Making it!? (a writeup)

Three months ago, Adrian McEwen and I were talking as we do about this and that. He’s been the co-founder of DoES Liverpool since 2011 and I started selling the Arduino in the UK in 2007. I never considered myself a maker but enabled others to become makers though my work running Tinker between 2007–2010.

I’ve not really kept up with the maker movement or the maker community since, deciding to focus on the internet of things community and specifically startups through my work running the meetup in London and working as an independant consultant for larger (often global) companies and corporations.

So I decided we should run an event around ‘making’ and ‘success’ mainly so I could invite old friends and people I knew had become important and influential in the country around these issues since 2010.

We held the event at DoES Liverpool also as I really wanted to champion it as a model for an extremely hands-on, authentic maker space and co-working space for people curious about manufacturing at any scale. The event was sponsored by the Liverpool Local Growth Hub and Barclay’s Eagle Labs which allowed us to get speakers from across the country (Glasgow, Sheffield, Carlisle, Oxford, London, Leeds). Here is my personal take on some of the conversations we had (videos were taken by Alex Lennon on the day and will be posted on the DoES Youtube channel in te next few days).

The emotional labour of growing communities

This was a surprising topic that emerged after Richard Clifford spoke about his experience growing and eventually closing a maker space in Glasgow. He described the emotional up and down of supporting others in their journey in trying to get something made and then possibly turned into something that is made at scale. It struck me that this was possibly very close to what parents, teachers and social carers might experience. And of course, just like these other professions, it’s not something that you’re remunerated for. The care isn’t contractually baked into a desk hire in a space but if you’re a good community manager you get that it’s also part of the job. Richard talked about how that could contrast with more commercial arangements and I thought of WeWork who give the illusion of offering you the best place to grow a business but probably aren’t going to stick around in the evening to help you solder your first batch of PCBs. How much care does one need to have when dealing with fledgling businesses? Is too much care unhelpful in the long run? I know I’ve given a lot of time to businesses that eventually failed. Did I feel for them? Yes. Did I regret the time spent? No. Was I rewarded for the time spent? No. But maybe that’s just part of life as a woman? Maybe I’m used to this and my male peers aren’t. I’m not sure. In anycase, it was a surprising topic to emerge and one I’ll keep thinking about.

The politics of success and money.

If the maker community was a political party, they would probably be communists who buy and engage with capitalism on the basis of their perception of ‘locally-supported’ and ‘locally grown’ ecosystems even when that’s not perfectly true. In that sense, E.F. Shumacher would be very proud. Why isn’t it perfectly true? Well most electronics components still and will probably always come from Asia, made in conditions we prefer not to talk about, recycled through means we also prefer not to address. And the maker community in the UK has helped grow multi million pound businesses like RaspberryPi and Microbit. Paul Beech from Pimoroni was one of our speakers and I was interested in his perspective as part of the ecology. For whatever reason, Oliver Brunt from Eagle Labs (our sponsors) took a lot of flack because his business represents somehow a threat to others in the community. But participating in the growth of Asian electronics distributors is ok. I find this tension fascinating, it’s almost like the closer and more recognisable the perceived threat is the more aggressive people’s politics. I wish we could have gotten people like the Restart project to come and chat too.

The communist values are more accutely felt when it comes to talking about money, growth, funding. Somehow, all these things are too commercial for the makers in the room and the community owners. But that’s what sometimes is needed to push things to ‘the next level’ because hand-soldering your own first batch is very very dull (I’ve done that).

Keith from the Leather Satchel Company came in on this point with an amazing perspective. He talked about the fact that the lone maker doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a nostalgic image we’ve dragged out of the industrial/Bauhaus era. Now he’s trying to build a smart factory and using NFC tags in his bags to enable customers to follow the story of the manufacturing of his bags. He’s also dealing with distributed manufacturing and working with large fashion houses to do bespoke luxury work that gets copied by Chinese manufacturers all the time. He talked a lot about the need for deep specialisation in his business. This was very interesting, because the need for specialisms within a process only occur when you’ve decided to make a living from your making.

The conversion between someone buying tools and making small quantities they might sell on Etsy or Folksy and someone who quits his day job to make something to earn a living is crutially different. But they’ll both talk about being makers. But one actually has to make money! And therein lies the problem. Money does matter when your time and efforts are tied to making. Can we really talk about the same thing when we put the two communities together? What do they share? What don’t they share? And what’s the role of ‘infrastucture providers’ (makerspaces, workshops, etc) in this mix. More conversations to explore I think.

Definitions are a challenge.

Not unlike the internet of things the word ‘maker’ is polarising and murky. Some people don’t think they are, but participate in helping others make, other people make a lot of one thing but earn a living from it, others yet make one of something at any given time and are lucky to be paid at all. Do definitions matter? I don’t know. But the word design became industrial design, graphic design, etc. Architecture became landscape architecture, information architecture, etc. Perhaps we’ll start to qualify makers in the future. Perhaps not.

If anything, as usual for someone like me who has organised more events than I care to remember, many conversations were opened up but not answered which probably means this should keep happening. I’m interested in passing the baton on to someone else who is embedded in their community outside of London so if you think that’s you, let me know! #makingitconf 2?