As the social media storm around Ahmed Mohamed and his clock exploded open in support of the 14 year old maker last week, it seemed like everyone was sharing a positive story about DIY and hacking – so to keep the momentum going, I’ll throw another one out into the mix. MaidSafe holds the concepts of curiosity and creativity very dear to our hearts and promoting them is an integral part of the MaidSafe Foundation. This foundation is a non-profit that has existed for just about as long as the company and has accomplished several milestones thus far. Many may not be aware of this part of MaidSafe’s mission as our efforts have been heavily focused on the company and developing the SAFE Network software. The Foundation was formed when MaidSafe’s founder, David Irvine, decided to give all his shares in the company away to a newly formed charity dedicated to promoting “freedom and facilitation for everybody to learn, to innovate and to contribute their unique talents to make our world a better place”. Thus, the Foundation is the largest shareholder in the company and as the network launches, the amount of resources at the disposal of the Foundation will increase, helping it to realise more of its goals.
In particular, one of the Foundation’s core interests is focusing on the promotion of fab lab’s (aka fabrication laboratory) to foster a more decentralized and inclusive approach to making and learning. They are typically modest spaces which house various tools and resources for producing DIY projects. They exist in many forms around the world as community spaces within existing buildings or fixed standalone structures and even in large vans or trucks which allow temporary placement for events, or to share between communities. Some tools found in fab labs can include milling machines, 3D printers, laser cutters, sewing and embroidery equipment, electronics assemblies, etc. Fab lab’s create spaces for localised manufacturing which allow children and adults to learn skills together while facilitating a more open and intimate approach to learning. A lot of the time fab lab’s are found as part of hackerspaces which have the effect of bringing together people interested in hardware with those focused on software development to collaborate and learn from each other.
Much of today’s manufacturing is limited to factories created for mass production and while these tend to reduce overall cost by optimising for quantity and a reduction of skilled labor, it also creates a society which loses touch with the creative process of making and reinforces dependencies on central corporations. The inherent learning process in fab labs promotes idea sharing and open specifications, and while the open software movement has a thriving and ever expanding community, open hardware is behind. The cost of physical materials, tools and distribution present a unique set of challenges and overhead which generally require more capital and investment when compared to building software. Given an Internet connection and a laptop, almost anyone with a drive to learn can make use of online resources to start developing a better messaging, clock or health tracking app. Making software available to the world is as simple as uploading applications to a website or an app store. On the contrary it is a much more difficult process to bootstrap a hardware project such as a better smartphone case or a lower-cost prosthetic arm because the various tools used to create a single product are usually large and expensive while the cost of duplicating and distributing the product add up to even more. That’s not to say manufacturing isn’t on it’s way though, as we see with the growth of 3D printers of varying costs over the last decade and an increasing number of fab labs around the world housing basic tools for entire communities to make use of.
An interesting project aiming to break the cycle of mass production in favor of open specs and local manufacturing is KORUZA, a low cost wireless optical system providing 1Gbps networking connectivity for points up to 100m apart. These devices offer an alternative to WiFi in situations such as mesh networks where a density of points can cause radio interference problems. More generally, optical connections can offer lower cost means to extend existing fiber cables by removing the need to dig underground and obtain associated permissions for such. KORUZA is completely modular and is designed for DIY manufacturing using tools found in fab labs. The Slovenia based organisation behind its development, IRNAS is taking a step further to facilitate the creation of low-cost open hardware tools needed to build KORUZA and other open hardware projects. Their GoodEnoughCNC machines series aims to provide a micro-factory for around €10,000, consisting of a 3D printer, Plasma cutter, CNC Mill and Laser cutter which are in active use at kreator lab, a fab lab in Maribor, Slovenia. A highly recommended overview presentation of KORUZA and GoodEnoughCNC was given at this year’s Wireless Battle of the Mesh and also mentions an interesting collaboration project between several organisations for improving documentation of open hardware projects called DocuBricks. By removing the cost of distribution and empowering local communities with low cost tools, we can begin to see how the open hardware movement can facilitate a shift in perspective on economics and accessibility in manufacturing.
Spaces like these also have the power to strengthen community and understanding by bringing people together with common interests from different backgrounds to learn from one another. Children in particular could use a wider variety of alternative environments for learning which break the mold of the traditional education system. It is very unfortunate when a kid is shamed for their curiosity based on judgements founded in fear and prejudice. Several signs point towards an obvious observation: officials in Ahmed’s school in Texas made a biased assumption because of his race as a result of the general post-9/11 focus on terrorism in the Middle East. Perhaps the town of Irvine, Texas could use a fab lab of their own to facilitate opening up such closed-minded perspectives. Bringing people of all ages together around common interests would help facilitate in dismantling prejudices which lead to people fearing their neighbors. We look forward to continuing our efforts with the MaidSafe Foundation to create spaces which help to break down barriers, overcome borders and strengthen trust within communities around the world by facilitating a DIY culture and learning from one another.