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“More so than any other time, we are able to make things that can actually make a difference,” Steve Sherman, the CEO of Living Maths and self-proclaimed maker said at the recent Cape Town Maker Conference.
Thanks to the internet, people today have access to more information than ever before. And thanks to things like micro computers, 3D printers, and accessible programming languages people can make more, experiment more and become more self-sufficient. Concepts like crowdfunding, for instance, enable people to finance and share their passions more easily.
More than 200 000 people recently pledged nearly US$9-million to bring a card game about exploding kittens to life. This would not have been possible in a world without social media and online payment gateways.
While the Maker Movement officially launched in 2005, the philosophy of fostering a DIY community of hobbyists and enthusiasts has been around for centuries.
The Wright Brothers’ first recorded flight in 1903 was the result of two forward-thinking tinkerers who did’t have a lot of formal education, but still ended up changing the world. The difference today is that the sharing of ideas through the internet and more accessible tech have amplified this culture of creativity.
With Cape Town experiencing its first ever Maker Faire, it’s become clearer that South Africa should take full advantage of this culture of science, invention and playfulness.
Inspire, play and learn
South Africa is often rated as having the worst overall performance in maths and science education in the world. Even if you dispute those rankings, there’s still plenty to be worried about, especially given the emerging market’s appetite for development across industries.
This issue needs as much work from the top-down as it does the bottom-up. One NGO addressing this at a grassroots level is Living Maths. “We try and get young kids inspired about numbers and how things work,” Sherman said.
Living Maths is working with more than 4 500 South African kids per week and is involved with math enrichment, problem solving, creative thinking, science, engineering and, of course, making.
The act of playing is quite powerful, especially at a young age. Sherman shared the story of how a American film-maker inspired a global movement of play and creativity. In 2012, film-maker Nirvan Mullick created Caine’s Arcade — a documentary about a nine-year-old boy who built a massive cardboard arcade out of his love for games.
Three months after launching the film, more than 100 schools in nine countries (including South Africa) built cardboard arcades of their own to raise funds and foster creativity among children. Initiatives such as these proved critical to inspire and stimulate a generation of problem-solvers that can address unique challenges.
Sherman went on:
I don’t think I need to convince you, but if you spoon-feed, all you do is you teach the child what the shape of the spoon is. You don’t really get them to do stuff for themselves. That’s what’s so important about the Maker Movement — people become independent, doers and makers.
All boxes aside, the maker culture is certainly not limited to children. Any person can adopt this philosophy, whether they’re a nine-year-old entrepreneur or an engineer at the world’s largest radio telescope.
Out-of-the-box thinking and self-efficacy
South African radio astronomer Simon Radcliffe from the Square Kilometre Array (also known as SKA) was up next. The engineer shared how moments of financial austerity have encouraged the team behind the world’s largest radio telescope to adopt innovative maker approaches.
Due to a slump in the rand-to-dollar exchange rate over the past few years, dedicated budget for the international project has shrunk considerably.
“ We’re put into a maker space where we have to find our own solutions and build a lot of our own tech in-house,” Radcliffe told the audience.
For instance, the team of savvy engineers developed an affordable, high-performance computer called the SKARAB. This high speed signal-processing platform enables the engineering team at SKA to reduce operation time and costs.
“SKARAB has been really successful. Not just in terms of the tech but from the commercialisation aspect thereof,” Radcliffe pointed out. “We’re really building machines right from scratch.”
Tough economic times not only force businesses to be lean, they also encourage innovation across the board.
The engineer explained that Africa is starting to make a name for itself in the global field of astronomy. “It’s a start of a whole new dawn in Africa,” he said.
“Don’t give us funding aid,” Radcliffe said. “Let’s collaborate and build stuff that can help in the long-term.”
Crafting communities and collaboration
For the most part, the Maker Movement is all about collaboration and communities.
Founder of tech consultancy company KAT-O Robyn Farah exemplified this when she shared her journey of creating communities in South Africa.
Farah is behind a variety of educational and community-building initiatives that connect and share hundreds of people’s talents, ideas and stories every month. These groups include #TechTalkCPT, Arduino Cape Town, Modern Alchemists and Curiosity Campus.
“We will always get makers, inventors and explorers, but I am trying to bring them out of their garages and get them to skill swap. It also brings confidence to themselves and those around them,” she told Memeburn.
Farah went on to explain that maker communities around the world have proven to create jobs, bring segregated communities together and act as an educational tool that is not often found in schools.
Now, more than ever, South Africa needs a confidence boost, particularly in the tech world. And the Maker movement may just provide that boost.