2012: The Year of Maker-Friendly?

There’s been a lot of buzz about Sugru for a couple of years now; I’d read the coverage, played with the stuff, but hadn’t bothered to buy any until today. It was the same with opensource software and, later, opensource hardware. I’d see the buzz, lurk for a while, then commit a couple of years in. It happened with linux, it happened with arduino, and it will continue to happen; I hope to get my hands on an affordable 3D printer soon.

As I completed my Sugru transaction, I marvelled at the site and the way it made me feel; and it occurred to me that perhaps we were not far off a time when “maker-friendliness” became valuable, as the tectonic plates of society did their regulation generation shift.

And it made me think about the whole concept of maker-friendliness, in terms of what it could mean, how it could be claimed or certified, who would do the claiming. All of which would need some answers to the why and the when as well.

So I thought I’d share what I’d been thinking about, see what you thought about it, learn from your comments.

The essence of maker-friendliness: one person’s perspective

My formative years were spent in India, more specifically in Calcutta. One city, two addresses (three if you’re being pedantic), 23 years. Throughout my time there, I was able to observe a city of makers. People who built or made things from first principles, from raw materials. Houses were built from scratch: you saw the doors and windows being made, the floor mosaics were made and laid in front of you, glass was cut to size, paint was mixed to the tones required, the furniture was not just made in front of you, it was made to suit the environment it was meant to fit in.

Labour was extensive and affordable. “Custom” was cheap and “manufactured” was expensive. There were a few manufactured goods, mainly electrical. Electronics was busy being invented, the transistor found its way into our lives only in the early 70s. There was an automobile industry, any colour you like as long as it was a copy of 1950s designs from Austin, Fiat and Standard. White goods were rare largely because they didn’t serve much purpose: electricity was not in reliable supply.

Besides shelter and transportation, the same was true of food. Food was rarely available in processed form, and frozen food was unheard-of. Dishes were prepared from scratch: fresh herbs, fresh spices, everything chopped and ground and dried or made into paste in front of you. (And everything smelt heavenly). Fast food was rare as well, except via the street vendor, whose particular chemistry of secret spices attracted and beguiled all who passed.

Clothing fared no better. Manufactured clothes, particularly those made from artificial fibre, were rare, expensive and (sadly) sought after. [I wonder how many Asians of my generation were “forced” to wear terylene shirts, clammy, incapable of absorbing perspiration, rash-forming, ill-fitting and altogether decidedly uncomfortable? All this in preference to handmade pure cotton tailored, absorbent, skin-friendly shirts that had somehow become unfashionable…. how life changes.

Things worked. And when things didn’t work, they were repaired. Made to work. By people who knew what they were doing, people who showed mastery in their skill. They would observe something not working, listen, sometimes touch and feel the not-working thing: I have seen car mechanics put their ear to a car bonnet and just listen, intently, and then pronounce what needed to be done.

Repairing was about making do. Spare parts were rare. So the first resort was to try and use what was already there, mutate the existing part. The second resort was to cannibalise the part from some other thing, again with mutation as needed. The final resort was to make the part from scratch.

There was no resort called “throwing it away”. Not last, not first, not ever. Shoes, clothes, even cars. Mended, not replaced.

Some household goods were mass-manufactured. So I saw people buy toothbrushes, toothpaste, sugar, salt, pepper, “Western-style”. But I also saw people clean their teeth with sticks of neem and with salt. I saw people “making” salt by boiling sea water. I saw people use molasses or jaggery instead of “refined” sugar. You could buy polished rice as well as brown, natural, still-with-husks rice.

Sugary and carbonated drinks were rare. Cold sugary and carbonated drinks were rarer still. When you had a fruit drink, it started with the fruit in front of you. If you wanted, you could pay someone to make the drink for you: this was common for things like sugarcane juice, where the cane was crushed between two heavy cylinders and the juice run-off collected and served. But if you wanted you could just chew the sugarcane yourself.

We were relatively well off; more accurately, we thought we were relatively well off, and we were treated like we were relatively well off. And so, like many other Indian families, we had servants. And service was not seen as a stigma. Handymen were common, people skilled at fixing things and altering things to suit changed needs. I was one of five siblings. By the time number five arrived it was clear that we needed more beds. But the bedroom (singular) wasn’t expandable. And bunk beds were dangerous because of an odd contraption called the ceiling fan, which worked sporadically and could therefore cut heads off sporadically as well. So we contrived. [Our family motto was for sure We Shall Contrive. For some reason I think its adoption as a motto had to do with Georgette Heyer, it may well have been through one of her Regency books that we discovered and adopted the motto].

The contrivance was simple. Two beds of normal height. And two further beds that came out at night, on wheels, staying underneath the normal beds by day. Custom built for us. When furniture was made, it was made from scratch. Something needed re-caning? The cane was stripped and prepared in front of me. A chair needed mending? Dowels and plugs were made to size in front of me. I cannot remember our buying a single piece of furniture during my childhood or youth. Repairing, yes. Re-upholstering, yes. But buying new? Not a chance.

When you read my attempts at formulating a list of what makes something maker-friendly, please bear the foregoing in mind. I am a product of my experiences.

Maker-friendly attributes

Before I can call something “maker-friendly”, I would look for the following attributes:

Based on “first principles”: There were instructions as to how you could make the thing yourself if you so chose, using simple accessible”raw” materials. From “first principles”, a la what Marcin Jakubowski and his friends have been up to with Open Source Ecology and The Global Village Construction Set.

Underpinned by communal learning: If you did use the instructions from scratch, it was to be based on what Doc Searls called NEA in the early days of open source: Nobody owns it; Everybody can use it; Anybody can improve it. NEA provides a sense of community and sharing that I found powerful at the time, and continue to find powerful.

Commoditised by design: For many years I thought of something as “commodity” when the price was driven down by open competition. More recently, I think of something as a commodity when it has no real differentiation in itself, when it can be used for a variety of purposes. Not “standardised”. Commoditised. Where you can modify purpose at will, as in “this used to be part of my bicycle and will now be used to repair that grandfather clock”.

Lookable under-the-hood: You should be able to take it apart, even if you find it hard to put back together. The putting-back together should not require specialist machinery that is hard to find or rent.

No parts-ransom: Repair must be something you can do yourself, without having to buy spares from a specific outlet. Without invalidating the warranty. [The more I think about, the more I realise that the very concept of warranty may need simplification, and possibly doing away with completely. Something is either fit for purpose or it isn’t. Perhaps warranty has become a Trojan Horse besieging Makers worldwide].

Globally available: Regional constraints in licenses and agreements are often reprehensible. Even today, I was frustrated that a book I wanted to buy was not available in the UK while it had been released in the US. Ironic, since the book was about reform of copyright! I tend to think that region coding of DVDs was perhaps the single stupidest technical “invention” I have come across, stultifying its inventors in its ability to pave cowpaths.

Encouraging development of skills: This one’s likely to be contentious, but I feel strongly enough about it to give it a try. Maker-friendly things will encourage the acquisition and development of a skill or skills, will help lead to achieving mastery of the skill or skills.


Maker-friendliness: How it is claimed, who does the claiming

I think that there is a case to be made for the “manufacturer” of the goods in question to make the claim; but as a community we can get involved in the process. It’s still very early days, but I was thinking something along these lines would work:

  1. The community sets up a Maker-Friendly site, probably a wiki, listing what makes something maker-friendly: it doesn’t matter whether the community uses any of the things I’ve suggested, what matters is that there is a community-verified list of attributes, the “terms” of Maker-Friendliness.
  2. Someone who wishes to claim “maker-friendliness” then uploads the reasons why into the Maker-Friendly Wiki, and then unilaterally agrees to adhere to the terms. Legally binding.
  3. The claim is rated by the community, term by term. There is a threshold below which no claim is assertable. After that, a Maker-Friendly score is available for the product or service, a score that is a derivative of individual term ratings.

Maker-friendliness: Why and why now

This is no longer about politics or “freedom” or utopianism or anything like that. It’s about being stewards of what we have on earth…. as a community. It’s about that stewardship, and about bringing more sustainability into our actions. It’s about reducing waste.

And it’s about unleashing creativity. By the truckload. Because we’ve been wasting the latent creativity of whole generations by denying them the opportunity to be makers, denying them the satisfaction of gaining mastery in skills that have meaning. And sometimes mystery as well.

What next?

Well, if people are interested in the idea, something will happen. If people like what I wrote, they might involve me. And if the idea’s not worthwhile, it will die. Which is what it will deserve if people don’t like it.

Views? What can I improve? Where have I gone off beam? Let me know.

13 thoughts on “2012: The Year of Maker-Friendly?”

  1. Hi JP,

    As I am sure you can imagine this post strikes a number of chords. For example, one of our principle objectives with SolderPad is to oil the wheels of communities that are developing maker-friendly electronics, and to help make the designs they create friendlier.

    This aside—although not exactly unrelated—over the years I have become increasingly concerned about the growing compartmentalisation of skills and production capability, coupled with a worrying disconnection with how stuff works or comes to be. Food, clothing, electronics or software — so much of this is prepared elsewhere, out of sight, by someone else. At low cost (that is direct, immediate and to us). We can largely afford to throw something away when the batteries fail to hold charge, the supermarket label suggests it’s no longer at its “best” or because a seam has come undone. This has to be unsustainable and at the very least creates infrastructures that are not as resilient as we might hope (and need!) Of course, this default position of ignorance also means that we miss out on so much that is fundamental to everyday life.

    So, I really do hope that 2012 is The Year of Maker-Friendly and that we learn from the Todmorden story, craft breweries continue to flourish etc, and we make more and become more engaged in how things are made. I firmly believe that making is very good for us psychologically, in addition to the environmental and economic benefits afforded by local production and the manufacture of things that can be maintained.

    As to the call to action: I need to give this some more thought. As ever, pragmatism is key and I like the approach you have suggested. However, I’m mindful of the various schisms we’ve seen in open source, and how there will always be freeriders who dine out on association whilst bending the terms.

  2. Warranties aren’t as set in stone as many people assume. In the UK, the Sale of Goods Act speaks exactly to the fit for purpose parameter you describe. Thus when my TV stopped working after 20 months, I was able to cite the expectation that electrical goods should have a life of 6 years regardless of warranty period and thus obtained a 70% reduction in the repair bill. My TV had experienced 20 months of “depreciation” but the one year warranty was irrelevant.

  3. JP,

    Not sure if you’re aware of the OH&A initiative:


    I believe they were at one point looking at using a protected trademark as a way of certifying open hardware. There has been various talk of using this to effect something like a copyleft for physical objects — take away freedom and you lose the right to use a mark. In any case, perhaps an interesting initiative as there is some overlap in terms of trying to solve the problem of building trust/providing assurance.

  4. JP,

    No doubt!. Maker-friendliness is the need of the hour for both the maker and consumer!. It reduces waste and its durable/sustainable from ecology standpoint. The question is – Is it sustainable from economy standpoint?.

    The very fact that Open source software movement has lost its momentum in the last few years is that its not competitive and economically viable amidst the free-market/capitalistic economy.

    If people make it just for fun and passion, its fine!.

  5. @bala not sure why you say that open source has lost momentum. not from my perspective. why do you say that? do you have some data I have not come across?

  6. Hi JP,

    In my experience, the procurement teams in enterprise IT are much more comfortable buying software from a vendor than Fully free open source software. Enterprises look for ‘Intitutionalized Open Source’ – the feel is the more the better.

    Recent Gartner analysis on Open source adoption states that Open source software will occupy 30% of IT portfolio, having a 10% growth after 5 years. I feel the growth rate is less compared to the initial momentum that we saw when the open source trend picked up about a decade ago or so. And 69% of the companies that adopt open source don’t have a adoption policy, that means the adoption happens more tactically at grassroot developer level and not strategically at corporate level. This is a huge number!. If I have to summarize this phenomenon in other words, anything that saves cost & acceptable quality would get embraced anyway as the next best alternative!. I feel Maker-friendliness is much more than cost!

  7. @bala, open source should always be seen as Free As in Freedom, not Free As in Gratis. “Open to competition” is another way of looking at it. Enterprises are often in Stockholm Syndrome, they’re comfortable being hostages and victims. I’ve written about this a few times, why enterprises need someone to blame….. I must look through the Gartner figures, there’s a lot of open source activity going on right now in enterprises…. it’s so mainstream that people may not notice….

Let me know what you think