Open World: Bangalore’s Maker Scene

Open World: Bangalore’s Maker Scene

written by Liam grace-Flood, edited by Saba Mundlay

“You’ll never see a broom or a shovel with a proper handle. Why? Because the upper castes like to see the lower castes hunched over.” The word “never” is an overstatement, but what this stranger said to me in passing suggests something important – walk down the streets of Bangalore, and you’ll see a lot of people using really poorly designed tools to do their work (especially manual work with little room for creativity or innovation).

Compare this with the incredible tech boom the city is experiencing. Bangalore has tripled in population since the 90s and nearly every big American tech company has a headquarters here. Companies aren’t just outsourcing their call centers — they’re bringing high level design and programming work here too.

That’s why I expected to find a strong maker scene: the market is saturated with workers skilled in design, engineering, and management, and there’s a huge need for those skills in spurring bottom-up innovation for everyday people. The Maker Movement could help address that disparity between the need for affordable innovation and the drive for high tech development, but progress is slow.

The first Makerspace (and the only FabLab) to take root in Bangalore is Workbench Projects. (you can see Maker Tour’s recent profile here). When trying to get their own small projects off the ground, the founders realized there weren’t any suitable spaces or resources. So beginning in a garage in 2013, they set about creating the space they wish they had had.

They’ve since moved into a 5,000 sq foot space under Halsuru Metro Station, which includes a bio lab, co-working spaces, and a cafe alongside separate studios for electronics, textiles, and carpentry. They have at least one working 3D printer, a pretty big laser cutter, and a small-medium CNC milling machine. In line with many Maker values, they celebrate facilitation rather than teaching; support DIY projects; and advocate responsible innovation.

Located in Ulsoor, they’re right down the road from a plethora of materials and tools suppliers, making the neighborhood a one-stop shop for making almost anything.

That, and their good timing, has placed them at the center of the Maker movement in Bangalore and India as a whole. Pavan Kumar, the space’s founder, initiated Bangalore’s first mini Maker Faire back in 2015, and this year they’re working with the Indian Government to host Maker Faire in Bangaluru Palace. They’ve come to partner, collaborate, or otherwise do work for several of the biggest names in tech, like Google, Intel, and IBM. Just a few months ago, Hyperloop India’s pod design, which was developed at Workbench Projects, was one of five teams shortlisted for the Hyperloop One Global Challenge.

On a wall, they’ve inscribed, “We want to put the power of innovation in every hand,” and while they do a lot of work with students, and a lot with companies, there’s room for improvement in serving more economically underrepresented groups. For example, full makerspace access costs ₹3540 (about $60) per month – which, while comparable to the spaces I worked with in London and the other Bangalorean makerspaces, can be prohibitive for many here (consider that the average salary in Bangalore is less than $10k/year).

Economic inequality is relatively easy to understand and put numbers behind, but its interplay with Bangalore’s history of patriarchy and casteism are much more difficult to untangle. In my experience, most makerspaces in Bangalore make a vocal effort to reach out to and include female makers, but I heard almost nothing about correcting caste discrimination. A relative novice in these issues, I’ll defer to this recent piece in Round Table India, arguing a similar point: that Bangalore can be ignorant to its sexism, but is severely ignorant to its casteism. Workbench has taken the first steps toward talking about democratization as a core value, but again, has more work to do.

One of Bangalore’s more specialized spaces is IKP EDEN, which focuses specifically on incubating start-ups. The project grew out of IKP Knowledge park, a 200 acre campus in Hyderabad housing over 50 companies and 3000 scientists focused on biological research. Originally, the plan for IKP EDEN was to create a startup incubator on emerging medical technologies, but they’ve since branched out to support all kinds of hardware start-ups. Today, they’re a straight-forward incubator plus prototyping lab. Maker Tour did a run down of their space too.

They have about 40 start-ups in their 25,000 sq foot building. For example, Emflux is building India’s first electric sports bike; Greenvironment makes smart water monitoring systems; Skylark Drones makes drone systems for surveying land.

They also support about 20 or so hobbyist subscribers, and offer periodic workshops for amateurs. That said, their focus is definitely on helping people launch startups, and they have a distinctly professional feel. They might be most famous for their start-up accelerators and funding opportunities – they’ve partnered with USAID, the Gates Foundation, BIRAC, and numerous other organizations to support projects in as many ways as possible – beyond just offering space and tools. They also have the unique resource of the larger IKP facilities, where EDEN members can get access to a much higher caliber of biotech research tools than most makerspaces can offer.

They’re currently in the process of starting similar spaces in smaller cities around India, establishing a full range of incubators to take start-ups all the way through the scaling-up process. That’s what their founder, Vikraman Venu credits with their success where others have failed: a product approach, rather than project approach. He says pure makerspaces have struggled because their users will come in to develop a project, and then leave. IKP EDEN, on the other hand, partners with start-ups through every stage of the development of their product, not just offering prototyping facilities, but also co-working, advisory and funding support – so IKP becomes a company’s home base for every part of their journey.

On the other hand, THE Workshop is in many ways the opposite of IKP Eden, offering ad-hoc prototyping facilities for individual projects. They’ve gone so far in that direction as to offer hourly rates (220 rupees < $5 / hour), for really quick, spontaneous work. Of Bangalore’s three Makerspaces, they’re probably the most niche, with the fewest digital fabrication tools and the smallest space. Although their members work on some tech projects, their focus is definitively on architecture and art installations.

Annabelle Viegas (architect) and Craig Dmello (story teller) established the space as a base for their own projects, but came to realize that while their fabrication tools weren’t always being used, plenty of other people could benefit from access. They’re particularly passionate about offering physical work space to architects who, in the Indian system, often learn more theoretically than practically.

But the Maker movement here isn’t confined to makerspaces. Project Defy and Y-center are two educational programs bringing maker values of experiential learning and self-motivated discovery to Bangalore. Bookending my time in Bangalore were two maker events, WeWork x Coalition’s festival of creativity when I first arrived, and Maker Faire Bangalore just before I left. Then there’s the Make in India initiative, which was started in 2014 to spur Indian design and tech innovation, and in its second year brought in $63 B in foreign investments (although the jury is still out on how “Makerist” that really is – it may be largely top down, and has close ties to deeply unpopular new Goods and Services Taxes).

Regardless, Maker values have been making their way around India for a long time before we even used “Maker” language to describe it. In Hindi, there’s an old word Jugaad, which has many interpretations, but simply translated means “hack.” The Appropriate Technology movement was rooted in India, and India’s independence movement itself was swept in “Swadeshi,” a nationalist effort to create self sufficiency through local manufacturing. More recently, in an interview with the NY Times, the chairman of IBM’s Indian operations said, “I am looking for India to be my hub for affordable innovation.”

So the Maker Movement is definitely here. And while it mostly sounds great, in practice I found myself feeling conflicted. I set out to understand how maker cultures and spaces reflect different people and places, so I was surprised that despite their history of a uniquely Indian maker language and practice, Making here felt very American.

Rather than a grassroots movement based in local culture to address local issues, the Maker scene here felt like an orchestrated and intentional effort to recreate an American model. Instead of creating a platform for helping previously underrepresented people create change, makerspaces here felt very much like another branch of American big business in India.

At the makerspaces and maker events I visited, the people in power all seemed to have attended school and/or worked in America. And the majority of the rest seemed to work for American companies here in Bangalore.

I wondered: why is so much of India’s Maker talent looking to the States for school and work? Why haven’t makerspaces here fully adopted local issues? I think the answer is tied up in an Indian identity crisis: weighing a colonial past against an uncertain future.

Despite academic giants like IIT, everyone I spoke to here agreed that American and European schools are better. And while India is one of the biggest markets in the world, western companies generally have more resources and clout. So people here have a choice of tapping into that prestige, or trying to build power locally. The consensus seems to be that the latter remains much harder.

But the former isn’t exactly easy, either. Even copying western models and working on western projects, the makerspaces here have fewer tools and resources, smaller spaces, and worse infrastructure in comparison to the spaces I’ve worked with in the U.S. or UK— in large part due to the countries’ colonial histories.

It feels like there’s just less to go around here, which coupled with how many people there are, has led to a disconcerting level of competition antithetical to the maker movement. While in London, all the city’s makerspaces meet regularly as members of the Open Workshop Network, some makerspace founders here openly scoffed at the idea of collaboration. That feels like a core reason people and spaces here are constantly turning to American corporations – the prestige and resources they offer are a leg up in this very competitive tech world. While there’s a certain pragmatism to that, it feels like an agent of continued colonialism more than a rebuke of it.

So what to do in solving the problem posited in the first paragraph? When venting to my family about my confusion here, my mom said, “Why don’t you just go around and give people broom handles?” But Imposing my idea of what a good tool looks like is the opposite of what I’m trying to do. I can’t pretend to understand all the cultural reasons behind why things work the way they do here, so I’m not the best suited to diagnosing and/or solving problems.

Instead, I hope makerspaces can grow into being a place where local people can diagnose and solve their own problems. If they’re going to copy an American-initiated model, it might make more sense to look to organizations like IDIN, who make successful makerspaces in communities with many fewer resources than Bangalore has. Vigyan Ashram (the first Fab Lab outside MIT) provides a similarly powerful, but more specifically Indian model in Pabal (50km Northeast of Pune). They’ve been a hub of community tech that’s remained productive for the last 30 years. Both seem to prioritize impact over image, collaboration over competition, and local community education and technology as a means for empowerment: all worthwhile aspirations.

Makers here in Bangalore have to take a step back from building clout to reexamine those first principles. One of the most important tenets of Makerism is one most Bangalore makers have overlooked: the necessity of open collaboration. Makerspaces have to move past looking for projects that might succeed in a Western world, to address the problems around them. They’ve taken first steps. But it’s a long road to truly inclusive and collaborative empowerment— even for much more established spaces.

Where past Indian movements advocating similar values have faded, let’s hope the Maker Movement’s framework might (with time) find sustainable success.

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Liam Grace-Flood

An artist, engineer, and researcher, Liam makes all kinds of things, including public policy, fine art, electric motorcycles, and computational models. His passion for making is rivaled only by his dedication to ensuring other people have the resources they need to make, too. In that vein, as a 2017 Watson Fellow he's exploring how open workshops democratize and decentralize education, innovation, and industry to make better things, people, and communities.

You can find him at his website or on instagram

View more articles by Liam Grace-Flood
Saba Mundlay

I ​currently work as a data analyst / software developer at Consilience Learning. I'm always ready to talk to passionate people and think through interesting projects.

View more articles by Saba Mundlay


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