By Brian Berletic
Many people may mistakenly believe that the future is something that others, like big companies or governments usher in and that they themselves play either a minor active role, or one that is entirely passive. In reality, there are already groups of regular people just like you or me around the world literally building the future of their communities themselves with their own two hands and in collaboration with their friends, family, neighbors, and through the power of the Internet, with like-minded individuals around the world.
Above image: Instead of some planned community built by government or developers, we can add a layer of opensource technology over our existing communities, on our rooftops, in our offices, and at existing public spaces or markets. In addition to this added layer of physical technology, a little change in our mindset will go a long way in transforming our communities.
Because of the exponential progress of technology, the impact of small, organized projects is increasing as well. Think about 3D printing and how for many years it remained firmly in the realm of large businesses for use in prototyping. It was only when small groups of enthusiastic hobbyists around the world began working on cheaper and more accessible versions of these machines that they ended up on the desktops of regular people around the world, changing the way we look at manufacturing.
Similar advances in energy production, biotechnology, agriculture, IT, and manufacturing technology are likewise empowering people on a very distributed and local level.
What we see emerging is a collection of local “institutions” giving people direct access to the means to change their communities for the better, bypassing more abstract and less efficient means of effecting change like voting or protesting.
Political processes, however, will become more relevant and practical when people actually have resources and direct hands-on experience in the matters of running their communities. Demanding more of those that represent you will have more meaning when those demands are coupled with practical solutions and enumerated plans of action.
3D printing has come a long way since the first RepRap desktop printers and their derivatives which includes MakerBot’s first designs. 3D printing has gone from an obscure obsession among hobbyists to a mainstream phenomenon that is transforming the way we look at manufacturing.
Let’s explore these “institutions” and see what is possible, what is already being done, and how you can get involved today in physically shaping your community’s future starting today.
A makerspace is exactly what it sounds like: a space where you make things. However, it is often associated with computer controlled personal manufacturing technology like 3D printers, CNC mills, and laser and/or waterjet cutters. There is also a significant amount of electronic prototyping equipment on hand including opensource development boards like the Arduino, which allows virtually anyone to control physical objects in the real world.
A well-equipped makerspace in Singapore.
Makerspaces also generally include a small core team with skills ranging from design and engineering to software development. These teams usually are eager to bring in new people and introduce them to the tools, techniques, and technology they are so passionate about.
Makerspaces already exist around the world and it is very likely that no matter where you live, you have one relatively nearby. Makerspaces hold workshops for both absolute beginners and experienced tech enthusiasts.
Makerspaces hold frequent workshops to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with others, often absolute beginners. There is a good chance your local makerspace has workshops available. Some are even free.
You can prototype virtually anything in a makerspace, making it the perfect place to go when you have a problem and want to develop a practical, tangible solution to solve it. Everything from an opensource solar charger to a new kind of 3D printer could be (and has been) made at a makerspace, making it the perfect nexus for our local community and the variety of other local institutions that may crop up there.
A combination of rediscovered traditional practices combined with modern technology makes local food production both practical and profitable. Community gardens are not uncommon, and there is a growing interest around the world, particularly in urban areas to utilize the sun-soaked rooftops to grow food with which to consume or distribute to local restaurants and markets.
US-based Growing Power proves what communities can accomplish by working together. They have proven that community urban agriculture can be both practical and profitable, with their project becoming not just a local business, but a resource for the community as well.
The Comcrop project in Singapore provides a particularly impressive example, having been in operation for several years now, serving not only as a source of locally produced food for restaurants and grocery stores, but also as a community resources teaching all who are interested how to raise crops in a dense urban environment like that found in Singapore.
Singapore’s Comcrop project has proven that even in the densest of urban environments, agriculture can be carried out by communities for profit, fun, and education. Collaboration with local makerspaces could further enhance their operation’s efficiency.
Another impressive example of local agriculture is US-based Growing Power where greenhouses, vermiculture, and aquaponics are all combined to generate an immense amount of food feeding into a local distribution network the project has diligently developed over the years.
Local food production and distribution is steadily expanding around the world as the concept of farmers’ markets spread and entire communities of both producers and consumers connect in a much more relevant, transparent, and beneficial manner than possible under the existing mass consumerist paradigm of big-ag and big-box stores.
Applying the resources found at a makerspace to local agriculture gives us the ability to take organic agriculture and increase its efficiency through automation. That’s the idea behind ProgressTH’s own automated agriculture project, and others like it. There is no reason why local communities cannot have locally produced organic food, and utilize technology to bring efficiency on par with that claimed by large-scale operations.
Modern civilization does not function without electrical power, something we are reminded of every time the power goes out during a storm. Currently, most of the world’s power still comes from centralized national grids and large power plants.
Dropping prices and increasing capabilities is making solar power an attractive means to help decentralize and localize power production.
However, the march forward of technology is finally making the means of producing power locally more accessible to more people around the world. An extreme example of a localized, distributed power grid can be found in the remote hills of Thailand’s Phetchaburi province where the national power grid never quite made it. A local team created a tech-center of sorts where villagers were trained in the designing and installation of solar power systems, bringing the village light and power for irrigation house-by-house. The villagers have created a sort of collaborative network where everyone helps out when expanding the network’s capabilities.
The Pedang Project in Phetchaburi, Thailand has literally brought power to a tiny remote village isolated from the national power grid. Now it is taking its experience and sharing it with others around the country to replicate their success.
This network also trains people from all over the country to replicate their success elsewhere, even in areas where the national grid does reach, but where independence in power production is still sought.
This includes a school halfway across the country that is entirely solar powered which has incorporated alternative energy in the curriculum giving students practical experience and skills to use once they graduate.
A school in Thailand’s northeast has also become a center for alternative energy and organic agriculture, all of which is combined with more traditional curriculum. Students grow their own food and help maintain the solar power system that powers the school during studying hours.
Imagine every community, rural or urban, developing their own alternative power solutions themselves, managing both the physical infrastructure and the knowledge required to maintain it. It doesn’t necessarily need to replace current power production, but it could augment it until technology makes it possible for complete, localized and distributed power production.
Healthcare + DIYbio
Makerspaces are already collaborating with hospitals and healthcare professionals around the world to speed up the process of developing solutions to everyday problems, or lower the costs of existing solutions that remain out of reach for many patients.
This healthcare professional is working on a prototype in a makerspace placed literally within the hospital he works at.
MIT’s MakerNurse program is one example of this. Bangkok-based QSNICH (Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health) is another example. Decentralizing and opening up the development of biomedical technology is key to lowering its prices. While subsidizing healthcare now is necessary to ensure people who cannot afford treatment can still get it, in the future, healthcare will be so cheap such subsidies will have less impact on the quantity and quality of care.
Biomedical technology, the hardware you see in hospitals is one thing, the actual pharmaceuticals and therapies administered to patients is another. DIYbio (do-it-yourself biology) is a growing community much like the maker movement that seeks to open up biotechnology to a wider audience by lowering the cost of equipment and opening up knowledge by making their work collaborative, transparent and, most importantly, opensource.
3D-printed prototypes developed for healthcare professionals at a Bangkok-based children’s hospital by ProgressTH’s in-house makerspace.
And, believe it or not, cutting-edge technology like gene therapy which has actually already cured cancer in terminal leukemia patients and shown promise in clinical trials for everything from heart disease to blindness and deafness is being approached by the DIYbio community. For now, it borders between something like a community lab and a small start-up company, as is the case with Bioviva or Andrew Hessel’s Pink Army Cooperative. In the future, we can see current collaborations between makerspaces and healthcare professionals extending and evolving between biotech researchers and local community labs.
Liz Parrish of Bioviva is blurring the lines between traditional R&D and accelerated and smaller-scale progress in developing therapies for patients.
Again, the makerspace allows for the prototyping and development of much of the opensource biotech equipment already being produced and making headlines around the world.
Microfactories are localized manufacturing facilities that specialize in small-run production. Say that you create a brilliant prototype at your local makerspace, but need to make only 100-200 of them at a time. Traditional factories because of current economies of scale usually will not help you, at least not for a reasonable price. Microfactories can fill the void between makerspace prototypes and mass production.
Microfactories already exist, but require large capital investments for the amount of machinery required to efficiently carry out small-run production. Advances in personal manufacturing will continue to lower these barriers, and many makerspaces around the world are already working to bridge the gap between prototyping and small-run production.
In the future, microfactories may evolve into an entire network of distributed manufacturing making mass production obsolete. This is, again, dependent on the progress of manufacturing technology. When computer-controlled manufacturing processes like CNC mills and 3D printers can handle more materials, faster, and more efficiently, small-run production will become more and more practical.
And already, microfactories are going from concepts to actual physical locations as is the case with the GE-backed FirstBuild microfactory in the US. In Thailand, electronics company Gravitech has created a production facility just north of Bangkok making Arduino-compatible boards for the local market cheaper and of better quality than could be imported.
An Arduino-compatible board made in Thailand for the Thai market beats out Chinese-made boards both in quality and even price. This is part of a trend toward the gradual reduction of manufacturing “hubs” and lead toward a more distributed and local means of manufacturing.
This is just the leading edge of a shifting paradigm toward fully distributed manufacturing. Again, makerspaces will play a crucial role, providing educational and training resources for the local community to learn how to design and develop ideas into prototypes and then pass them on to local microfactories for production and distribution.
Local Motors is pioneering the concept of distributed car manufacturing. Microfactories in the future may make everything from handheld devices to something as big as a car, on demand or in small runs that will challenge or entirely shift our current globalized manufacturing paradigm.
Just how far could this go? Looking at US-based Local Motors, who is attempting to create (which much success) a distributed auto-manufacturing network, it can probably end up encompassing nearly everything we use on a daily basis short of aerospace and architecture. With 3D-printed buildings cropping up around the world, each community might have their own cooperative-owned system for that as well.
Maybe now you can see how communities possessing these key institutions could begin to tackle their problems head on, practically, with tangible solutions instead of waiting for others, far away, to address them for them. By doing so, people will become more directly involved in their own destiny, possessing both skills and experience in running and improving their communities, giving them better insight and discretion when engaging in political processes beyond their community.
And because of the talent that is attracted to and produced within makerspaces, the means of creating, for example, parallel mesh communication networks or water production and distribution systems, could exist as well. Virtually everything in one’s community could end up a product of local talent, entrepreneurial vision, and innovation.
But it is important to remind potential critics that this is not a process toward tens of thousands of isolated communities scattered across the planet. Like makerspaces today, while each one possesses its own tools and talent, they are all connected and collaborating together with other spaces around the world taking and adapting great ideas when needed, while sharing their own success with others through an opensource culture.
The distributed nature of these economic, manufacturing, healthcare, agricultural, and infrastructure networks also means more resilience, especially because they are collaborative on a much larger scale. There is no single power plant or agricultural region to “wipe out” to plunge a huge population dependent on either into crisis. Disasters and crises can be absorbed and compensated for by neighboring communities unaffected. The loss of power in one community will not affect another if both are self-sufficient in power production. However, temporary assistance would be possible for one community to lend another.
“Standards,” if you will, would still exist, honed not through legality and policy, but through actual performance data, user feedback, and reputation. And because this process by its very nature is a flexible one, unforeseen opportunities and threats could be capitalized on or met as needed.
How Can You Get Involved Today?
Yes, you can get involved today! All you have to do is find your closest makerspace (or here) and drop by to check it out. You can also begin teaching yourself by taking advantage of the huge amount of fully free resources online covering everything from the basics of 3D printing, to opensource electronics, to local organic agriculture, to DIYbio. Let your favorite Internet search engine be your guide and find the resources you find most useful to your own style of learning. On YouTube alone, by simply typing any area of interest in, you can usually find dozens of tutorials and presentations.
A makerspace in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Just a few years ago, there were no makerspaces at all in Thailand, now there are clubs and spaces from north to south and a growing community connected through collaboration and enthusiasm about the power of hands-on innovations and solutions.
Get your friends involved; and if none are interested, it is easy to make new friends who are interested in this shifting paradigm, since “collaboration” is in fact at the very heart of it. If you are in Bangkok, feel free to contact us for workshops that ProgressTH and its many friends have on offer, some of which are even free.
The most important thing to remember is, no matter how small your progress is day to day, it will all add up in a year’s time to something that will surely surprise you. The only sure way to fail is by doing nothing — after all, zero times all the days in the year still only equals zero. You do not need to be a trained engineer or professional designer, biologist, or experienced farmer to begin building up your local community. Many of the most prominent names contributing to this current paradigm are college dropouts, or entirely self-taught. You will surely run into professionals, however, and you will learn a lot from them.
It is a truly exciting journey, and one that will have direct benefit to both yourself and your community. You can do it part-time in addition to your existing job. And many have ended up making a living full-time by contributing. We have, and will continue covering this unfolding movement, and we would love to cover your contributions… so start contributing!
Brian Berletic writes for Progress Thailand. Follow ProgressTH.org on Facebook here or on Twitter here.
Transforming Our Communities Ourselves With Technology.