Sucking at something is the first step to being sort of good at it

9 Oct 2015

Dr David McKeown, co-founder of Dublin Maker and Science Hack Day Dublin, pictured at TEDxUCD 2014. Photo by Nick Bradshaw

David McKeown – a man of many talents, but most deftly defined as a maker – explains how the maker movement cultivates curiosity and creativity whether it hits the mark or not.

IoT Makers Week graphic

About 10 years ago, the postman called to the door and asked my dad if I was making a bomb.

A constant stream of packages from China labelled vaguely as ‘parts’ or ‘electronics’ had piqued his attention.

I wasn’t. I was mostly making little robots. They mostly didn’t work, but I learned a lot. I glued myself to things, I burned myself, I watched smoke magically appear from things that didn’t contain smoke. I learned a lot.

Avoiding the fate of Ahmed Mohamed and his now famous clock, I continued to make things. I learned from following the guides and tips people generously shared on the internet. I learned how to solder electronics, how to code and, importantly, how to unglue myself from things.

The maker movement

In a similar way to people sharing code for software projects, people would share the hardware schematics and parts lists for hardware projects, for people to build on and share their own improvements. They were also building the tools to make this process easier.

While hard to define exactly, this is, in essence, what became known as the maker movement. A culture of sharing, collaboration and openness which made it easier for anyone to make things. It is the culture, but it is also the people.

Science Hack Day Dublin

Collaboration at Science Hack Day Dublin. Photo via David McKeown

If the maker movement has a physical embodiment it is in the hackerspaces spread throughout Ireland. Spaces where people meet and create a community around working on projects together; where they educate each other, and share their resources.

The maker movement also lives in the knitting circles who share patterns and stories in the upstairs of pubs on cold winters’ nights. It is in the home-brewing enthusiasts posting about the successes and failures of their latest batch of experiments. It is in the Men’s Sheds, in the CoderDojos and in the adult coding nights.

Ireland is an island of makers and doers.

‘A hack is a fix. A clever solution to a problem.
An improvement.’

Hacking things better

Technology moves rapidly. Devices have become smaller and their circuitry less accessible. The mystery of their workings is hidden away.

Devices are now rarely built to be easily repaired. If you have a new phone, it probably doesn’t clip apart anymore; it’ll be glued shut. Frequently, if you open a device to see what’s inside, you just voided the warranty.

Dublin Maker 2015

Activities underway at Dublin Maker 2015. Photo via David McKeown

It is a sad trend, because understanding the devices we own is the first step to improving them. This is hacking – understanding technologies, mixing them together and adding functionality to the things we own.

The word ‘hack’ has nefarious connotations relating to illegal acts like breaking into networks. That is not what maker-movement hacking is about. To the contrary, a hack is a fix. A clever solution to a problem. An improvement.

Make beautiful things, even if nobody cares

The maker movement has grown massively worldwide over the last five years, and makers and hackers have become flavour of the month. Companies want to been seen as having a maker spirit, because it is vibrant and curiosity-led. You can also spot marketing campaigns associating companies that sell shoes and jeans with the independent makers while they still mass produce their products in overseas factories. Innovation centres are urging ‘makers’ to create start-up companies. It is easy to see why, as maker projects tend to have new ideas, and the people behind them are quick to adopt latest technologies.

‘Ireland needs hardware start-ups, but it also needs a creative soul’

Ireland needs hardware start-ups, but it also needs a creative soul. We need a culture of creativity that is about having the permission to explore ideas, to be playful with new tech and to make for the pure fun of it.

Look at the great success of CoderDojo. It is clear that it works because it is built upon community. volunteers helping out each week at a grassroots level, giving their time for the good of their local dojo. It is basically the GAA structure, but for coding skills. People will give their time if they believe in the integrity of what is happening.

Like any community, the maker movement is about giving back, and I’ve tried to create events that support the maker communities in Ireland. With the help of numerous and far more talented people than I, I’ve helped found Science Hack Day, a Christmas jumper-making workshop and Dublin Maker.

Science Hack Day

Science Hack Day is a hackathon for all. It is Ireland’s longest-running and largest hackathon, and the only one that is run completely by volunteers.

The idea is simple. Over two days, people make things. They make beautiful things. Silly things. Serious things. Just make things.

Last year, people made musical drum pants, visualised pollution data and looked for trends, built self-playing xylophones and the internet of toast (#IoT).

Internet of Toast, Science Hack Day

The birth of the IoT – internet of toast – at Science Hack Day Dublin. Photo via David McKeown

We wanted to build a hackathon to let people play. We are not running it because we secretly want the projects to become start-ups. We have no money to offer the winners. The only prize is a wooden medal that says Science Champion.

We want accidental meetings of scientists and artists over cake. We want 4am chats between engineers and philosophers on whether the cake is real.

‘We couldn’t give a damn about a killer business plan. We value collaboration over competition’

We couldn’t give a damn about a killer business plan. We value collaboration over competition. We want people to aim big, and fail, and then try again. To try new things that might not work, but just might. To simply try a bit of hacking, eat free food and go home remembering how enjoyable it is to make things.

The next Science Hack Day is in November, with 225 people signed up already. It’ll be great.

Glue guns and glitter

This December, 50 people will cram into the upstairs studios of the Science Gallery to make Christmas jumpers. Hot glue will attach sparkly euro-shop tat to jumpers and there will be a raffle for charity. You could most definitely do this at home, but it is more fun as a group (and with mulled wine).

The social aspect of making is huge. The craic and heartwarming vibe you get when people are reliving their youth by cutting out felt reindeers to impress their friends makes it one of my favourite nights of the year.

Making Christmas jumpers

McKeown (front) enjoys an evening of Christmas-jumper making. Photo via David McKeown

A celebration of making

The biggest of all Irish making events is Dublin Maker, a one-day, family-friendly showcase that brings a diverse range of making groups together. It is a chance for the general public to see the ingenuity of shed inventors, amateur scientists and creative crafters.

People are encouraged to poke at the makers’ projects and ask questions. Groups launch rockets, cast metal, build robots and push the boundaries of crafts. It has been running since 2012 and 13,000 people attended this summer. It was marvellous.

Again, Dublin Maker is run by a bunch of volunteers-turned-event planners who embrace the maker spirit to make sure it can be run as a free event and open to all.

Dublin Maker

Dublin Maker: fun for all ages. Photo via David McKeown

By David McKeown

David McKeown is a science communicator, rocket scientist and lecturer at University College Dublin. He is also the co-founder of Science Hack Day Dublin, Dublin Maker and Artek Circle.

IoT Makers Week explores the internet of things revolution and the makers driving it with reports on from 5 to 9 October 2015. Get updates by subscribing to our news alerts or following @siliconrepublic and the hashtag #IoTMakersWeek on Twitter.