The term “maker” has been ubiquitous in the tech media for some time – in relation to 3D printers, robots, open workshops and more. But who are these makers, and why is the movement in the heart of Europe gaining such traction?
In the United States, makers have already become part of the mainstream. Events such as Maker Faires have long been not only a meeting point for technology and the makers themselves, but have also become major attractions for everyone.
Every day, thousands of people watch the latest videos by famous faces from the maker movement, sharing this content via social media and following in their footsteps to develop their own projects and gaining a following of their own.
While in America this wave of technology-conscious culture has long since entered the mainstream, the maker movement at the heart of Europe has had a quieter existence. The inhabitants of the German-speaking countries do not practice the same kind of hero worship often demonstrated by people on the other side of the Atlantic, and while US makers like Jimmy DiResta and Ben Heck have gained fame for their breathtaking works, the exciting projects being produced at regional open workshops, Makerspaces and FabLabs only gain mainstream exposure from time to time.
However, a contrasting picture is starting to emerge in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Makerspaces and community projects are now sprouting like fungi, offering their members ample room for creativity. Many of the best-known examples of recent domestic inventions have come from these collaborative organisations, and very few makers in the region now imagine themselves to be working in isolation.
In the early 2000’s, many of those who took the first step out of the workshop and started presenting their work to the public concentrated on the only market for their multimedia content that existed at the time – namely English language forums, websites and platforms such as YouTube.
But European communities – particularly those in the German-speaking countries – are now beginning to close the gap. In Austria alone, there were three “Maker Faire” events held in 2016, while Germany is seen as a country at the forefront of the European maker movement, with events taking place all over the country.
The German-speaking regions consist of a potential customer base of more than 100 million people, all of whom could theoretically be one-time makers. Particularly in the Alpine region, there is a long tradition of hobbyists who have developed their own machines over many years, contributing significantly to technical development.
To give a more modern example, the FPV racing scene at the heart of Europe is one of the most advanced in the world. Young people are experimenting again with old, almost extinct craftsmanship techniques to improve their product designs.
At the moment there are still too many great projects hidden in the workshops, because of the amount of courage and enthusiasm required to succeed as a maker working with the public. Slowly but surely, electronics and tool manufacturers are recognising the potential that lies in the German-speaking regions of the world and are actively promoting local makers and makerspaces.
But in order to anchor maker culture deeply in the consciousness of the mainstream, the scene requires heroes and role models comparable to their American counterparts. Makers who leave nothing untried in order to realise an idea, women and men who are tirelessly searching for solutions to everyday problems, and children who are drawn to electronics, technology and craftsmanship from a small age. These people form the foundation for a society in which creative design forms a central element.
At the moment, only a few makers are producing online content specifically tailored for the German-language community. Makers face a rocky road in order to make their works and ideas accessible to any audience at all, let alone a non-English speaking one. But whoever now has the courage to become part of the generation that takes Germany, Austria and Switzerland to the next stage in the spread of maker culture could become exactly the kind of hero figure the central European movement is still searching for.
One of the most important functions of the maker is to democratise the production and development of products and ideas. Particularly in the German-speaking world, the technical professions have for a long time been regarded as a closed and elitist community, in which the tedious efforts of hobbyists were likely to be met with a patronising smile. Through the opening up of hardware and software, brands like Arduino have been able to provide powerful tools that are accessible to average citizens, offering similar creative possibilities to the hardware and software utilised by professionals.
This new air of collaboration between professionals and makers is helping to make the development of new products faster and more varied than ever before. All over the world, entirely new concepts emerge every day, and regional problems can only be solved because the solutions are devised by local people. It is therefore essential to offer region-specific content in the language of the country, to bring down language barriers, to impart knowledge in a more complete and accessible way, and to connect the members of the maker movement as closely and effectively as possible.
Maker Faires and repair cafes offer opportunities for makers to meet, but time and space are required for the creative exchange to bear fruit. This means that clubs, communities and open workshops operating at a local level and in local languages are of particular importance.
The individual maker is often a specialist in their chosen discipline. Those who establish themselves as experts are often sources of invaluable advice for the worldwide maker community. But there are also generalists who try to cover as broad a range of projects as possible. It is often these figures who become ambassadors of the movement to the outside world.
In many German cities there are already dozens of meeting places and common areas for makers and hobbyists. In Eastern Austria new clubs are constantly being built and the event calendar is filling up. In Switzerland too, the scene is now beginning to establish itself at a rapid pace. People are thinking back to the values that the generation before them held dear – to create things themselves and to share with one another.
Meanwhile, in a cellar in Austria sits the enthusiastic maker who writes this blog, driven by the motivation that someday professionals will see makers as a truly equal partner, and collaborate with them to change the world.
Can non-English language maker scenes ever be truly competitive on the global stage? Share your thoughts in the comments section below...
About the Author:
Clemens Mayer is a maker from Baden, Austria and an active member of the element14 community. You can find updates on his projects and his thoughts on the latest maker news from and about makers in the German-speaking region at his official website and Vlog.