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Review of Chris Anderson's "Makers" for Blueprint Magazine

A review of Chris Anderson’s “Makers” for the April issue of Blueprint magazine. Pleased to have used the phrase “Star Trek meets Mumford & Sons” in it, and indeed to have got it finished. Thanks to Shumi Bose for asking me to do it, and for nagging me to complete before the deadline!

On the surface, you’ll experience a distinct lack of surprise reading Makers, if – like me – you’re familiar with Chris Anderson’s previous output.

I expected plenty of techno-utopian, libertarian, anarcho-capitalist “Californian Ideology“, which there is in spades – but perhaps not his family history in the garden sprinkler industry, Marx, or 1980s US punk-rock references.

The central thesis of Makers blends these around innovations in the manufacture of physical goods, specifically low cost 3d printing and robotics, and the ongoing disruptive forces of the internet and open-source software – to convince us that we are entering the era of ‘The Long-Tail of Things”. Herein, niche needs can be met by niche manufacturing eating into the dominance of the mass-manufacture models of the industrial age. Anderson’s last-but-one book “The Long Tail” argued this for culture and media, of course.

In this near-future, the 1980s Punk DIY ethic transmutes into a kind of on-demand artisanal yuppie boutique-consumerism, a cornucopia of high-margin corner-cases.

Star Trek meets Mumford & Sons.

Which begs the question – in the future, who does the boring stuff?

In Anderson’s view, much of it is automated – with mass-manufacture jobs becoming more precarious, lower-paid and rare driven by technology, commoditisation and globalisation. Although, interestingly, he sees the tide turning away from China as planetary factory – as robotics, middle-class wage aspirations and cost of shipping conspire against it’s dominance in the medium to long-term. He has Mexico marked down as the new China. At least it’s his choice for outsourcing his boutique robotics firm…

While 3d-printing is the subject of a lot of hype and hope, the steady march of robotics into small and medium enterprises from their beach-head in mass manufacturing is perhaps the most profound trend of our times covered in Makers. It’s one of the enablers, as well as the subject of Anderson’s business, but it’s not something that is critiqued in much depth by him. He does make strong points about the future of the American middle-class (our working classes) but for a more thorough look at this, I’d recommend “Race against the machine” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

The other powerful trend covered in Makers is the accessibility of tools and knowhow that the Open-Source movement has catalysed and provided to the small business. While capital might be in short supply, much of the (software) means of production is seizable for free, and as Anderson points out – the physical hardware and infrastructure of prototyping, manufacture and distribution is rentable as a service. This is a trend that we at BERG have made great use of in the last few years in our own small-scale product prototyping and manufacture e.g. Little Printer (http://bergcloud.com/littleprinter)

Anderson finishes with a short speculation on the open-source future of biology itself. With synthetic biological components being hacked on inside the canonical garages that created the computer industry, it promises to be a disruptive movement worth a book of it’s own. The analysis in Makers seems a little tacked-on, but it may prompt the curious to investigate further.

Ultimately however, “Makers” suffers, like most business books, of being a something that would made a great, insightful magazine article, but drags as a full book – and feels anachronistic in contrast to the digital communities, blogs and other online resources devoted to its subject matter.

Part invigorating, part infuriating, “Makers” is squarely aimed at airport bizbook crowd rather than designers or makers – although conversely designers and makers could learn from the business-y bits. It’s message is perhaps most urgent though for the UK’s education policy makers – hopefully leading them to question their victorian obsession with testing the three R’s, and instead shaping an education system centred around design, play, flexibility, invention, creativity and ingenuity – skills that Anderson’s vision of the near-future demands.

Almost four years ago, I joined Jack Schulze, Matt Webb and Tom Armitage at what became BERG.

Schuze & Webb & Jones & Armitage

I’m leaving this week.

I’ll write more about that soon, but for now, here’s a post I found in my “drafts” folder about leaving the start-up I co-founded (Dopplr) and joining Schulze & Webb.

I didn’t publish it at the time, as shortly after I wrote it and left Dopplr the company started talks with Nokia which led to it being acquired.

Looking back – I certainly got to explore the domains I hoped I would be able to explore working with Jack and Matt, and more. It’s also interesting (to me at least) to think about what we were trying to do at the time with the ‘Social Atlas’ and the iPhone app, which of course in the meantime have become central to services like Foursquare, Yelp and the like.

Also – I joined S&W after spending a while in an advisory role while at Dopplr, and I’m pleased to say I’ll be keeping an advisory role at BERG going forward.

Anyway – out of ‘drafts’ it comes.

Leaving Dopplr, Joining Schulze & Webb

Just a note about some changes. Since June, I’ve been working full-time as a principal at Schulze & Webb and have reduced my role at Dopplr to an involvement of about a day a month as a design advisor.

I’d been working on Dopplr for two and a half years altogether, since it’s inception in a cottage in Norfolk, about 20 months of that full-time. At the beginning of the year I thought that it was likely that 2009 would be the last year I’d spend working on it.

Also, the beginning of the year brought a trip to Etech in San Jose – which convinced me that a territory that I’d always loved to explore was taking commercial shape: the overlap of the physical and digital in our environments. The research I’d done for my webstock talk had resurrected old hankerings for interactive architecture, physical product design and embodied interaction. Etech’s diverse schedule of talks from materials experts, architects, synthetic biologists, hackers working on augmented reality, Arduino, data visualisation and robotics sealed the deal – I wanted in.

2009 was going to be an exciting year at Dopplr however. The direction of the service was broadening: from one that dealt with social sharing of travel plans to something much more ambitious: “The Social Atlas” as we called it… More of which later… But, we’d gone through 10 major releases of the service, and broadly the outline trajectory for it was to build as a business rather than as a product design problem, as it should be. I’m a product launch kind of guy, and so I talked with Marko and Matt B. about my intentions, stating that the iphone app, which at the time was codenamed “Spitfire” would be the last thing I’d work on full-time.

Spitfire and “The Social Atlas” were particularly interesting, as they built upon one of the original discussions that Marko, Matt Biddulph, and myself had when we were starting out on Dopplr: what do you get if you enable the social bookmarking of spacetime.

I talked a little about this at IxDA, and along with Tom Insam we’d tried some early experiments in ‘placemarking’ – but the ‘social atlas’ really started getting built in earnest at the beginning of this year. We all thought the mobile component was essential, and an iphone application was a priority.

Tom Taylor came on board for the build, and rapidly we got to a place where we were able to prototype and shape the interaction design directly on the device – essential. I left working at Dopplr full-time just after the final prototyping of the app, and the credit for the fine finished article goes in large to the Toms Taylor and Insam, and in terms of the visual design to Boris Anthony.

Boris has taken over design duties at Dopplr, with additional interaction design work from the team including of course, Celia Romaniuk. The service is in great hands, and under Marko and MattB’s leadership in terms of the business and technology, I’m certainly very happy to remain a founding investor!

It’s been a great time and a really fun ride – it’s a bittersweet feeling to be sure to leave your first start-up behind, but I think it was the right time for me to step to one side and let Dopplr grow to the next level.

So, to the next thing.

I’ve been working with Matt and Jack in an advisory role for over a year, and in that time the range of work that they’ve been involved in has been formidable. They really have been amongst those pioneering research and design in areas that fascinate me, such as data as material, connected things and places.

After talking with them about my plans I was delighted when they offered me a larger role in their practice. I’m now Director of design there, since going full time with them in early June, and have a focus on a lot of the strategic design consultancy work that S&W does, as well as heading up interaction and visual design direction on projects.

We’ve got a lot going on at the moment, and Matt is writing about it in a series of weekly posts on our blog, Pulse Laser.

I’m particularly excited about the next stage in S&W’s evolution, that we’re going to announce this week…

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