Pick Up Your Tools and Get Started!

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Pick Up Your Tools and Get Started!

Maker Faire Trondheim

Last night at the reception for those of us attending the Maker Faire in Trondheim I gave a speech about the maker movement and its impact on society, and about the next industrial revolution which I feel is already well under way. For those that couldn’t be there, this was that speech.

If you were to pick out just two characteristics to define the human race, what would they be? What would you pick?

At least for me, I would have to say that the first is the desire to see what’s over the next hill, to explore, which admittedly is something that often gets us into trouble, but the second?

Well, that would be the ability—the need—to build things, which as far as I can see is generally what gets us out of trouble.

By our tools shall you know us.

There is evidence to suggest that the human race—or as close as we came back in the day—has been using tools for over 2 million years, and you have to wonder whether the first human to pick up an antelope’s leg bone with a speculative look on their face, is sharing that look with someone who is being shown around their local maker space, or fab lab, for the very first time, and who then encounters the laser cutter.

To make, is human. It’s who we are.

But over the last century or so we’ve become less, we’ve become consumers.

As our technology has become more and more complicated it has become increasingly harder to build things around it, to do with it things that were not intended… to improvise.

But the events of the the last few years has proved that this is going to be a transitory thing, a hiccup due to our stage of technological development.

Forced on us, perhaps not actually welcomed—at least by most people.

Because in the last few years we’ve seen the start of what I really believe will be the next industrial revolution, a movement of people away from being just workers and consumers, and back towards the being makers and artisans.

Every child knows that store bought presents are better.


Because in the modern world the learning curve to allow you to make something better than you can find in the store—generally for a fraction of the cost of making it yourself—is, was, steep. But the very technology that made that the case, has now unmade it.

This is one of those rare and precious moments in history that—no matter now grand the claims—will far outpace them.

Today the cost of tools—that were only a few years ago restricted to huge multi-national companies—has dropped to the point that you can build things yourself that are not only better than you can find in the store, but things that just flat out can’t be found in the store.

That will never appear in the store, because it’s a product addressing a niche so small that no normal manufacturer would build it, and no normal store would sell it.

But it’s not just that the gap between a prototype (a sketch in hardware), held together with tape and twine, and a product—something that someone else would pay money for—that is dropping. That huge learning curve, the learning curve between building the sketch and the final product, is getting shallower.

A good example of this—a poster child almost—is the Arduino micro-controller board.

It started off as a project to give artists access to embedded micro-processors for interaction design projects, but really, I think it’s going to end up in a museum as one of the building blocks of the modern world.

It allows rapid, cheap, prototyping for embedded systems. It turns what used to be fairly tough hardware problems into simpler software problems, and a week of serious thought just to get an LED to blink on-and-off suddenly condenses down to a few seconds… and possibly a Google search.

The Arduino, and the open hardware movement that has grown up with it, and at least to certain extent around it, is enabling a generation of high-tech tinkerers both to break the seals on proprietary technology, and prototype new ideas with fairly minimal hardware knowledge.

This maker renaissance has led to an interesting growth in innovation. People aren’t just having ideas, they’re doing something with them.

What the Arduino and the open hardware movement have done is made hard things easy, and impossible things merely hard again.

Before now, getting to the prototype stage for a hardware project was hard, at least for most people, and going beyond a crude prototype was impossible for many. Now it’s the next big thing.

Makers create and share projects. Calling some a maker doesn’t define who they are, or why they are making things, or even what they make.

…and this new generation of makers, tinkerers, who are now building open hardware instead of writing open software, seems (at least to many) to have come out of nowhere.

Except, of course, they haven’t.

We may be living in the future, but according to some, it hasn’t entirely worked out how we were promised.

I remember the predictions clearly: the 21st century was supposed to be full of self-driving cars, personal communicators, replicators and private space ships.

Except, of course, all that has come true.

Google just got the first license to drive their cars entirely autonomously on public highways.

Apple came along with the iPhone and changed everything.

Three-dimensional printers have come out of the laboratories and into the home.

And in a few short years, and from a standing start, Elon Musk and SpaceX has achieved what might otherwise have been thought impossible—they’ve reached orbit, and safely returned to Earth again.

Promised a future they couldn’t have, they’ve started to build it. But the only difference between us and Elon, Sergey, Larry and the two Steves, is that those guys have got to ability build bigger toys than the rest of us.

They might be the best of us, or sometimes just the luckiest, but they grew up with the same dreams.

…and the Maker movement is being driven by those same childhood dreams and ambitions. The need to build things.

Although… I’m still waiting for my flying car.

The lessons of the last industrial revolution are being turned on their head. Suddenly it’s almost become easier to build one, or five, of something than it is to build five thousand.

Suddenly its easier to put a niche product into production than one intended for the mass market, the easy access to crowdfunding means that the long tail is coming to things, to hardware, and that’s driving local economies. It’s driving on-shoring of production.

…and the convergence of all these things I’ve talked about is fueling a movement.

It has been estimated that in the US the maker movement is directly responsible for 28 million small businesses, and 2 out of every 3 new jobs. There’s a reason that why—earlier this year—the White House hosted a Maker Faire.

…and those people that would call themselves, self identify, as ‘makers’ is somewhere between 100 and 135 million, and that number is growing because the base of people that think of themselves as makers is growing.

As people find and become part of the community, going from zero to maker, then from maker to pro maker. The community expands.

Here in Europe things are a little different, at least in certain ways. I think that assumption of identity, the assumption of community and connectivity, is perhaps regrettably somewhat less.

It’s fundamentally not about the easy access to the tools, although that’s necessary, it’s a given. That has to exist. But instead it’s the sense of community is the thing that seems driving the growth in the US.

Because while tools are necessary, so it the knowledge to use them, and increasingly that’s all about the community that grows up around the tools. Because communities—in this day and age—are increasingly the medium for knowledge transfer. They’re the next step in education.

Of course that sense of community is growing here in Europe too, things are changing, and changing rapidly.

Last year was the year of a 100 Maker Faires, and the faires were scattered all over the world.

This year there 135 faires.

The community outside the US is growing rapidly, for instance last year saw the first faire in France.

…and while we’re here in Trondheim there are two other faires going on this weekend—one in the United Kingdom, and the other back in the US.

There are faires as far flung as India and Japan—Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Brazil.

When it comes down to it, making isn’t about the things you make, or the why of it. Why you’re making. It’s about the people that do it.

Today you can become a maker of things, today you can change the world. Today you can become part of the next industrial revolution. It’s an amazing time to be alive, to be part of this.

You just have to pick up your tools and get started.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

View more articles by Alasdair Allan


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