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The maker movement's potential for education, jobs and innovation is growing

"MAKE" founder Dale Dougherty was named a "Champion of Change" by the White House.

Dale DoughertyDale Dougherty (@dalepd), one of the co-founders of O’Reilly Media, was honored at the White House yesterday as a “Champion of Change.” This White House initiative profiles Americans who are helping their fellow citizens “meet the challenges of the 21st century.” The recognition came as part of what the White House is calling “Make it in America,” which convenes people from around the country to discuss American manufacturing and jobs.

“This is so completely deserved,” wrote Tim O’Reilly on Google+. “When you see kids at Maker Faire suddenly turned on to science and math because they want to make things, when you see them dragging their parents around with eyes shining, you realize just how dull our education system has made some of the most exciting and interesting stuff in the world. Dale has taken a huge step towards changing that. I’m honored to have worked with Dale now for more than 25 years, making big ideas happen. He’s a genius.”

The event was streamed online at WhiteHouse.gov/live. Video of the event is up on YouTube, where you can watch Dougherty’s comments, beginning at 58:18. Most of the other speakers focused on energy, transportation or other economic issues. Dougherty went in a different direction. “You’re sort of the anti-Washington message, in that you guys just hang out and do great stuff,” said U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra when introducing Dougherty.

“I started this magazine called ‘MAKE‘,” Dougherty said. “It’s sort of a 21st-century ‘Popular Mechanics,’ and it really meant to describe how to make things for fun and play. [We] started an event called MakerFaire, just bringing people together to see what they make in their basements, their garages, and what they’re doing with technology. It really kind of came from the technology side into what you might call manufacturing, but people are building robots, people are building new forms of lighting, people are building … new forms of things that are just in their heads,” he said.

“You mentioned tinkering,” said Dougherty, responding to an earlier comment by Chopra. “Tinkering was once a solid middle-class skill. It was how you made your life better. You got a better home, you fixed your car, you did a lot of things. We’ve kind of lost some of that, and tinkering is on the fringe instead of in the middle today.

The software community is influencing manufacturing today, said Dougherty, including new ways of thinking about it. “It’s a culture. I think when you look at ‘MAKE’ and MakerFaire, this is a new culture, and it is a way to kind of redefine what this means.” It’s about seeing manufacturing as a “creative enterprise,” not something “where you’re told to do something but where you’re invited to solve a problem or figure things out.”

This emergent culture is one in which makers create because of passion and personal interest. “People are building robots because they want to,” Dougherty said. “It’s an expression of who they are and what they love to do. When you get these people together, they really turn each other on, and they turn on other people.”

I caught up with Dougherty and talked with him about the White House event and what’s happening more broadly in the maker space. Our interview follows.

What does this recognition mean to you?

Dale Dougherty: I see it as a recognition for the maker movement and the can-do spirit of makers. I’m proud of what makers are doing, so I appreciated the opportunity to tell this story to business and government leaders. Makers are the champions of change.

How fast is the maker community growing?

Dale Dougherty: It’s hard to put a number on the spread of an idea. The key thing is that it continues to spread and more people are getting connected. I know that the maker audience is getting younger every year, which is a good sign. That means we’ve involved more families and young people.

What’s particularly exciting to you in the maker movement right now?

Dale Dougherty: Kits. We just wrapped up a special issue of “MAKE” on kits. Kits are a very interesting alternative to packaged consumer products. They provide parts and instructions for you to make something yourself. There’s such a broad range of kits available that I wanted to bring them together in one issue. We have a great lead article by MIT researcher and economist, Michael Schrage, on how kits drive innovation. I didn’t know, for example, that the first steam engine was sold as a kit. So were the first personal computers. Today we’re looking at 3-D printers such as the Makerbot. We’re also looking at the RallyFighter, a kit car from Local Motors, which you can build in their new microfactory in Arizona. Also, Jose Gomez-Marquez of MIT writes about DIY medical devices and how they can be hacked by medical practitioners in third-world countries to produce custom solutions.

What does making mean for education?

Dale Dougherty: Making is learning. Remember John Dewey’s phrase “learn by doing.” It’s a hundred-year-old educational philosophy based on experiential learning that seems forgotten, if not forbidden, today. I see a huge opportunity to change the nature of our educational system.

How is the maker movement currently influencing government?

Dale Dougherty: The DIY mindset seems essential for a democratic society, especially one that is undergoing constant change. Think of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, “Self-Reliance.” Taking responsibility for yourself and your community is critical. You can’t have a democracy without participation. Everything we can do for ourselves we should do and not wait or expect others to do it for us. If you want things to change, step up and make it happen.

The theme of the Washington meeting was “Make It in America.” America is the leading manufacturing economy, but that lead is shrinking. As one speaker said, we have to refute the idea that manufacturing is “dirty, dangerous and disappearing.”

Do we want to remain a country that makes things? There are obvious reasons many would like that answer to be ‘yes,’ but the biggest reason is that manufacturing has historically been a source of middle class jobs.

Some folks asked how to influence people so that they value manufacturing in American and how to get young kids interested in careers in manufacturing. One answer I have is that you have to get more people participating, to think of manufacturing as something that we all do, not just a few. We want to get people to see themselves as makers. This is the broad democratic invitation of the maker movement.

Flipping this a bit, how should the maker movement influence government?

Dale Dougherty: I see four things that the maker movement can bring:

  1. Openness — Once you get started doing something, you find others doing similar things. This creates opportunities for sharing and learning together. Collaboration just seems baked into the maker movement. Let’s work together.
  2. Willingness to take risks — Let’s not avoid risks. Let’s not fear failure. Let’s move ahead and learn from what experiences we have. The most important thing is iterating, making things better, learning new ways of doing things.
  3. Creativity — What excites many people is the opportunity to do creative work. If we can’t define work as creative, maybe it won’t get done.
  4. Personal — Technology has become personal. It’s something we can use and shape to our own goals. Making is personal; what you make is an expression of who you are. It means something and that meaning can be shared in public.

What lies ahead in the space? DIY solar, bioreactors, hacking cars?

Dale Dougherty: That’s what we’d all like to know. I don’t spend too much time thinking about the future. There’s so much going on right now.

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  • http://www.zylun.com/live-chat-outsourcing/ Live Chat

    I think Tim identified a key to increasing and improving American manufacturing, along improving a host of skills in America: our education system. Reforming the education system to make it more interactive and engendering that curiosity and creative spirit into American children will help those children be more productive as adults. Unfortunately, when budgets need to be cut, education is an easy target.

  • http://e-mergents.com/ Marie Bjerede

    Well deserved, indeed! Dale has fostered a movement that is rich and beautiful and happens on a slower timescale than much of busy modern life. It encourages play and questioning, two things that are out of balance, particularly in education. The spirit of open-ended exploration provides rich balance to a system of closed-ended problem solving. Maker Faires are joyful alternatives to competitive science fairs. The Maker ethic of sharing ideas and materials and projects openly are a fresh take on peer review. Congratulations to Dale and deep respect and gratitude for making Making visible and accessible to so many more of us.

  • http://custommade.com marcie

    Although not inventors, we fully support the Maker Movement. http://www.custommmade.com