The Maker Culture

London’s newly re-opened Design Museum welcomes visitors with a bold defining statement of intent. According to the curators, there are only designers, makers and users. To me, this speaks volumes about how the “makers” are now at the forefront of economic activity, and how they are challenging key post-industrial notions of mass-production, mass-consumption and even mass-employment. Above all, as users, we are becoming far more engaged with why, how and where something is designed, made and distributed. And as consumers we are being encouraged to think about and take some responsibility for our choices in terms of environmental impact and sustainability.

Design Museum, London (Photo: Rory Manchee)

Design Museum, London (Photo: Rory Manchee)

There are several social, economic, technological and environmental movements that have helped to define “maker culture”, so there isn’t really a single, neat theory sitting behind it all. Here is a (highly selective) list of the key elements that have directly or indirectly contributed to this trend:

Hacking – this is not about cracking network security systems, but about learning how to make fixes when things that don’t work the way that we want them to, or for creating new solutions to existing problems – see also “life hacks”, hackathons or something like BBC’s Big Life Fix. Sort of “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Open source – providing easier access to coding tools, software programs, computing components and data sources has helped to reduce setup costs for new businesses and tech startups, and deconstructed/demystified traditional development processes. Encompasses everything from Linux to Arduino; from Github to public APIs; from AI bots to widget libraries; from Touch Board to F.A.T. Lab; from SaaS to small-scale 3-D printers.

Getting Sh*t Done – from the Fitzroy Academy, to Andrea de Chirico’s SUPERLOCAL projects, maker culture can be characterised by those who want: to make things happen; to make a difference; to create (social) impact; to get their hands dirty; to connect with the materials, people, communities and cultures they work with; to disrupt the status quo; to embrace DIY solutions; to learn by doing.

The Etsy Effect – just part of the response to a widespread consumer demand for personalised, customised, hand-made, individual, artisan, crafted, unique and bespoke products. In turn, platforms like the Etsy and Craftsy market places have sparked a whole raft of self-help video guides and online tutorials, where people can not only learn new skills to make things, they can also learn how to patch, repair, re-use, recycle and re-purpose. Also loosely linked to the recent publishing phenomena for new magazines that combine lifestyle, new age culture, philosophy, sustainability, mindfulness, and entrepreneurism with a social conscience.

Startups, Meetups and Co-working Spaces – if the data is to be believed, more and more people want to start their own ventures rather than find employment with an existing organisation. (Under the gig economy, around 40% of the workforce will be self-employed, freelance or contractors within 5 years, so naturally people are having to consider their employment options more carefully.) While starting your own business is not for everyone, the expanding ecosystem of meetups and co-working spaces is enabling would-be entrepreneurs to experiment and explore what’s possible, and to network with like-minded people.

Maker Spaces – also known as fabrication labs (“FabLabs”), they offer direct access to tools and equipment, mostly for things like 3-D printing, laser-cutting and circuit-board assembly, but some commercial facilities have the capacity to support new product prototyping, test manufacturing processes or short-run production lines. (I see this  interface between “cottage industry” digital studios and full-blown production plants as being critical to the development of high-end, niche and specialist engineering and manufacturing services to replace the declining, traditional manufacturing sectors.) Some of the activity is formed around local communities of independent makers, some offer shared workshop spaces and resources. Elsewhere, they are also run as innovation hubs and learning labs.

Analogue Warmth – I’ve written before about my appreciation for all things analogue, and the increased sales of vinyl records and even music cassettes demonstrate that among audiophiles, digital is not always better, that there is something to be said for the tangible format. This preference for analogue, combined with a love of tactile objects and a spirit of DIY has probably reached its apotheosis (in photography at least) through Kelli Anderson’s “This Book Is A Camera”.

Finally, a positive knock-on effect of maker culture is the growing number of educational resources for learning coding, computing, maths and robotics: Raspberry PI, Kano and Tech Will Save Us; KidsLogic, Creative Coding HK and Machinam; Robogals, Techcamp and robokids. We can all understand the importance of learning these skills as part of a well-rounded education, because as Mark Pascall, founder of, recently commented:

“I’m not going to advise my kids to embark on careers that have long expensive training programs (e.g. doctors/lawyer etc). AI is already starting to give better results.”

Better to learn how things work, how to design and make them, how to repair them etc., so that we have core skills that can adapt as technology changes.

Next week: Life Lessons from the Techstars founders


Broadcastr signs off: 9 Challenges for Social Media

Social Media platforms – there seems to be one born every minute. By the time you finish reading this article, another 5 will have been launched somewhere in the world. And probably 5 more will have been shut down.

A recent casualty of what I call the “50 Shades of Social Media” syndrome is Broadcastr, a user-contributed audio content platform for location-based story telling.

In their farewell note to the Broadcastr user community, co-founders Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum stated:

“While we’d love to keep Broadcastr alive, technology requires money, active development, and maintenance. We’re a small team, and, sadly, don’t have the resources to continue development.”

Broadcastr has inevitably lost out to category-killer SoundCloud, an earlier site that dominates Social Media audio content (and is also the likely cause for the wavering fortunes of MySpace). In recent months, iTunes has withdrawn its Ping social networking application for music fans; Webdoc has rebranded itself as Urturn (possibly due to confusion surrounding its name) and Yahoo! has just announced it is withdrawing a number of Social Media products – not forgetting that Yahoo! dumped Buzz, a social news site that was hard to distinguish from Digg. There are even some mutterings that Google+ does not yet justify the hype as a serious Social Media platform to take on Facebook or Twitter.

Even if you are first to market with a new Social Media platform, most sites are just a different (not necessarily better) mousetrap – same bait to tempt you in, same tools to capture your attention. The sheer volume of sites means that they are hard to differentiate from one another – hence the “50 Shades of Social Media” syndrome. Each Social Media site is trying to become THE destination for its target audience, but as The Cure once sang, “In the caves, all cats are grey.” Despite their differences, all Social Media platforms end up looking pretty much the same.

In light of the heated competition for market traction, here are 9 challenges to success in Social Media:

1 There are essentially only 5 types of Social Media platform:

2 There are only a limited number of activities you can do within these sites, such as “like”, “follow”, “share”, “post”, “publish”, “comment”, “recommend” and “tag”.

3 Increasingly, single-purpose or single-interest Social Media sites are attempting to cross over into adjacent domains, in an attempt to build scale and stickiness, and to improve the user experience.

4 This diversification means Social Media lose focus, dilute their original offering, and potentially alienate users.

5 Every Social Media platform starts out claiming to be different and offering something unique – but both the content and the business models are relatively easy to replicate, which is why we see multiple variations of the same concept or minor iterations with each new site.

6 As we engage with multiple Social Media platforms, we need our own personal media monitoring and management systems just to keep tabs on everything, especially when sites start to overlap as they encompass richer media formats and enhanced content functionality.

7 Meanwhile, the increasing inter-connectivity between different sites means that as individual users we can multi-channel as if we are our own mini cable networks.

8 But as with cable TV, multi-channelling leads to audience fragmentation and narrowcasting (which in turn has an impact on advertising revenue).

9 The Social Media industry will be subject to further mergers and acquisitions like Facebook’s purchase of Instagram, and consolidation will inevitably result in an oligarchy of dominant players, as happens with all media.