© 2019 by Rishi Gaurav Bhatnagar

  • Rishi Gaurav Bhatnagar

what (I believe) is wrong with the maker movement in india

TL;DR - Present Maker Movement is highlighting the equipment more than the process and outcomes. - We need to look within our cultures, and look for simpler, scalable tools/methods to build and create a connect between the history and the future to avoid creating an identity crisis in Makers. - We need more makers talking about their work instead of thought leaders. - We need sustainability advocates who are integrated in Maker’s processes.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in the history of the Maker Movement, neither am I an expert researcher, my sources while quoting things might not be the best ones there are, but I have built things, I have used tools and I have a lot of observations that I know need to be spoken about. I would like you to be a little patient and hang in there while I try to make my case.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of a Maker Space? Chances are nothing, and that’s ok. Maker Space /Maker Culture as a concept is now coming to the East from the West. When I google it, this is the first thing I see:

A Maker is anyone who tinkers or builds something/anything. A watchmaker, potter, electrician, DIYer, origami enthusiast, a chemist, they are all makers. We have started defining all the above under one large umbrella — Maker. So essentially all the professions that we in India already knew of, and people we could identify with are now re-branded as Makers. Why? Well no one I spoke to gives me a clear answer. Anyway, I did not know what a Maker was till January 2014.

The first time I heard of a Maker Space, I wasn’t sure what to expect. That’s when I first visited the Maker Space inside NID, Ahmedabad, during Maker Fest’s first edition. It was exciting to see so many people coming together to build things. Some of them were there to solve problems around them, others to have fun. The Maker Space at NID was packed with very fancy equipment, from Laser Cutters, to 3D printers, to fancy power tools, everything you could imagine in Adam Savage’s workshop if you were addicted to Myth Busters like I was. I was excited because it looked like the perfect place to be - to invent , design and build. I was anxious, because I did not know how to use any of those equipments .

At my first ever exposure to a Maker, my first impression was “a Maker must be person who knows how to use this futuristic heavy duty imported equipment. A maker space must be a place where makers work with these machines.”

That right there is the problem. The perceived image of a maker is wrong. We’ll talk about this soon.

I was in my final year of Engineering then, and the only thing I could relate to was a welding machine on the floor. I never went forward to learn the complex equipments at the maker space, because I realised everything I wanted to build could be built with much simpler, much cheaper, much more easily available tools around me. But this only happened a few months later, a time period in which I had already developed a minor complex. Why? I didn’t know how to be a maker (I was building some cool things even then).

Let’s pause for a moment. Remember how I said I didn’t know what to expect? That’s the reality. Most of the people I have known, they don’t either. Not because they don’t know people who build things, but because the rebranding hasn’t trickled down to them yet. Majority of towns, villages, tier 2 and 3 cities, even in 2016, haven’t heard and understood the meaning of a Maker.

So my definition of a Maker and Maker Space at this point is heavily influenced by the equipment and re-branding of a bunch of professions, none of which tell me the real meaning of a Maker. A lot of reading, more building and more interacting with DIY people helps me understand what the real meaning of a Maker is. I have been lucky, very lucky to meet these brilliant people who have given me a clear picture. I know that most of the country is not as lucky, and most of the people will still get stuck at the same problem, interpreting the wrong image of a Maker. That’s what I want to address.

In the attempt to ride on the ‘maker movement’ wave, I think most of us have forgotten what the essence of a maker and maker space really is. I see people defining a maker space only by it’s tools and this raises a conundrum.

Do I need to have a laser cutter in a lab/physical space to call it a maker space? Isn’t a traditional laboratory in schools/colleges a maker space too? What about the Mechanical workshops? Do they qualify as a maker space? Does an empty room with clay in it and no tools not quality as a maker space if people go inside and built pots? Do you have to use power tools to make? Aren’t traditional craftsmen makers too? Aren’t all engineers by the virtue of their education in Engineering all makers by default too?

The more famous definition of a maker space in current times ‘empowers’ the privileged, and over-looks the most essential part of the Maker Movement, building things. Knowingly or unknowingly, it’s teaching the ‘over-engineer everything’ mentality.

Maker’s definition should be simple- a person who builds. That’s it, it should end at that. Maker’s current definition is somehow being perceived as a person who builds something using X,Y,Z set of tools. This current definition is leading budding makers to question themselves, very much like I did, if they can even build on an idea without the equipment. I have observed this while mentoring students across colleges and while working with startups. People are a little worried that the prototype they will build will not be laser cut and only hand made. Which is an interesting topic of research in itself.

I grew up in small two smalls towns in Rajasthan, a part of India that is famous for its handicrafts. When I see these exceptionally talented people working with the simplest of tools around them, I realise I don’t need to over-engineer everything around me to build things. I don’t need a laser cutter to carve a piece of wood, I don’t need a 3D printer to create a mould. I don’t need high end power tools to drive a nail into a box or take it out. What I need is the skill to identify and use simple tools to build intricate things, something that is stitched together intricately in Indian culture anyway. We also have our own way of finding solutions , Jugaad is what we call it, and this is what Wikipedia says it means.

The maker movement needs to showcase this side of Maker Culture in India better. We need to empower the citizens in developing nations by telling them that Maker Movement has always existed in their own cultures, just that this name is being packaged and marketed well and coming from west. West is doing to ‘Making’ what they did to Yoga. And I appreciate them for it. You see, most of us grow up looking out for answers, inspiration, solutions , but rarely within, so I have known people who picked up Yoga after they visited the West, even when their own parents practised Yoga at home. They didn’t value it as much since it was coming from their own parents. It was cool to do Yoga when they went to the west, hence they picked it up. What West also did was to paint a picture of Yoga essentials, namely, the Yoga pants, the Yoga mat, incense sticks and a bunch of other things that you don’t really need to practise Yoga, but somehow you(we) have been sold on the idea that once you have all of these tools, you will do the act very well.

When I visited Kathmandu Mini Maker Faire in September 2016, I was happy to see a team using traditional tools to carve wood. They were showcasing how simple handmade tools were used for making intricate patterns, that while the machines could do quickly and at a large scale,only humans can give a soul to. That was Maker Faire done right. This act of giving visibility to traditional craftsmen is empowering not just for the craftsmen, but for the economy. For me this was an advocate of the power of simple tools. The current Maker Movement, while doing a good job in getting people excited about building more, is creating a creativity bubble and an unsustainable one at that. The answer to the question “How would you build an enclosure for this prototype?” to a group of students working on shoe string budgets was “We will rent some time on laser cutter, learn how to design this is 3D from a professional and cut it, in say 2 weeks” instead of “Hey we have a few cardboard boxes that we can patch together with glue and give you a sense of its form”. That was painful to hear and this is the ground reality. Sense of priority has been lost while developing prototypes.

[If I had to build furniture, I would still use the basic carpentry tools than a laser cutter because my cost of failure will be dirt cheap in former case, the latter will be defined by the availability of laser cutter, membership, training for using the laser cutter, designing skills for the laser cutter software and then pricing model of the equipment. ]

I would like to see more makers talk about the simplicity of their ways and tools and how they were inspired by traditional knowledge adapted to modern times instead of people advocating the use of expensive equipment to build fundamentally simple things. I have personally met people who are more excited about using a 3D printer to build a box than building a box itself. That is not right because that creates more affection to the tool than the process and the meaning of the movement. There are more people who chose over-engineering over simplicity to solve problems, and an entire class of creative makers will evolve not learning the simpler ways to solve problems, which is NOT what we need.  I think(know) we are creating an environment where there are no constraints while building projects. No electricity troubles, no cost issues of acquiring the fancy equipment, no cost of wasting material and no cost of failing. None of this happens in the real life. While a maker space in a school or college system definitely helps fuel creativity, it has only shown to be unsustainable outside the realms of academia, specially for the students /makers/general population not working with high budgets. A lot of these makers move on to join one or the other form of industries in tier 2 /3 cities and villages. Industries and manufacturing in developing nations need more people who can get a job done in a more efficient and cost effective way instead of spending a whole lot more in machinery. This needs to be reinforced through the Maker Movement.

  The first world can afford to build fun things with expensive tools, but developing nations can only afford to build important things with absolutely simple and cost effective (if not dirt cheap and incredibly ‘dumb’) tools.

We need to integrate the philosophy of understanding the complexity of problems and using the simplest of tools to build solutions, to the Maker culture in our communities, we must, that’s the only route to sustainability.

Using makerspaces as small scale (or even large scale) prototyping centers for supreme quality products, by early stage companies (B2B business model implementation) makes total sense, there is nothing better than that, but for the larger audience (B2C business model implementation), more needs to be done. There are a lot of spaces coming up across India that are essential to the growth of the maker community. What the focus however needs to be is in building communities of makers rather than buying more expensive machinery. The former you need, the latter you can do without. [I know people talking about how their space is better because of one machine that the other one doesn’t. This is not right. I personally visit a lot of these spaces not because of the equipment, but because of the people I meet there, who are also there to meet other people.]

Also, I must say, I am a tired of listening to thought leaders, because to me as a maker and someone who is trying to understand how culture impacts innovation, it doesn’t add any value or learning.  “Maker movement is going to help in ‘Make In India’ campaign” being spoken by a business person who has read a few blogs and tweets about maker movement adds little or no value when compared to a machinist who talks about his/her own struggles and how ‘Make In India’ campaign could/will help boost small time machinists like him/her.  Most of the events I did visit in the past 2 years ended up being a showcase of privileged thought leaders talking about building simple things using complex tech (punching a few holes in a plywood using a laser cutter). Again, something I think is wrong, especially when you are trying to get more people to identify with the Maker Culture.

We are creating much wider divide in already technologically divided Nations by defining Maker Spaces by its tools. I know of a few organisations and projects in India trying to define the Maker Movement and Maker Spaces and doing it right. One of them being Project DEFY, a huge shout out to them.  We ought to keep the definition of the space fluid. It should not be restricted and judged by the tools in it. The reason why this post even happened was because I saw the flaws in the system and as a maker it’s my duty to point it out and try to fix it, in a sustainable way, in this particular case solution being a conversation. I would like to debate this. Please point out the flaws if you find in any in my thinking. I would love to fix my own or give you more perspective. For now, I appreciate your time to read this.