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John Gerzema: The Rise Of Citizen Engineers

The shift from consumption toward production has powered the rise of an entire movement of makers, people who trade ideas for creating their own tools...

John Gerzema
John Gerzema on February 9, 2011.

Phil Torrone & Limor Fried, founders: Adafruit Industries New York, NY

The shift from consumption toward production has powered the rise of an entire movement of makers, people who trade ideas for creating their own tools, machines, and technologies, attend giant “Maker Faires” in cities across the country, and devour magazines like Popular Science and the new magazine called Make. Phil Torrone is Make’s online editor-at-large. He works out of an office in New York that also houses Adafruit Industries, which sells a catalog full of DIY kits that help people make useful stuff like an iPad charger for pennies. Torrone and his partner Limor Fried promote what they call a “citizen engineer” approach to life that has attracted 100,000 subscribers for the magazine and even more visitors to their Web sites. Their open-source approach means that every design and invention created in their community is made available free and participants help each other in the way that neighbors once offered advice to their fellow backyard mechanics as they leaned over an engine.

“We went through a couple of dumb decades when people just didn’t know how things worked,” explains Torrone. “We’re trying to show them that it’s not as daunting as you think,” he says. “If you come up with an idea, there are people who will help you make it work.”

Indeed, new technologies like MakerBot, an inexpensive open-source 3D printer, make it possible for all sorts of people to create products on their own. “Hobbyists wind up realizing they can make things for a living,” adds Limor Fried, an engineer who trained at M.I.T. With the help of her Web site, DIY inventors and at-home manufacturers can offer their wares and accept credit card payments. Today their community includes retired engineers from Boeing and NASA who mentor young electrical enthusiasts. “We bring people together,” she says. Indeed, technology and social media forums like these are helping to make generational divides quietly disappear.

Their success has overwhelmed their home/office loft, which is cluttered with laser-cutting machines, transistors, and packing boxes. Soon they plan to give up their bedroom for office space and sleep in their walk-in closet. After all, the spirit of the maker community is to tinker and optimize instead of sleep. And on occasion, tweak the nose of the establishment. Torrone recounts when he and Limor went to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security conference and an analyst presented a vomit-inducing flashlight weapon called “the dazzler.” Filled with pulsating LED lights, it promised to incapacitate an assailant for mere $1 million each. Phil says, “We thought this was a terrible waste of taxpayer money. Plus the guy was kind of creepy.” So they countered with their own open source non-lethal weapons project, featuring what they called “the bedazzler.” The couple released the source code to their community at a price of $250, using Arduino software and a gutted giant flashlight from Sears.

Adafruit Industries is one of fifty companies interviewed for the Wall Street Journal best-seller: Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution is Changing the Way We Buy, Sell and Live.

John Gerzema (@johngerzema/twitter) is president of Brandasset Consulting and Young & Rubicam’s Brandasset Valuator, the world’s largest database of consumer behavior, attitudes and values. Michael d’antonio is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, author and reporter

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