What do US and Euro makers have in common? (Part 1)

I started MakingSociety in 2011 as an exploration notebook for showing my discoveries of the maker movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since then, I have been living between Paris and San Francisco and have become fully involved in open hardware and 3D printing communities on both continents.

The maker movement is an amazing example of how culture and innovation spread and evolve in communities. Spaces, events, tools, words… have a local identity while sharing common values. Maker Faire, the biggest maker event on the planet, took its name from the old medieval fairs where people were gathering from all over the world to show and exchange their products. Dale Dougherty, founder of Make Magazine and Maker Faire, told me that he decided to tweak the word “fair” for “faire”, which also means “to make” in French. Maker Faire is all of that: an international gathering of people who make things together.

Internet is the space

The maker scenes in Europe and in the United States have a lot in common. A lot. From types of spaces to tools to work practices, it feels like we all live in the same country, called the Internet. Makers use IRC and mailing-lists rather than Facebook. Members of European and North American hacker spaces share a strong interest for data privacy and alternative currencies. They want to understand how things are made and find ways to hack them.

When arriving in a city, try to find the nearest hacker space. You can even get a “hacker space” passport to have it stamped at your first visit. Hacker spaces come in all kind of shapes. I spend an evening at the LOOP when it was a squat near Republic neighborhood in Paris. To enter, you had to know someone on the inside. You then had to climb a few stairs in the middle of construction materials. The building was not in use but members managed to create a space good enough to organize meetings, code and get to know each other through drinks and parties. On the roof, some of the members even created a temporary movie theater using a projector and the buildings walls nearby.

At BlackBoxe, I drank beer while learning about brain wave control and 3D printing in Africa. At the Fabelier, I learnt about soldering and Arduino. The space is less messy as it is part of a school.

Having been to spaces in different cities, to me that the identity of a maker space depends on its location. Spaces in schools are usually more under control, they have to respect certain rules. Spaces in free housing and cities outskirts are the wildest.

At Noisebridge, renowned hacker space in San Francisco, one of the (many) first things you notice when you enter is a painting saying: “Shut up and Hack”. The space has no rules except one: “Be excellent to each other.” It’s an experiment in anarchy that has been going on since 2007.

At Techshop  in San Francisco, Zach, one of the team member helping makers build their projects, took me for a tour in the space – a 17 000-square-foot building filled with factory machines available for everyone – emphasized: “Here, you can know what everyone is working on. We are open by default.”

Spaces in the US are usually bigger and messier. They have fewer rules to follow and inventors don’t hesitate to think big. Really big. One of the very active member in Techshop Menlo Park is using the space to build a rocketship sponsored by Google and other tech giants.

FabLabs are much more popular in Europe. Smaller and more structured, they are a perfect place for designers and interactive arts project. Most projects involve electronics, wearables and open design. Smart Citizen Kit made in Barcelona FabLab is a great example of this European FabLab spirit: this open source sensor can be used by citizens to verify the quality of air and share data with each other. Small, connected, socially engaged and based on a grid of users.

>> Go to Part 2

Mathilde Berchon
Mathilde Berchon is the author of L’Impression 3D (Eyrolles, 2013) and main contributor to Netopia’s report on 3D-printing