Networking craftsmen and designers into a maker community

With Italy's long history of arts, crafts and embedded industrial systems of industry clusters, it is only natural to see a very interesting maker scene now emerging. It is time to think about the state of makers, open hardware, and open design in the country.


Op-ed / Massimo Menichinelli

Makers: a networked old phenomenon
Since 2005 we have been experiencing the emergence of a new movement of makers, a broad term that indicates communities of people, mostly amateurs, that design and create their own projects and goods in shared physical and online spaces, through collaborative processes and digitally enabled tools. Is this description accurate enough to describe the makers? The focus on practice and self-production is not its only defining element, we could argue that the use of digital fabrication technologies, hardware and software components as well as social media services and the adoption of an open source attitude constitute other important features. Since it is a movement that is currently evolving, it is difficult to define. And the same thing is happening to related concepts like Open Design, for example, for which a discussion about a formal definition is just starting.

The focus on practice, self-production and self-sufficiency has been present in many movements since the Industrial Revolution, ranging from John Ruskin, William Morris and the Art and Crafts Movement, to the counterculture of the sixties, and more recently to Craftivism. Moreover, not all these phenomena share all of the same values, since the DIY ethic can be found in many cases, ranging from the garages of the American frontier spirit to the anti-consumerism of Punk bands in the seventies. There are huge differences between professional designers that produce their own projects independently and the big home-improvement industry of Home Depot, Leroy Merlin and the likes.

Therefore it is not clear if this is actually a new phenomenon or whether it has always existed quietly, emerging globally as soon as there were tools for enabling sharing, communicating, collaborating, as well as tools that have democratized the access to prototyping and manufacturing technologies, that are cheap and easy enough to be learned and used quickly. As a natural consequence of the networking and collaboration possibilities that the Internet brought, we are now experiencing how to adopt networked organizations and business that deal not only with digital information but also with physical and rival goods. As Chris Anderson wrote, "atoms are the new bits," as the locus of innovation is now shifting to adopting digital innovation in manufacturing and distributing processes. Furthermore, when a writer publishes a novel about a phenomenon, it is not underground any longer, as in the case of Cory Doctorow's Makers.

The turning point for the Maker movement came in the year 2005: the first Web 2.0 Summit was organized by O'Reilly Media in 2004 and in 2005 we saw the starting point of Arduino (the open hardware prototyping platform), RepRap (the open hardware self-replicating 3D printer), Instructables (the web platform for sharing the processes of DIY projects) and Make magazine (the most significant paper publication for makers). We could even argue that we use the term maker now as a consequence of the sense making ability of Make magazine and its series of events called Maker Faire.

The Maker community in Italy
The maker movement is spreading through many countries, and there are some Maker Faires even in Africa (although they are not organized by O'Reilly Media). Moreover, there is a rising awareness of the still widespread ability and tradition of crafts and self-production of people that move from the countryside to the city. The urbanization trend that started in the UK during the Industrial Revolution, still ongoing throughout the world, brings new people to the city and with them their ability for manual work and self-sufficiency.

If we want to define the context of Italian makers, it should be not a difficult task, since Italy has a long history of arts, crafts and geographically and socially embedded industrial systems of industry clusters. We should note how Arduino is the natural evolution of Olivetti in the first place, and of the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in a second moment. Although the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea was closed and moved to Milan, it left a strong impact on the design and business world, including Arduino itself. We have briefly focused only on Ivrea now, although similar phenomena could have happened in many other industrial clusters in Italy. With this background information in mind, it is time to think about the state of makers, open hardware, and open design in Italy.

FabLabs (or digital fabrication laboratories) are one of the most popular format of spaces for making together (beside hackerspaces, sewing cafes and Techshops). There are many FabLabs around the world, from Boston (USA) to South Africa (Africa), from Afghanistan to India (Asia), and from New Zealand (Oceania) to Brazil (South America). In the Netherlands alone there are 13 active FabLabs, including one mobile lab on a truck and one small lab that fits into a room. The first FabLab was set up at MIT ten years ago, but we had to wait almost a decade to have the first FabLab in Italy, FabLab Italia, in Turin. It was a temporary lab and it was possible thanks to Massimo Banzi from Arduino; luckily, it has now turned into a stable FabLab (FabLab Torino, within Officine Arduino) this year. We have to note, for example, that there isn't yet an active FabLab in Milan, where there is currently more than one initiative, but unfortunately none of them are yet able to reach the critical mass required to start a lab.

There is, however, a very interesting scene emerging in Italy, ranging from the computational designers of Co-de-iT, to the open source fashion labels like OpenWear, and DIY e-commerce platforms like Blomming, from the high level wearable technologies of Plugandwear, to the concrete 3D printing experiments of D-Shape, and many more. In the past years, we have also seen online communities like the Arduino community, local events like WeFab, and more recently, the emergence of groups on social networks like Hopen (from Rome) and especially the Fabber in Italia group on Facebook, the most active group nationally at the moment (and that evolved from a previous Fabber in Milan group). What has actually happened in the past two years is that these and other projects started to network and discover each other, and through events and social media they have developed a real community only in the past few months. Besides the focus on the practice, the use of digital fabrication technologies and the DIY and bottom-up attitude, it is the networking attitude that defines the makers — in Italy as in the rest of the world.

At the beginning of March, the World Wide Rome event was organized in Rome showcasing the Italian Maker community, with the presence of international guests like Chris Anderson (director of Wired US) and Dale Dougherty (director of Make magazine). The event started a huge discussion on print and social media, raising also the interest of the Italian Government and the possibility of one or more Maker Faires in Italy soon.

Challenges for the Maker community and the Italian context
Thanks to World Wide Rome, the existence of the maker movement is finally acknowledged, but it is too early to make a hypothesis of how much support the movement will receive or if it will gather a critical mass. The Italian context could be the perfect experiment where to test the dynamics of makers, open design and distributed manufacturing experiences, to see if they are a real sustainable opportunity and to see how they can integrate with the existing social and industrial fabric of the country. It is a common stereotype, sometimes, that the family is at the center of the Italian life, both on a social level or as the country's actual welfare state: one could not be happier to see examples as Kent's Strapper, a whole family that works together on building self-replicating 3D printers in Florence. How can FabLabs grow in territories and cities, networking between them and collaborating with existing industries and craftsmen? It is already happening in cities like Barcelona, where local institutions are envisioning a system of networked FabLabs in every neighborhood, a FabCity, as a vision for the city that relies more on sustainable, collaborative and empowered local communities rather than on the mass scale of big events and mass low-cost tourism.

The critical economical situation that Italy is facing also raises few more questions that cannot but help to push forward the maker movement. Since only few companies reach the age of 40, shouldn't we focus on creating new ones rather than trying to change old ones, that already have a strong identity? One of these years' hot topic is proving to be business models design. Why can't we focus more in creating new businesses and new value through design? The popularity of the Business Model Canvas proves how design could be implemented successfully for developing new business models, that could be also adopted in the design field as well. Increasingly, less students register attend to Italian universities, almost 20% of graduated students and 31% of Italians younger than 25 years old are unemployed. What will designers' work and design education look like in the future in Italy in this ominous scenario?

Finally, the emergence of the Maker community in Italy also gives us further insights on the power of social networks for launching projects. Many projects started independently and then only recently networked through Web 2.0 services and thanks to this networking the community has grown rapidly. It is also true, however, that print media and already established initiatives still play a key role in supporting such bottom-up initiatives: Wired and Make have been crucial not only in the past years but also in the World Wide Rome event. The Italian social network of makers cannot be confined only geographically to Italy and solely to bottom-up or independent projects. The social network perspective is a promising way; one should not forget that established initiatives like Make magazine are part of these emerging social networks, and it happens that they are among the most influent hubs, even in social media. Being a maker or a FabLab means being part of a specific global social network, not just using digital fabrication technologies together with manual work.

Massimo Menichinelli is a designer that investigates and facilitates collaborative places and processes like FabLabs and Open Design projects, co-designed with communities and their localities through open source and peer-to-peer dynamics. He develops design processes and tools with an open source community and he facilitates the community and activity of the Aalto FabLab located in the Aalto Media Factory, part of the Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland.