Hackerspaces Take on Sustainability — Climate Confidential

Photo courtesy LVL1

In the East Market neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, a handful of chic bars and boutiques are filling into the historic brick buildings on Broadway St, hinting at the neighborhood’s future. A few blocks away, another transformation is underway inside a 6,000-square-foot warehouse, on a block where prominent security signs and boarded-up windows still dot the streetscape.

On a cold January night, a half-dozen men and women were hunched over sewing machines in the warehouse, stitching seams and swapping advice. The room was crowded with project tables, couches, and the remains of various arts, crafts, and electronics projects. One participant triumphantly waved a finished garment in the air as I entered: “I made a shirt!” he exclaimed to the others.

Welcome to LVL1. It’s a makerspace, and places like it — also called hackerspaces, FabLabs, hacklabs, community workshops, and dozens of other local variants — have popped up in cities from Berlin and Boston to Baghdad, Beirut, and Beijing. No matter what they’re called, they’re open workshops where sharing—of expertise, tools, and space—is highly encouraged. Today, there are more than 1,400 such spaces around the world, and they’re spreading fast.

Brad Luyster, president of the organization, showed me around. Multiple 3-D printers and a vinyl cutter occupied counter space in the main room, while downstairs a cement-floored basement held woodworking tools, drill presses, computer-controlled (or CNC) mills, lathes, pipe-bending tools, and other heavy equipment. A storage room was crowded with scavenged electronics, wood, metal, and other odds and ends, sorted neatly on shelves and in piles.

Members get together to learn and share at LVL1. Photo courtesy LVL1.

The organization’s members — of which there were about 80, back in January — pay $50 per month to use this assortment of equipment and supplies to create any kind of project they can dream up. LVL1’s collection included a large rocket, a fire-breathing animatronic toy horse, and a device that would sometimes set off applause when the bathroom door opened.

This playful, anything-goes environment is a hallmark of makerspaces around the world, but behind the goofy gadgets and gizmos is serious purpose. Hacking and making, in the eyes of many of the community’s evangelists, are an opportunity to engage the broader community in driving technology innovation forward and to focus the efforts of the technology community on serious issues like climate change.

A culture of serious play

Makerspaces, which invite anyone and everyone to pick up new tools and skills, are environments ripe with opportunities to engage people in creative solutions to environmental challenges.

LVL1 hosts open house events to encourage new community members to come use the space. Here, a young visitor watches a 3D printer in action. Photo courtesy LVL1.

“We want people to have access,” said LVL1’s Luyster. “We are a community, and we have a huge open door policy. It’s an opportunity for people to learn, exchange skills, and use tools to empower themselves.”

Joshua Schuler is executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which aims to inspire young people to lead “creative and inventive lives.” He says makerspaces have become an important part of the program’s work to teach and inspire young inventors, in part because they help facilitate a culture of what Schuler calls “serious play.”

“You learn things by making stuff, building stuff,” he said. “The more you do stuff, the more you learn. As you put those skills together, you can use them to address those real-world problems.”

As the availability of hardware components like circuit boards, microcontrollers, LEDs, motors, and sensors has soared, their prices have plummeted. Arduino and Raspberry Pi are two examples of the powerful microcontrollers — essentially tiny computers — that can now be had for under $40. 3-D printers, now available to consumers, make it possible to design objects on a computer and then produce a physical model within a matter of hours.

This accessible technology is what has enabled the wacky, silly, and sometimes-stupid inventions that come out of hackerspaces—and it’s also given serious creators the ability to rapidly prototype actual product designs. If you’re looking for proof, take a look at crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, where many newly minted inventors are looking to find a market for their products and ideas.

That clear trajectory from playful project to consumer product is why everyone from private investors and corporations to local governments and the White House is talking about the maker movement. And it’s why many sustainable development advocates are turning to the community as a way of advancing their goals.

“Until we start being playful about it and allow ourselves to rapidly prototype [solutions], we won’t be able to figure out what technology can do for climate change,” said Kachina Gosselin, the San Francisco ambassador for an upcoming hackathon focused on climate change.

Forking cleantech innovations

One of the main ways in which beginning makers learn the tools and techniques of maker culture is through online how-to sites like Make, Hackaday, and Instructables. The cultural offspring of the open source software movement and the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, these websites allow users to write up projects they’ve done and share them online.

You, too, can build an animatronic, fire-breathing pony. All you need to do is follow the instructions posted online.

Once you’ve done so, you can also suggest changes based on adaptations you made, and share them on the site. This is iterative, collaborative design that yields a better fire-breathing pony — and can yield better solutions for climate and energy problems, too.

The process of building on the work of others and sharing your improvements with the community is a familiar concept in software — it’s known as “forking” — but it’s relatively new to the world of hardware.

“Open design, where the files are shareable, represents a really different form of collaboration and is really distinct from what we’ve had in the past,” said Dawn Danby, senior sustainability design program manager for software firm Autodesk. “It forces people to deal with things in their immediate context.”

That’s an increasingly important need for clean technologies.

The materials needed to build a zeer pot — a low-tech evaporative cooling device that can help keep food fresh without the need for electricity. Photo courtesy Instructables user Berkana.

Climate change is often painted as a long-term, global problem. But it’s also happening right now, influenced by factors that are highly localized.

The future has a way of becoming the present, and the latest reports from the United Nation’s various climate change and sustainable development organizations highlight a sobering fact: If we do not reverse the upward trend of carbon emissions within the next five years, we will be unable to avoid a “warmer world, where climate and weather extremes would cause devastation and intense human suffering,” says the Deep Decarbonization Report, released earlier this month.

Achieving “deep decarbonization” and averting the dire climate impacts predicted by science is going to require that clean technologies become a fundamental part of society within the next few years. But which technologies should be used will depend on local context, including available resources and infrastructure, financial and policy tools, and cultural factors. As Danby put it: “We may set policy to reduce carbon impacts and cut way back on energy use in a state or community, but ultimately those decisions get implemented at the individual level.”

Danby’s point reflects a growing line of thinking among many in the cleantech space; policy and design can only take new technologies so far. The end-users, be they utilities, homeowners, or a person heading to the store, ultimately make decisions about purchasing and use. More fuel efficient vehicles don’t change overall transportation structures and may discourage users from taking public transportation. A new boiler design may be more energy efficient, but if it’s harder for a building manager to service with his existing maintenance contract, adoption of the technology will be sluggish. Beyond the developed world, these kinds of demand-side disconnects are amplified.

Equipping communities with the skills to drive implementation from the ground up is where the maker community can play a big role. Joshua Wilcox, a LVL1 member who has a bachelor’s degree in sustainable community development, says he sees hackerspaces as a way to prototype clean technologies that have the potential to be deployed rapidly by communities around the world, using locally available resources.

Among the flotsam and jetsam of projects I saw at LVL1 were the makings of a homegrown solar panel manufacturing system. Wilcox (who is currently a chemical engineering student at the University of Louisville) and other students from the university’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency club purchased broken solar wafers on eBay and scavenged both an old vacuum and an old oven to create the DIY solar assembly line. The group successfully hacked together a few 120-watt panels and installed them on a campus greenhouse. They weren’t pretty — but they worked.

Student members of the LVL1 makerspace install their homemade solar panels on a campus greenhouse. Photo courtesy University of Louisville.

Around the world, many makers, hackers, and tinkerers are working on cleantech projects like this. Take a quick stroll through the Instructables website—and you’ll find users creating algae biofuels, biomass gasifiers, more efficient vehicles, and dozens of other ‘green’ projects.

While DIY energy technology isn’t likely to make much of a dent in the U.S. energy supply, Wilcox acknowledged, the group’s method of making them from waste materials and inexpensive, widely available equipment suggests one way in which solar power could come within reach of communities that might otherwise not have access.

A Trojan horse for sustainable design

At this point, however, hurdles still line the path for makers hoping to transform the energy equation. Saul Griffith — a co-founder of Makani Power, the airborne wind turbine startup acquired by Google X in 2013, and developer of several other early-stage energy technologies under his current venture, Otherlab — is skeptical that these lofty goals can be realized at all. “Hacking is just an un-reproducible way to build something badly,” he told me. “Hacking does not make significant breakthroughs.”

I called Griffith because he has strong ties to the maker community, as a co-founder of Instructables, an advisor to Make magazine, and the developer of a desktop-sized CNC mill targeted at the maker community. He’s hardly the sort of source you’d call for a skeptical perspective on this topic. And it’s not that Griffith is opposed to hacking, in general. “It is a beautiful thing that people should do, a creative process,” he said. But “it shouldn’t be confused with engineering.”

Danby, who said she considers Griffith a friend, laughed when I told her what he’d said. “I wouldn’t disagree with him,” she said. “A lot of what I’ve been tackling is partially informed by talking with Saul about where the biggest opportunities are and how we need to be looking at things.”

A solar powered pollution monitor, which uses a solar charging kit and an Arduino controller, designed by Tampa Hackerspace member and Instructables user mkchronos.

The maker community has become a significant part of Autodesk’s business over the past few years. As tools and spaces for making have become more accessible to nonprofessionals, many more people have become involved in the creation of stuff — and few of them have any awareness of traditional product design, much less sustainable design. Danby has been working with these amateur designers and engineers to show them how to think about sustainability in their work.

“Makers […] often are doing something completely different to pay the bills, and they have a really interesting capacity to make change elsewhere,” Danby said. Training non-designers and engineers on sustainable design could help them think about energy, material selection, or waste issues elsewhere in their lives. “Their little Arduino project to monitor energy use in their house may have no climate impact, but it might be a really effective mechanism for them to make changes in their professional realm.”

Gosselin agrees. “I think it goes back to, if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” she said. “If you get exposed to a wider set of tools, you have a broader sense of what’s possible. Of course that alone is not going to solve climate change, but you’ll see the problem in a different light.”

Changing the conversation

Twenty-nine-year-old Bilal Ghalib is a hackerspace evangelist and founder of the Global Entrepreneurship and Maker Space Initiative (GEMSI). He is currently working with Autodesk to develop a series of programs and projects that will help connect makers to the broad challenges of sustainability.

Raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., Ghalib has been working to bring hackerspaces and maker culture to cities across the United States and around the world, including Iraq, his parents’ home country. Through GEMSI, Ghalib’s mission is to help people pursue their own dreams and to develop the skills to realize those dreams, be they technological or otherwise.

One of the first projects he helped raise funds for was Fikra Space, Iraq’s first hackerspace, in Baghdad. On a visit there last summer, Ghalib was hanging out with a group of members who had designed and built their own version of a Segway from scratch. Suddenly, they saw plumes rising from three simultaneous car bombs across the city. That moment shifted Ghalib’s thinking about the role of hackerspaces in the global community.

“It’s really awesome that they made a Segway,” he told me. “Like, 17- to 21-year-old kids, doing graduate-level work, finding parts on the Internet, downloading design files, and making this thing that stands up and is like zoooom! By all means, I could feel successful about the work I’ve been doing in the Middle East. But I didn’t.”

Instead, he felt frustrated. “I’ve been very broad in my ‘hey, we should support each other in doing things that we want to do!’ But I really felt like, in places that have such big challenges, there would be some people like, ‘I could do something about that!’”

In order for people to stand up and tackle the bigger problems, however, he realized that he would have to find ways to motivate makers to care. “Before telling people to go out and work on green tech projects, I wanted to change the context of what the makerspace is for, and get people to have an emotional bonding experience around data sets about the challenges we’re facing as humanity,” he told me.

One source of inspiration is his own experience. After that day at Fikra Space, Ghalib downloaded a spreadsheet of all the car bombing events in Iraq over the past two years and turned the information into an audio track. He represented each day by the tick of a high-hat, while the intensity of a bass drum strike represented the number of bombings. The more bombs on a given day, the more intense the bass drum. “When I heard this for the first time, my blood turned to ice,” he said. “After I was able to feel this, I was able to imagine more things to do.”

He’s now looking at ways to use creative engagement with these kinds of “scary data sets” about the condition of the planet — from carbon emissions to deforestation to air quality — to motivate makers to tackle sustainability challenges as well. He’d like to see makers turn data points about abstract environmental crises into exhibits that people can hear and touch.

“It could change the conversation about what we do with our new, unlocked capabilities,” he said. Perhaps the new dialogue will go something like this: “‘We can make anything; what are we going to make?’ ‘Well, the planet is falling apart. I think we should think about that.’”

One response to “Hackerspaces Take on Sustainability — Climate Confidential”

  1. […] I was reporting on how makerspace members are tackling sustainability challenges, Bilal Ghalib shared an audio portrait of car bombing data that he’d made and talked about […]

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