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Makers, Hackers, Fixers.... or are they all just “Innovators?”

What is this new culture and are the participants a real source of innovation? 

Sometimes, the technology solutions that SAL seeks for its corporate clients have their origins with the lone Inventor community. These guys, possibly ex-tech directors themselves, often understand particular industrial problems well enough to believe they can find a solution. Working on such a solution usually means developing an innovative idea or approach and then iterating prototypes, to refine a practical, robust solution. One of SAL’s key activities therefore is to know where these inventors “hang out” and it’s this activity that has stimulated me to investigate the developing world of Makers, Hackers and Fixers. Or maybe I should be calling them collectively, “Innovators?”

I initially visited The Centre for Sustainable Design in the University for the Creative Arts in Surrey, http://www.cfsd.org.uk. The Centre (CfSD) has built world-class knowledge and expertise of sustainable innovation and product sustainability and a one-day conference it ran in June offered a window into this developing community.


So who are Makers and Hackers? Makers are individuals in a contemporary culture or subculture representing a technology-based extension of the DIY culture. Usually male, 25-34 years old and well educated, typical interests enjoyed by Makers include engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and traditional arts and crafts. There is considerable emphasis upon new and unique applications of technologies, and members encourage invention and prototyping. There is also a strong focus on using and learning practical skills and applying them creatively. With the advent of 3D printing technologies Makers are people who now see a 3D printer as a “factory” to make things in their own personal prototyping workshop. Much like a modern desktop printer is akin to a print shop for small run print jobs in your home office.

Hackers are slightly different but only in their focus. The old definition of a Hacker being a nerdy and spotty individual, bedroom based, with long hair and intent on breaking into NASA’s fire walled IT system does not pertain to this group at all. Hackers in many instances can be considered the same as Makers but as the title infers, they are more focused on software, code and programming issues.

Since Adrian Bowyer, of the University of Bath, invented the Reprap (Replicating Rapid Prototype) 3D printing machine http://vimeo.com/5202148 the use of lower cost 3D printing machines www.makerbot.com is driving more and more small scale prototyping and indeed manufacturing into the home or home workshop. 

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Whereas a conventional 3D printer could cost anything from $30,000 plus, the Reprap machines cost as little as $700 and, most importantly, can be used to make other Reprap machines and hence perpetuate almost organic growth of the available worldwide 3D printing capability.By sharing ideas through open source design and making use of other sharing websites e.g. www.thingiverse.com, Makers are using these machines, and other techniques, to bring ideas to life through rapid prototyping and developing sustainable, small scale manufacturing capability.

So who are Fixers? Fixers on the other hand have a different agenda and appear to resemble everyday Eco-Warriors who are taking practical steps to extend the life, and therefore the sustainability, of commonplace items. Rather than throw away an electric kettle because “it has stopped working”, why not find out “why it has stopped working” and repair it? A new element will cost less than a new kettle and doesn’t come with the packaging and delivery ‘carbon footprint’ miles of a new kettle too so overall far more sustainable...?

These cultures have been associated with a growing social rejection of what some consider to be “built in obsolescence” in many of today’s consumer items. Fixers share much of the mentality of Makers etc in that they are practical, or want to be, and take personal pride in making something work. Indeed in all these groups there is as much importance placed on social cohesion and learning, as there is on construction and fixing. These Artisan Engineers are now gathering together in community-operated “spaces and places” that are springing up around the world dedicated to their pursuits. So “equipped” Hackerspaces, Fablabs and Repair Cafes are becoming the domains of these groups where they can physically work on their own and the ever increasing number of “collaborative or shared” projects such as Zoybar www.zoybar.net , an open R&D Lab for professional and hobbyist musicians to easily create, customize and fabricate their own musical instruments and applications. Numbers of such venues in the world have increased from fewer than 20 in 2005 to over 1000 today.


HACKERSPACE & REPAIR CAFÉ INSIGHTS

Professor Martin Charter and Scott Keiller of CfSD have recently tried to “locate and quantify” these Makers/Hackers and Fixers through a questionnaire sent to numerous Hackerspaces and Repair cafes around the world. The complete findings can be found at http://cfsd.org.uk/research but here I have several “top line” findings which are of interest and I am indebted to CfSD for the insight they provide.


Initial exploration of HACKERSPACE survey results

95 responses were received from participants of 45 named Hackerspaces from 18 countries i.e. UK 29, USA 20, Australia 10, Netherlands 6, Germany 4, Japan 4, Poland 4, Belgium 3, Canada 2, Hungary 2, China 2 and France, Greece, India, Rwanda, South Africa, Switzerland and Taiwan all with 1.

About respondents

  • Male 90:10 Female
  • Most (40%) aged 25–34
  • c. 70% have Bachelors or Post Graduate degree About their Hackerspaces
  • c. 95% meet always at same, fixed venue
  • c. 70% of Hackerspaces open all/most days
  • c. 55% have existed for four or more years

Reasons for Participation at the Hackerspace

Top three reasons (more than 90% strongly agree or agree) why respondents participate at their Hackerspace ...

  • To meet others who share my interests
  • To be intellectually stimulated
  • To learn new skills

Hacker interests

Top five Hacker interests (50% or more very interested or interested) ...

  • Coding and software development
  • Making electronic devices
  • • Modifying electrical /electronic devices
  • • Repairing/fixing electrical/electronic devices
  • • Hacking for sustainability

The Next five years.........

Top three expectations (more than 50% strongly agree or agree) of how respondents’ Hackerspace might change in the next five years ...

  • Greater links with other Hackerspaces and Makerspaces
  • Hackerspace activities will lead to more new business start-ups

Additionally nearly 40% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that they expect their “Hackerspace will provide space & support for new business start-ups.“


Initial exploration of REPAIR CAFÉ survey results

158 responses were received from participants of 136 named Repair Cafés from 9 different countries. By far the majority of the responses came from Netherlands with 104, Germany presented 31, UK 9, Belgium 7 and USA 3.

About respondents

  • Male 60:40 Female
  • Most (35%) aged 55-65
  • c. 70% have Bachelors or Post Graduate degree About their Repair Cafés
  • c.75% meet at fixed venue
  • c. 60% meet once a month
  • c. 95% 2 years or less

Reasons for participation at the Repair Café

Top three reasons (more than 70% strongly agree or agree) why respondents volunteer/participate at Repair Cafés ....

  • To encourage others to live more sustainably
  • To provide a valuable service to the community
  • To be a part of the movement to improve product reparability and longevity

The next five years .........

Top three expectations (more than 60% strongly agree or agree) of how Repair Cafés might change in the next five years ...

  • Greater links with other Repair Cafés to form more effective local Repair Networks
  • Greater involvement with campaigning to improve product reparability
  • More involvement with wider sustainability issues 

Who currently makes money from this movement?

So we now have a better idea of who and where some of these Innovators reside, and what motivates them but what sort of Business Models are being developed by, or to suit, them?

The Hackerspaces and Repair Cafés tend to run on a small subscription model but are almost all really run on a “not-for-profit” basis relying on the originator’s vision and various individuals volunteering to provide the facilities for the community. Obviously some businesses emanate from the individuals who use these “spaces” and these tend to be on a standard invoice for products basis but there are some more “interesting” ideas around. IFIXIT www.ifixit.com is an American business that has been at the forefront of the Fixer movement for some time now. They have tried several models starting with monetarising the publication of repair manuals to their current model that is far more ingenious. With its public manifesto that all products should have a free manual readily available to consumers, IFIXIT provide spare parts, ‘special’ tools and customised project mats with assigned compartments to ensure “fixers” don’t loose special components. Espares http://www.espares.co.uk provide parts only, having played with other models previously and Sugru http://sugru.com/story have developed and marketed a self-setting rubber, see pic above, that can be formed by hand, moulds like play-dough and bonds to almost anything, turning into a strong, flexible silicone rubber overnight. The perfect “fixer material.”

It appears that the evolving community of Makers, Fixers and Hackers are certainly the prototypers of today and maybe strong practical Innovators of tomorrow. The democratizing of innovation is a strong theme within these communities. They believe that Innovation is everyone’s right, and possibly their responsibility too, i.e. not only for the tech directors of the well-known corporations.

Strategic Allies Ltd’s continuing belief is that each can benefit from the other.

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