Maker Spaces: Grass Roots of The Internet of Things?

Hacker Spaces (like the one pictured at University of Maryland) play a pivotal role in fostering innovation and community on the Internet of Things.
Hacker Spaces (like the one pictured at University of Maryland) play a pivotal role in fostering innovation and community on the Internet of Things.

In-brief: Maker spaces are the grass roots of the Internet of Things. But obstacles to creating and maintaining these important, community building institutions are considerable, says Cisco’s Marc Blackmer. 

I love the grass-roots nature of the Internet of Things! The idea that the snow globe that is the status quo in the technology world is getting a good, solid shake and creating a new landscape is pure adrenaline.

First: the idealist in me sees the IoT as a great leveler. Increased and stronger inter-connections along with open-source software and hardware substantially lower the barriers to getting online or developing new businesses. They facilitate collaboration anywhere on the planet.

Marc Blackmer, Cisco Systems
Marc Blackmer is a Product Marketing Manager for Industry Solutions at Cisco Systems.

Take the new $5 Raspberry Pi Zero, for example. Powerful open-source hardware and software can be in the hands of just about whoever wants it to do whatever they want. Think of the implications when almost anybody in the world can learn to code, access resources online, and use develop pretty much whatever they imagine. The proliferation of hacker spaces and maker spaces is just one manifestation of this grass-roots ideal.

Sure, the realist in me understands that it’s one thing to found an organization on ideals, and it’s quite another to keep it operational. Non-profit spaces need funding to maintain operations. Potential sponsors are inundated with sponsorship requests, so how do maker spaces pay the bills?

OriginBase in Dubai and Technocopia in my hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts may be half a world away from each other, but they have much in common. Ahmad Mishly, OriginBase’s Founder and General Manager, and Kevin Harrington, Co-Founder of Technocopia took some time to share their experiences with me.

Where To Begin? The first challenge most maker spaces face is just getting licensed. Are they businesses? Or are they non-profit organizations? Where do they fit within zoning regulations? Municipalities are often unfamiliar with how maker spaces should be licensed because they are many things at once.

RaspberryPi Zero
Low cost, open source hardware platforms like the Raspberry Pi Zero foster innovation and encourage experimentation. (Photo courtesy of Raspberry Pi Foundation.)

In Dubai, OriginBase decided to create a design company to secure the proper license. As it turned out, casting the maker space as a business was a good way to go.  “Providing this professional service from a maker space platform has … allowed us to build local experience and credentials in product development. This experience is a much-needed and valued expertise to local hardware entrepreneurs and makers,” said Ahmad.

Back in the U.S., Technocopia has used by private sector support and crowdsourcing to make ends meet. The maker space was able to relocate to a larger space in downtown Worcester after a successful Indiegogo fundraising campaign in late 2015. Technocopia has also been able to leverage a professional entity, Neuron Robotics, to help fund their maker space operations, which will they will supplement with rental space income once they open their new space.

Renting space to like-minded companies will help fund operations, but it will also help create and consolidate the hacker/maker communities in a shared environment.

What is the aim of maker spaces? In a word: community, but on multiple levels. Technocopia is a ubiquitous participant in the types of programs you’d expect – hackathons, maker fairs, science fairs, etc. – and those you may not. Kevin and team exhibited a 7-foot tall robotic elephant at a premier Worcester art fundraiser, Cirque du Noir, last October. Technology, creativity, and the arts are intertwined, and Technocopia works to reach across those lines.

OriginBase’s Ahmad is a self-taught tinkerer with a passion for crafts, design, and music, and a curiosity for “all things,” who sought to fill a need in his local community by founding OriginBase. But the group’s vision extends beyond local borders. Ahmad writes that “…our vision is to create a sustainable business model and an infrastructure that can be rolled out and underpin the maker movement throughout our region, including [the] Gulf, Middle East and developing countries in Western Asia and Africa.”

Both organizations are strong supporters of open-source software and hardware. Ahmad sees open-source as the future, replacing an outdated model of protectionism. Kevin Harrington of Technocopia walks the open source walk: making his BowlerStudio robotic software – the software that for-profit Neuron Robotics is based upon – freely available on GitHub.

As for “cyber” – security isn’t often the foundational idea of a maker space, nor is it a top priority for creators like Harrington or Mishly. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for information security and infosec professionals at these space.

The IoT is the most exciting technological and cultural shift to come along in decades. Its development will take place all over the globe and in our own neighborhoods. Go find those in your community who are doing this work and contribute your talents. If there is no such organization, start one. Not only will you directly contribute to a more secure IoT, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more rewarding experience.

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