design_zoeromano02
You’re Doing What?make A Living Inventing Your Job

The (long) way heading (by subway) to the New York Science Hall, hosting the World Maker Faire in Queens, gives me time to read some free presses and resume an article of the sunday NYTimes I haven’t finished yet. It’s a long piece about the twilight of the US manufacturing sector, started from the 50’s to nowadays [1], and about the definite takeover of China. At the same time, other articles are dealing with the increasing unemployment rate, and with the even more worrying fact that one out of three US unemployed citizen has been jobless for more than a year. From long-term contracts to long-term unemployment. [2]

But it’s a fact that the Americans keep themselves busy, they are pragmatic and not afraid to get their hands dirty: the month before they’re working in a Manhattan’s skyscraper, and the following one they’re working at an experimental project in a Queens’ lab. Yes, It’s possible!.

And this is the same atmosphere you can feel @Open Hardware Summit [2a], and in particular @Makerfaire. Impossible and improbable projects become reality and succeed in achieving economic support through tailor-made formulas and ad hoc balancing acts. It’s not enough to have a bright idea, you need to cultivate a passion-driven team – more than a money-driven one – ; to keep up with people’s needs, and above all, to commit yourself to spreading your idea to people, so they can grasp its meaning and foster it both locally and globally.

For example, this is the case of Benedetta, originally from Italy, who lives in the USA and co-founder, along with Justin, of GroundLab. “In 2008 I used to work for a design company here in NYC. They started laying people off and not hiring. When it was my turn to be laid off we decided to start with our company as we’ve been working together on this project for one year. Now we are busy 70 hours a week. We don’t make loads of money, it’s more a life’s choice”.

Their company deals with research, development and prototyping; it supports NGOs, research groups, universities and relief agencies in finding or creating solutions for their businesses mainly basing themselves on open-source technologies. They presented their project @Open Hardware Summit and now they’re taking part to the Makerfaire . Their stand is hosting a stuffed lion with a collar. This is a tracking system which monitors lions in Kenya [3], in order to let them coexist with the Masai warriors and their cattle. When a lion is moving, the collar sends a text message to researchers and one to the Masai, in this way territorial conflicts and further killings of the last 2,000 lions can be easily avoided  

“Other companies are experimenting in this DIY and open source direction. They are focused on creating products, we are still more focused on services. Our clients come to us with a problem, then if it becomes a product it’s a good thing. More often is about research, field testing or other services they don’t have in-house. We can support ourselves and our business. We hope it will keep growing, like it has been doing ’til now. We have four or five full-time collaborators and around 50 freelance part-timers. They get payed but they also keep the rights to all they produce for us and can use it in other projects. One of our aim is to bring back small and medium manufacturing to NYC and most of the things we’ve been producing has the Made in NYC’ tag

Benedetta’s partner, Justin, grew up in Detroit and had been working in the fabrication field for more than ten years, mainly producing furniture or artistic objects for people who can afford them: “The majority of work was custom furniture for rich people or else working for artists. So a lot of the shops are geard towards high end one of stainless steel staircase, or something like that- You’re not making useful goods for people but making luxury goods” But then he adds But i think that’s changing. There are different factors that now allow a business like ours, addressing real organizations and help them build something to solve real problems”.

After this good chat with GroundLab’s duet, Josef Prusa (a twenty-one year old guy coming from the Czech Republic) starts his display on the main open-air stage of the fair. Makerfaire’s live stage c is pretty crowded and ready to listen to this young developer of one of the open-source 3d RepRap printers. We are talking about the well known Prusa Mendel, [4] more popular because it’s easy to assemble, to maintain and easier to replicate (i.e. to print the pieces you need to create an exact copy of it – autonomously – ).

At the end of his performance, Josef accepts to have a little talk with us. “I don’t work fully time on RepRap, I’m actually a student, studying economics. It’s definitely possible but I chose not to jump for it quickly. Because I saw other companies, when you jump into business it just turns into being everything about money and the joy just flies away. If you look for example at the Arduino team. They had to be really focused on not getting into this “money thing”. They think about creating new things and innovate. I want to find something in the middle between a business and the joy of it. Everyone is basically saying this, but in this context we can really create new business models. Right now I’m happy doing Rep Rap workshops. It’s a nice thing to get in touch with the guys who created the printer and with the community. I enjoy to work with the people and I earn some money and I flew here to NYC thanx to one of my workshops.”

In spite of these concrete chances, Josef explains how people are still reacting in a stunning and fearful way to the opening of codes , and the most frequent reaction to this topic is: “Ah you don’t have that patented? how can you make money out of it, it’s impossible!”.

While I’m walking through the Craft area , I bump into Owyn Ruck, in charge of the Textile Arts Center [5], whom I met some days before, as I was visiting Yield [6], a design exhibition on zero-waste fashion. I was not expecting to find her here, engaged into showing how to dye fabric with natural colours. I stop by and start talking to her, in order to get to know more about her experience in New York. People dealing – with design are often averse to showing off too much enthusiasm about DIY and everything concerning the makers scene: “We organized Yield to bridge design and making. In the fashion world they need this to be going on, they need people to understand how this stuff is made. If you want to design clothes and set it at a high price point, people aren’t going to purchase when the economy is going badly if they don’t understand why – And if this crafts are lost, the fashion industry is going to be effected as well and the professionals will suffer as well if the average person doesn’t understand this information. While we don’t want to be associated with one of those two things you can provide this information to everybody. We see a lot of times that even students coming out of the best fashion and design school and won’t know very simple things. Like they never screen printed before and they design prints. They work straight at the computer to pump out products without actually understanding the process which informs you to design a lot better. You can be more innovative if you understand what’s happening “

The center is based in Brooklyn and a second space has just been opened in Manhattan. They offer evening and weekend classes (a 12-hour course for a month costs approximately 200$ and includes the free use of the Open Studio for practice), focused on people who are already working and need to update and/or deepen their knowledge. Their instructors are mostly freelancers mainly working as designers, teaching in other institutions, but also having their own line of products and being consultant for bigger firms. Owyn Ruck thinks that diversification is the right pattern to follow : “If you want to have a profession around creativity you have also to be creative about the way you make your business”.

A different approach is the one at Bare Conductive [7], a small London start-up for the development of conductive materials. This fall they’ve launched their first two ink-based products acting as a conduit for electrical signals to run across a variety of surfaces – human skin included.

Isabel, one of the four partners, explains that everything started from the research undertaken during her last years at Royal College of Art. “The project came out of university, during our years at Royal College of Art in London and this was our thesis project. The four of us developed this idea of conductive paint with the idea that you can make circuitry really accessible to anyone at any level from children to adults. After we graduated we were approached by Sony because they wanted to use our paint for a video with interactions of a bunch of dancers. We did it and we saw there was a potential market for this. We started this company with a little private funding and we worked on the product for two years and this week we just launched it”.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SJCxN7xxxI

I ask her how much the opportunity to be in a context with great freedom of experimentation mattered, and how much the economic slump affected their career: “We did a course where our focus was on experimentation and it was very much based on the process so we didn’t say: this is what we are going to deliver but this is what we are going to study, experiment with and research. An idea that would turn into something or maybe not. Being in an environment where you have that freedom to experiment and playing around.. without that i don’t think we’d come up with the idea- I think that hackerspace and makerspaces are incredibly valuable because they provide people with a space for experimentation, get new ideas from different people and share knowledge. When we graduated in 2009, economically was a terrible terrible time to go out into the job market and if it happened in a good economy maybe we would have all just found our dream job and go our own ways but because there weren’t that many options we stucked with hour own idea. So in a way, it was a good thing there were no jobs out there so it forced us to see the value in what we had.”

 

Nearby, under one of the biggest shelter of the faire, another start-up is making its own way, and this time in the scene of products and services to make prototyping easier and quicker: Tinkercad [8] is an online 3d-modeling platform for artists and “makers”.

I’m going to talk to Mikko, one of the founders, who immediately reveals how at the beginning they were “makers” too, exactly as the visitors @Makerfaire. After purchasing one of the first Makerbot 3d printers, they realized there was a gap to bridge, as professional 3d softwares were too complex and not really able to produce files that could easily communicate with 3d printers.

“My partner used to work at Google – Mikko explains me – then he had his first child and wanted to come back to Finland and decided to start a company. I was changing job aswell and decided to tag along and we’ve been working on this for a year. It’s a startup company, we are now five people, we had a little bit of funding and we are working to understand who our customers are, what they want to do and which features need to support and stimulate them in doing something in 3d”

Almost everybody at Tinkercad gained experience in web services and in the online gaming industry, and from these branches they draw inspiration in order to create a system that makes them sustainable: “Our idea to become sustainable is based on royalties from print services and also to put all the models that people are doing on Tinkercad, free for anyone to download but if you have a small business you might want to pay a monthly fee to have all your models for yourself, your own garden or the possibility to buy little things like people do in Farmville.”

It’s just a mix of activities, experiences matured elsewhere, which reconfigure between each other to create the right formula. From the individuation of a need, to the creation of a product or a service, to its dissemination , sale and even its re-design, maybe through feedbacks coming from the community of followers, up to the creation of beginners’ and experts’ workshops. All of these elements team up for the sustainability of many projects also based on open hardware. And all these projects share a common element which often emerges hearing the words of their creators. It’s not only about enthusiasm for what they do, but mostly the fact of having reached a concrete result : they are managing to support themselves working full-time on something which truly fires them, and from which the whole “makers”community can benefit.  

 

Notes:

[1]http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/business/is-manufacturing-falling-off-the-us-radar-screen.html

[2]http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2011/07/21/long-term-unemployment-by-state/

[2a]http://www.openhardwaresummit.org/documentation-2011/

[3]http://home.groundlab.cc/lioncollars.html

[4]http://reprap.org/wiki/Prusa_Mendel

[5]http://textileartscenter.com/

[6]http://www.textileartscenter.com/yield

[7]http://www.bareconductive.com/

[8]http://tinkercad.com/

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  • Zoe Romano Zoe Romano

    Zoe Romano is a media activist and visual artist based in Milan working on precarity, material and immaterial labor in creative and service industries. Partner at WeFab, openwear and Serpica Naro With a Degree in [...]

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