This tag is associated with 6 posts

Made with China

Since January 2013, I have been based out of Shenzhen, a city in the southern region of China, bordering Hong Kong, and most widely known as the home to factories such as Foxconn, where firms like Apple and HP manufacture their products. What brought me to Shenzhen was a new project, part of my long-term ethnographic research on maker and hackerspace culture in China: alongside 10 hardware start-ups, I joined as an on-site ethnographer the HAXLR8R program. HAXLR8R is the first of a growing number of hardware focused accelerator and incubator programs that invest in start-ups born out of the open hardware and maker movement.

The 10 start-ups I have been working with over the last months in Shenzhen and programs like HAXLR8R play a central role in what I call an increasing “professionalization of Make.” By this, I refer to a growing number of start-ups and individual makers that are working towards economic models that allow them to make a living off their hardware designs and productions. In this post, I explore what actually goes into this professionalization of maker practice, which is mostly thought of as a hobbyist activity and something that people do in their free time or just for fun. What does it take to professionalize make? I will show that at the center of this transformation lies the establishment of partnerships between people and entities we previously thought of as populating quite distinct or even opposing worlds.

Made with China I: LightUp

LightUp was founded by Josh Chan and Tarun Pondicherry with the vision to apply maker and open hardware techniques to education and enable hands-on learning. A central aspect that motivated Josh and Tarun is a commitment to open up the black-box of technology. By this, they mean to uncover the inner workings of our technology. For instance, they ask what makes a “closed” device such as an Apple iPhone “tick,” e.g. what materials and components were used, where it was made, what it does in terms of electronics and physical materials, etc. With this, Josh and Tarun speak to a broader vision that motivates many of those who identify as part of a contemporary maker movement: individual and collective empowerment through the building of platforms that allows others to make and understand the inner workings of technology; or in their words:

“… as these devices have shrunk over the decades, they’ve become inaccessible black boxes. We live in a world where we can only use electronics, but not understand, fix, remix, or create. At LightUp, we aim to tear open those black boxes and help create the makers of tomorrow.”

With their LightUp system Josh and Tarun are driven to implement in practice this vision of un-black boxing technology and what it means to do that via an out-of-the-box designed artifact. The goal of LightUp is enable young people to playfully approach the complex workings of physics and electronics via a tangible system. It consists of electronic components (wire, bulb, motor, microcontroller, etc.) mounted on blocks that connect to each other magnetically to form circuits. A central aspect of the LightUp system is not only the design of these electronic components and of the magnetic enclosures, but also the design of a corresponding software system. Josh and Tarun describe this software layer of the LightUp system as an “informational lens” – a mobile application that recognizes the components in the magnetic circuit system a user puts together and then augments the image with visualizations of otherwise invisible circuit behavior. The application visualizes, for instance, if the circuit was put together correctly and current is flowing through.

Over the last years, scholars, educators and politicians alike have paid increasing attention towards “maker” practice as a new form of education that enables innovation and creativity through hands-on learning. For instance, in 2012, DARPA announced to fund an educational program aimed at bringing “the practices of making into education and [to] extend the maker movement into schools” with a target of reaching 1,000 schools by the school year of 2012-13 (the announcement, the controversy). Similarly, in 2011, the Chinese government, announced the funding of 400 hackerspaces in Shanghai to support new forms of learning, creativity and innovation (Lindtner and Li 2012). And also in higher education, many programs – ranging all the way from the MIT Media Lab to Information and Management schools – have opened up hacker and/or maker spaces providing their students with access to a new set of tools and collaborative learning.

The work by Josh and Tarun is indicative of how this vision is being implemented in practice. During their time at HAXLR8R, LightUp visited a series of factories and established close relationships with a selected few that they deemed fitting their quality requirements, specifications, and style of interaction and communication. One of these manufacturing partners produced small enclosures of LightUp prototype. Josh and Tarun were working closely with their production site in Shenzhen. The interaction involved an intricate and effortful interaction between LightUp, the manufacturing site and the service provider that had established the bridge between the foreign start-up and the Chinese manufacturing site. A particularly important aspect to these interactions were on site visits, during which Josh and Tarun met with the Laoban (the factory owner) as well as with workers on the factory floor to test the appropriate materials to be used for their product:

During one such visit I accompanied Josh and Tarun and we met with the workers to test several different materials to be used to stamp on the small scale the LightUp system required. After several hours of trial and error, the manufacturer and LightUp decided to consult with the subcontractor that manufactured the mold for the stamp. A phone call later, the worker who had produced the mold stood in the office and we agreed that modifications had to be made to the mold design itself. The interactions spanned beyond this on-site visit over another 2 weeks.

It is exactly this careful interaction as well as the establishment of trust between the hardware startup and the owner and workers at the factory that turns maker ideas into tangible products. It’s a combination of a deep understanding of materials, the inner workings of technology and social interactions.

Made with China II: Have you seen Clyde?

“Clyde is a bit of a character,” Amanda explains in the Kickstarter video (link to: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/metamanda/clyde-an-expressive-lamp-for-creative-homes?ref=live) that introduces Clyde, the first of a product line of modifiable and open household appliances by Fabule Fabrications (link to: http://fabule.com/). What Amanda and Bruno realize with Clyde is an expressive and personable take on what designers and engineers have envisioned for more than 2 decades as the so-called smart home. This vision of a smart home with interconnected devices that make our lives easier and frees us from household chores dates back to the 90s. Back then, the advent of mobile computing and sensing technologies lead people to envision an invisible computer moving into the background of our lives and connecting seamlessly our lives at home, in the office and while on the go. What we learned over the years is that much of this remained a vision and that in practice most people prefer warm and customizable environments rather than full-on home automation. Recently, we have seen a resurgence of these earlier ideas of the smart and interconnected home with the Internet of Things. A central difference is that much of what was envisioned 10-20 years earlier today has become possible to implement in practice. One reason is simply that electronic components have continued to shrink in size and price. More importantly than the change in technical feasibility is what a growing community of makers like Amanda and Bruno are making in practice.

With Clyde, Fabule Fabrications illustrates that we can implement earlier visions of interconnected devices, but do so with a personable touch, with character and by engaging and working WITH the consumer, rather than designing a sterile and automated home FOR people. With a background in interaction design, Amanda and Bruno are well versed in designing devices that have a delightful and quirky personality. The process was driven by humor and playfulness, for instance what would a household lamp look like that reacts to your plant needing water or that greets you when you come from a long day of work? Or that gets sleepy when you have been working for 2 hours straight at your desk and you really should be taking a break?

This humor that Amanda and Bruno designed into Clyde is central to the maker community. This playfulness and humor also extended in Fabule’s interactions with manufacturers in China. During their time in Shenzhen, they worked closely with the prototype manufacturer Industri-Man. They worked in particular with a young women and recent college graduate Ada Liu from the foreign trade department of Industri-Man. Through a series of interactions through email, phone and on-site visits, Fabule and Industri-Man discussed intricacies to the material requirements of the best plastic to be used as well as how to best engineer the snap-and-twist joining mechanism that Bruno designed for the lamp. Together with Industrial Man, Fabule Fabrications designed a vacuum cast that’s very close to the final injection mold to be used for the finished product. Clyde, then, comes into being not by the tools and materials of one single, but of many different entities and manufacturers with a distinct focus on specific machines, materials, and products. Large corporations such as Intel and Apple often work with contract manufacturers that handle for them the different sub-contract manufacturers and take care of the quality assurance, etc. Start-ups like Fabule Fabrication, especially when in the early stages of prototyping, work directly with smaller scale and specialized manufactures, and then are themselves responsible for quality assurance and putting together the different components into a final put-together product. For instance, in addition to Industri-Man, Fabule Fabrications also worked with Hill Optical to design the heat dissipation from the high-power LEDs that give Clyde parts of his personality.  The collaboration with Hill Optical prompted Fabule to change the bottom portion of the lamp to aluminum (from plastic), and add some ridges on the inside to create additional heat dissipating surface area.

What this shows is that makers, manufacturers, and VCs are invested in the “professionalization of make,” while approaching it from very different positionality in terms of resources, power and knowledge. They have a stake in each other’s success and by recognizing each other as collaborators working towards a mutual goal, they alter the very way industrial production, business collaboration as well as design is done. These partnerships in design and ideation between makers, manufacturers  and VCs is better characterized as  a “made with China” (rather than made in China), a process of mutual learning, investment of resources and trust.

Many thanks to HackThings, which posted this as a guest blog post here.

Where PCBs are made


In a previous post, we covered how to tackle the digital vendor worlds of Taobao. Here, I will discuss together with Amanda from Fabule and Tarun and Josh from LightUp, where and how digital PCB (Printed Circuit Board) designs are made tangibly real – just like the PCB coster depicted here, that was designed by LightUp to detect temperature of a cup and display it visually.

Over the last months at HAXLR8R, many of us have begun working with HQPCB, a Shenzhen-based manufacturer of PCBs. What we found was a service that extends way beyond a linear transaction from a digital design into physical board. HQPCB basically functions like a “friendly neighborhood” PCB shop. HQ does not stand for high quality as the name might imply, but literally for the neighborhood of the PCB shop in Shenzhen: HuaQiang.

Working with HQPCB has been a learning experience for us on many levels. While in the United States, for instance, PCB prototyping often feels like a very distant manufacturing process, working with HQPCB takes on a much more personalized note. Even though orders are submitted online, they are verified over the phone or even in person at the HQPCB office. In these conversations, we learned things like “if we order 10.000 boards, can you produce a special shape,” or “can you do two layers of solder masks instead of silk screening” (as described in Bunnie Huang’s post on “Where Arduino’s are born”). So even though the interaction with HQPCB starts off with an online transaction, it quickly turns into a personalized experience.

This becomes more immediately visible, when we introduce you to Kevin Lau from HQPCB, one of their English-speaking customer representatives: On one of our first order’s, Kevin reached out to us over the phone and one of us walked over to the physical shop of HQPCB. This way, the payment could occur in cash (which is great if you don’t have a Chinese bank account). Kevin took care of the payment out of Amanda’s HQPCB customer account. This required us to share our account info with Kevin, which at first created a feeling of unease. Sharing account information can be a quite common practice in China, especially when the relationship is based on mutual trust (check out one of my earlier papers where I have written more extensively bout this). Generally, our interactions with Kevin have been very personable. He has gone out of his way to help us with orders on weekends and even while he was out of town. He always followed up within hours of receiving a delivery to make sure everything is OK. And he ordered batches to be redone, if they were not within the specified tolerance or of there were any issues with the boards.

A central aspect of these interactions was the mutual learning process. We often met with Kevin to talk about particular PCB art techniques. This included, for instance, a conversation about how to accomplish a board design based on two coats of solder mask, in different color, rather than solder mask and silk screen. This technique allows to achieve a better resolution on the PCB’s decorative elements, which is crucial when the boards are a visible part of the consumer end product. For instance, think of the aesthetics of the Arduino board with graphical elements such as the geographical map of Italy, which make the board immediately recognizable. This design also helps to identify “fake” Arduino boards, which mostly rely on low-resolution graphics, i.e. a pixelated or blurry map of Italy.

Double coating of solder masks is a non-standard technique that HQPCB was not familiar with before our work with them. And so, we learned together, as HQPCB experimented with the technique, how it worked in practice. What we found out was that the double coating does not require the use of machines other than those already in use at a standard PCB manufacturers. It does require a slight alteration of the assembly line process.

Some basics for those interested in working with HQPCB:
The standard delivery with HQPCB takes 4-5 days. If you want to have express delivery within 24 hours the costs increase: We had an order, for instance, for 100RMB (Chinese Renminbi) within 48 hours, and 200 RMB within 24 hours. 24 hours means that the PCBs are finished within 24 hours and then delivery occurs the next day. Generally, with HQPCB the price depends on the size of your board and the color of the solder mask (white solder mask is more expensive than the green). So for a small green board is 50RMB and a big one is 100RMB. You submit through a form that updates live. HQPCB then gives you an estimate of the costs, after about 30 minutes of reviewing the files. If a PCB design is more complicated or any other questions come up, they will call and discuss details.

Announcement: “Hacked Matter” workshop

In April I am co-organizing together with Anna Greenspan a panel discussion and workshop on “Hacked Matter.” Confirmed Panelists include: our very own David Li from xinchejian 新车间, Amanda Williams from Wyld Collective and currently in Shenzhen for HAXLR8R, and Tom Igoe from ITP New York. More details here:

Hacked Matter: A Workshop on Shanzhai & Maker Culture

Shanghai and Shenzhen: April 6-8 2013
With support from the Shanghai Studies Symposium, NYU Shanghai, ISTC (Intel Science & Technology for Social Computing) UC Irvine, the Rockbund Art Museum and Xinchejian 新车间

This workshop aims to critically explore and examine connections between the informal networks ofshanzhai production and the open innovations of the DIY (do it yourself) maker community in China. It will take place in Shanghai and Shenzhen, hubs of China’s growing Hackerspace and Maker scene as well as critical sites in the global flows of ‘copycat’ or shanzhai technology. The workshop will begin in Shanghai with presentations and a panel discussion by leading researchers and practitioners in the field. It will be followed by a two-day hands-on engagement with the open hardware scene & shanzhai manufacturing markets in Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, we will visit the HAXLR8R event, a 15-weeks long workshop designed as a ‘startup accelerator program’ for ‘people who hack hardware and make things.’

Detailed Schedule:

Saturday April 6, 2013:  3pm – 6 pm (Shanghai):
All Tomorrows Parties (episode 6): Shanzhai & Maker Culture. Presentations and Panel Discussion at the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Sunday April 7/ Monday April 8, 2013 (Shenzhen):

A tour of Shenzhen guided by David Li (founder of Xinchejian: Shanghai’s hackerspace). The tour will include visits to Chaihuo hackerspace, the HuaQiangBei shanzhai market, and SeeedStudio. It will also involve curated conversations with Eric Pan of SeeedStudio and DIY makers currently working in Shenzhen. The workshop will end on Monday evening with a roundtable discussion (and some delicious Guangdong food).

What Keeps Hacker and Maker Spaces Going?

By: Andrew Schrock

Hackerspaces are place-based collectives where individuals learn through socialization, tinker with technology, develop skills and pool technical resources. But what’s holding them together and moving them forward? Here are a few central themes drawn from my research in a western context that I am exploring, and would be particularly curious to explore internationally:

1. Do-ocracy: Action over Deliberation
Hackerspaces are very noisy spaces, full of improvisation and chatter about projects at various stages of completion. One word came up repeatedly to describe the hackerspace perspective on autonomy and action: do-ocracy. The term is often misunderstood to be a call to anarchism, but it does not mean “do whatever you want.” A more helpful version comes from Chen’s book on the burning man organization titled Enabling Creative Chaos. She defines the term as referring to how “individuals could launch an activity or project that addressed a civic need” (Chen, 2009, p. 55). In other words, a member should act in the best interest of the space itself, and this understanding is propagated through norms. Those who do not act in the best interest of the space or act selfishly set themselves up for reprimand.

I tend to downplay the discursive democratic conventions of these spaces because individual action is the first mover, with group voting and discussion used to shore up perceived offenses. Everyone has a vote, but voting tends to be limited to monthly member meetings, and big decisions such as banning an individual are rare. Members find deliberation frustrating and even a waste of time. As one member put it, “democracy doesn’t lead to something done fast.” This “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” policy is familiar to online knowledge-sharing sites such as Wikipedia, whose slogan “be bold” encourages participants to take action first.

2. Bold Leaders
Hackerspaces are not quite the leaderless organizations that you might imagine. They are composed of strong personalities connected by common space, mutual support and shifting sets of common interests. My claim here is that members require a tacit understanding of group norms (it is easier to show or perform “what it is we do here” than talk about it), but they also desire quick action through bold leadership. This seems contradictory at first glance – do you stay within the norms or stick out? – but it can be reconciled by drawing on Doug Thomas’ distinction between communities and collectives. In collectives, the motivation is participatory, entry/exit costs are nil, and an emphasis is placed on providing tools for increased individual agency. Furthermore,

Collectives… function in support of the expression of multiple, even conflicting identities across a wide range of users. In communities, investment flows toward structure, while in collectives, investment flows towards agency. (Thomas, 2011, p. 3)

A heightened individuation exists within collectives without the same type of friction that arises in communities. It’s important to keep in mind that hackerspaces are volunteeristic, with highly heterogeneous member motivations that are emphasized rather than downplayed, as might be expected in a community where there are specific goals. In contrast, in hackerspaces some are members because they need access to tools, others are the kind of subversive folks you might see at a 2600 meeting who like the social environment, and others see it as a mode of collaborative education. These disparate goals and motivations do not need to be reconciled to have them all participate in a common space and work on individual and group projects.

James Gee’s concept of porous leadership also comes into play here. According to Gee, people take ownership over various areas of an affinity space but “don’t and can’t order people around or create rigid, unchanging, and impregnable hierarchies” (Gee, 2004, p. 79). This is a volunteeristic, non-Weberian organizational strategy that emphasizes individual strengths over structure. This collectivistic orientation, back to Thomas, dictates little to no investment in organizational structure or rules – Noisebridge in San Francisco famously touts their one rule as “be excellent to each other.” Leaders also help define the goals of the space in a different way than most hackerspace members do, by showing up and working.

3. Projects as Material Ideas
Another word related to work that emerged repeatedly in my research was project. What was a project and why are they essential to the hackerspace experience? I am still unpacking the historical angle, but the term had negative connotations centuries ago. In the 17th century “project” had “a distinctly unsavoury connotation, being associated with unscrupulous schemes for getting money” (Novak, 2008, p. 3). To western hobbyists in the 20th century, projects were finite, recreational and semi-structured. To hackerspace members, projects are the motivation for showing up and a way of interfacing with the outside world. But projects hide what might be called a more salient driving force, that true-to-hacker-ethic of sharing information:

I don’t think that [keeping people people motivated is] about projects. I think it’s about interesting ideas. I think that by doing interesting things is how you keep people involved… by giving them the tools and resources they need to do interesting things. For some people that means tools, for some people that means software. For some people, it just means… people who will listen to them. – Interviewee (anonymous)

The above quote captures one member’s belief that projects were merely where ideas were made material and given (in his opinion, often unnecessary) restrictions such as deadlines. Their framing as “projects” is necessary mainly because they made ideas tangible/understandable, and served as recruitment and networking tools. Yet, he also contended that projects should ultimately be disposable and are only as valuable as the idea that drives it. If an idea isn’t noteworthy, the project should be jettisoned in a kind of evolutionary progression towards better projects and knowledge. Perhaps the term project is also preferable simply because it occupies a place between professional and amateur, with a fuzzy boundary of ownership.

4. Networking
Hackerspaces are going through a struggle for legitimacy as they mature, grapple with the stakes of becoming an organization, and network with other local organizations. For example, a hackerspace might wish to seek out funding, collaborate with an arts gallery on a show or provide informal support to local students. This networking forces hackerspaces to articulate themselves in a way that better aligns with expectations of other organizations. For example, negative presentations of “hacking” still pervade the media discourse, despite that it is seen by members more as a learning style similar to tinkering. As one interviewee put it, “we’re starting to network with those people a lot more as they realize that we’re not just guys who read 2600 and try and make free long distance calls.” Sources of funding are also a key debate, as seen in the ongoing discussion between Mitch Altman and Dale Dougherty about whether to accept government funds for hackerspace-like efforts in K-12 education.

Chen, K. (2009). Enabling creative chaos : the organization behind the burning man event. Chicago [u.a.]: University of Chicago Press.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning : a critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.

Novak, M. E. (2008). The age of projects. Toronto: Published by the University of Toronto Press in association with the UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies and the William Anderson [sic] Clark Memorial Library.

Thomas, D. (2011). From Community to Collective: Institution and Agency in the Age of Social Networks. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1754214

Day1: knowledge sharing, a cat licking robot, 4 maker projects & what the hack is taarof & keqi?

Day 1 of our transfabric DIY workshop was an exciting whirlwind through various parts of the making world. At kibu, we learned, for example, about what goes into making a cat licking robot, the winner at Bacarabo Europe 2010 with the goal to build the least useful robot. cat licking robot on YouTube.  Attila Budjoso from Kibu tells us that people who join their network are open towards a range of ideas and interdisciplinary approaches – indeed interdisciplinary is leveraged to build on various people’s skill sets to produce social, cultural and economic value, or as Attila put it “people here have to collaborate.”  Ricky Ng-Adam from xinchejian and Liu Yan from xindanwei speak about the challenges and opportunities of open innovation and co-working in China. “In China it’s very challenging to build something new if you don’t give people something tangible, something that has value,” Liu Yan explains. At the fablab Budapest, we learn how 3D printing can act as a teleport into a global network of like-minded makers. The goal of the fablab Budapest is that the lab should fund itself by opening its production site up to the public, by allowing people to make.

In the afternoon, we brainstormed about project ideas for the workshop’s maker challenge, which crystallized into 4 really fun and “situated” maker projects:

1. Silenced Voices

The idea here is to create an instructable and first working prototype of a small portable device that uses radio frequency to tap into semi-private-public radios, e.g. in cars, grocery stores, public buildings, etc. Within the range of 200 meters, the device will be able to load custom slogans into what is known as a much less open media content. The devices should be easily re-producable and use cheap materials so that people can create their own slogans and use it in their own local contexts.

2. Twitterpated – affectionate memory tool & congregator

from urbandictionary:
1)to be completely enamored with someone/something.
2) the flighty exciting feeling you get when you think about/see the object of your affection.
3) romantically excited (i.e.: aroused)
4) the ever increasing acceleration of heartbeat and body temperature as a result of being engulfed amidst the exhilaration and joy of being/having a romantic entity in someone’s life.

The Twitterpated machine will measure centers of emotional stimulation and excitement in a city through sensors such as accelerated heart rate, fast movement and noise. It will then direct its user to this sphere of “affection” – enabling ad-hoc gatherings without having to rely on being actually logged into a social networking tool like twitter.

Could exist vis-a-vis the momo haptic device.

3. Sensor Replacement Robot

The sensor replacement robot will scan surfaces to project messages onto surfaces from a distance.

4. the co-working lamp buddy

A lot of co-working spaces provide space for interdisciplinary thinking and working. Still, a challenge remains that people remain glued to their screens, while sharing the same physical space. The goal of this  buddy lamp is to create a secondary layer of social networking: each co-worker connects to a lamp upon arrival and uploads her digital profile. The lamp then compares the profile with those of other lamps (co-workers) and if a match in interest occurs the two (or more) lamps light up in the same light.

We ended a day with a lovely dinner over the roofs of beautiful old Budapest, where we learned about the cross-overs between cultural practices such as taarof and keqi.

Ad-Hoc Networks: UMBRELLA.net

We’ve been brainstorming ideas for the Maker Challenge that will an important part of our workshop. Many of the technologies we’ve started to dream up are particularly focused on the dynamics and dichotomies of power that we might be able to tinker with: How can crowds use a simple device to augment their collective action? How might we hack a technology to wedge into the perceived top-down authority of control? In general, we might be interested in the borders between the many transnational players involved in how new technologies can perform a new role in an increasingly mobile world.

This all got me thinking about ad-hoc networks, which, generally, can be described as networks that form and disappear depending on crowd formation and the collective experiences of people in public and urban space. A great example is a project called “UMBRELLA.net,” the brainchild of Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Katherine Moriwaki, Ken Greene, Linda Doyle, Stephen Hughes, and Ronan Coyle . Even though the project was exhibited as an art installation in the UK and Austria, it’s worth thinking closely about how we might turn the basic idea into something simple and hackable to use in a more functional, daily role.

Here is the background for the project:

UMBRELLA.net uses ad-hoc networking as a means to connect people who share the same physical space and who might engage in similar, yet individual activities. Since ad-hoc systems exist as networks that can spontaneously form and dissipate based on the amount of clients present, they are a perfect testing bed for examining how new relationships can form based on proximity and chance conditions. “Coincidence of need” can be defined as seemingly individual activities that are also common experiences based on factors beyond the individual’s immediate control. In the case of UMBRELLA.net, this is the act of opening one’s umbrella when rain begins to fall: an individual action spurned by an environmental effect that is part of a collective social network. Therefore UMBRELLA.net attempts to discover how coincidence of need provides the context for looking at co-location of individuals and how this need could lead to new types of connections amongst strangers or friends in public space.