What do US and Euro makers have in common? (Part 2)

Culture influence as a two-way street

The hacker scene in Europe and the United States share a common history. Hacker spaces – these spaces where people interested in technology meet to hack things together – started in Germany, led by the very active Chaos Computer Club in Berlin in the 1990s. Curious American hackers attended Chaos Communication Camp, got inspired and decided to bring hackerspaces back home.

The Chaos Communication Camp happens outside Berlin and gathers about 4,000 hackers from all over the world. It looks like a festival or a temporary town, a Burning Man for hackers. Participants show their projects, code, learn and exchange ideas around system security, data privacy, net neutrality, open source hardware… It’s a medley of activism, creativity and friendly gathering.

I attended Maker Faires and mini Maker Faires in California, New York, Rome and France. I found a few interesting differences between these events. American events are HUGE. Hundreds of thousands of attendees, not only kids and families but also artists, designers, developers attend the event. In Europe, the maker scene is not as mainstream yet. Most attendees are designers or professional makers.

Secondly, US Maker Faires have space. They are filled with big art pieces, giant boat battles, fire-breathing robots, mutant vehicles and concerts. I always leave exhausted and with a billion ideas of things to make back home. Maker Faire is among the most inspiring event you can go to.

European versions felt a bit more structured, closer to a designer exhibition or a creative tradeshow than a free-spirited moment of creativity. While Maker Faire got imported to Europe, open source personal 3D printers started in the UK in 2006 with the RepRap project and spread all over the world. The Fab Lab movement started in Boston, Massachusetts, when Neil Gershenfeld, professor at the Center for Bits and Atoms at the MIT, started his class on “How to make (almost) anything.”

The differences

Now, if there is a common ground between the two communities, there are also differences. Having been an observer in both places, I identify two major ones. The first one is the obvious one: language diversity. Even if most technology-oriented people are able to understand English, many are not fully comfortable speaking it. Mailing-lists and wikis are not translated. As a result, hacking events in Europe tend to be more local and projects tend to repeat more as documentation is not shared universally. It’s a big obstacle to collaboration.

The second difference is related to business culture. While it seems natural in the United States that a functional prototype becomes the starting point of a business project, it’s considered wrong in Europe. The same Mitch Altman who co-founded Noisebridge is also a successful entrepreneur who sells open hardware products (TV B-Gone, Neurodreamer) that he created in his hacker space. Some of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns came from projects developed by makers for makers (Pinoccio, Blinkiverse).

Europe has open hardware business success stories too. Arduino, an open hardware micro-controller made in Italy, is a great one. I also think of the Smart Citizen Kit made by Fab Lab Barcelona or Ultimaker, the open source 3D printer made in the Netherlands. So far the scene is more driven by the educational and social impact of the hardware movement.

The story of the RepRap 3D printer sums it up

Development of personal 3D printers is a great example for how European and US scenes are both connected and different. Let’s take a closer look at the RepRap project, which was the first open source low-cost 3D printer. Born as a research project lead by Professor Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath in the UK, it started getting attention from hackers in Europe and the United States simultaneously. The project was in English, online and fully open source.

Contributors started to work on the project – using communication tools such as IRC – and improved the designs. A student in economics from the Czech Republic, Josef Prusa, got a model named after him, the very popular Prusa Mendel (now Prusa i3). He now makes his living from the project, giving speeches and holding workshops in Europe and the United States. A group of NYC Resistor hacker space members modified the RepRap and started Makerbot, which was acquired by 3D printing giant Stratasys for $403M in June 2013.

What stitches maker communities together? A sense of empowerment that comes from making things by hand and a strong desire for inventing new ways of producing things, centered on humans rather than money. The hacker, or maker, or DIY culture that we are living in is also showing us how shared values can overcome cultural differences. And finally create a common culture made of a fair exchange of skills.

>> Back to Part 1

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