source. I’m like, okay. If you want to share and if you want to tell people about what you’re making, then we want you here and we want to hear what you have to say.
Dale: That’s good. That’s such a positive attitude. It looks like it’s also part of the inclusivity of the whole event to welcome lots of people, lots of different approaches and even lots of different definitions of what it means to be open.
Dale: I wish you the best luck this weekend.
lee: I’m so excited to hang out with David.
Dale: Thanks for writing for Make. I appreciate it.
lee: Oh yeah. It’s a blast. I love it.
Link to articles for Make: magazine: by lee wilkins.