In the space of a less than a decade, “Making” has progressed from a tiny subculture of hobbyists fiddling around with the latest technologies to a movement its proponents herald as the “New Industrial Revolution.”
Now, the Maker movement has made it to Latin America, where its regional champions insist it has the potential to become the catalyst for the development of a new tech economy. A Chilean entrepreneur says it could even change the way we do business.
Making is a combination of old-fashioned human curiosity with cutting-edge technology, informed by an ideology based on cooperation, collaboration, and democratization. At its heart is a DIY culture based on open source hardware – technologies made freely available to people to alter, improve, or just muck around with.
Armed with tools like 3D printers, laser cutters, and microprocessors, Makers dedicate themselves to a collaborative open innovation, working together to improve products and create new devices and uses out of existing items.
The movement has grown rapidly as community workshops known as Maker Spaces have proliferated. The gospel is spread by a dedicated Maker magazine, books about the Maker Movement, speeches by Maker luminaries such as former Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson, and by Maker Faires – events held around the world to display and share the latest innovations, which draw thousands of visitors.
Making It in Chile
The first Maker Faire to hit Latin America took place in Santiago in December last year, and attracted more than 5,000 people. The Faire was organized by Chilean entrepreneur and video game designer Tiburcio de la Carcova, who had set up his own Maker Space the year before with a collection of 3D printers, laser cutters, and old computers.
After watching his home workshop develop into a region-wide inspiration, de la Carcova is now a true believer in Making’s potential. “It is going to have an impact, not only by bringing us millions of new things and devices that will make our lives easier and happier, which is the ultimate goal of an inventor,” he said, “but also it is going to affect the way we learn things, the way we educate.”
For de la Carcova, the movement is being driven by generational as well as technological shifts. “This is alive with the values and philosophy of this new young generation, which thinks more about things like open source, collaboration without patents, thinking sustainably, being more generous,” he said.
The relationship between the Maker movement, with its counterculture roots and anti-commercial ethos, and the business world has so far been complicated. Nevertheless, in some ways the two apparently disparate worlds are edging toward each other.
The movement has already produced a string of commercially successful start-ups, most of which remain true to their open source roots. Some companies have dedicated themselves to using open source to make some of the movement’s favored tools more accessible by drastically cutting costs, as with the $35 Raspberry Pi credit card-size computer.
However, some of the movement’s earliest commercial producers are also starting to shift away from the community-based incremental innovation on which their first successes were based.
MakerBot Industries was the first company to make 3D printing accessible to individuals by developing an entry-level printer priced in the thousands instead of the tens of thousands of dollars. The company remained committed to open source principals until the release of its latest model, the Replicator 2, last year. The decision to abandon open source, apparently provoked by another company releasing a discount clone of their product, provoked a backlash throughout the community.
Some Makers have begun to commercialize Maker Spaces. TechShop in San Francisco is one of the original attempts to turn a profit from the open access ethos. Members pay $125 monthly membership fee and in return are granted access to a million-dollar-plus technological playground of industrial-grade machinery, in addition to expert coaching in using it.
Despite the conflict between the collaborative ethos of Making and the cut-throat world of the profit motive, de la Carcova is one of many Maker adherents convinced the movement has the potential not only to integrate itself with the wider economy but also to shape the way business is done.
“What the Internet did for software – what we are seeing blooming now, millions of small groups of people making millions of apps so you don’t see a clear winner takes all, like Microsoft – the same thing is becoming a revolution for items, for physical things,” he said.
One of the major changes will be in funding new ideas and start-ups, as limitations around economies of scale begin to fall away, according to de la Carcova. “The real impact business-wise, which we will probably see in the next couple of years, will be more and more of these Kickstarter [crowdfunding] funded products becoming part of our lives,” he said. “It will reduce the cost of many of the things we use on a daily basis, [and] it will evolve those things much faster.”
“Companies, especially big consolidated companies, will need to evolve and change because of this,” he added. “It is no longer the kingdom of big guys in the manufacturing world.”
De la Carcova believes Latin America is in a prime position to capitalize on this. “[There is this] combined effort of government, of the private sector with venture capital, plus these revolutions that democratize access to technology and manufacturing – this sort of explosive cocktail,” he said.
“Latin America, from Mexico below, has a lot of unseen potential … We are going to see a tremendous explosive growth in creativity and innovation, and this movement is going to be an enabler of that.”
While de la Carcova’s enthusiasm and zeal are common traits in the Maker community, the movement also has its critics, who believe Making has little potential to have an impact on broader society. They point out how products currently produced by Makers have yet to demonstrate the widespread appeal of the sort of iconic products made by big companies on big budgets in recent years. Even the movement’s intellectual vanguard has struggled to articulate how Making can move beyond incremental innovation for niche markets to making products that have a truly transformative value to match their lofty aims.
De la Carcova, though, remains convinced of the movement’s potential, even if its destination is not yet clear. “In some years we are going to see this as a prototype, the beginning, but the end result is going to be something that changes our lives,” he said.