Ithaca is a Maker City

ithaca-maker-city
image source: Maker City by Hirshberg & Dougherty

This past weekend I was invited to share stories about my city, Ithaca, NY, on a panel at World Makerfaire in Queens. The panel was moderated by Peter Hirschberg, a well known urban innovator and co-author of the new book Maker City: Urban Manufacturing and Economic Renewal in American Cities. Hirschberg co-wrote the book with founder of Makerfaire and Make Magazine, Dale Dougherty. They wrote it to capture the momentum from the Maker Cities initiative that was issued by The White House in which mayors all over the country, including our very own Svante Myrick, signed an agreement to support maker culture.

But what is a maker culture? And what does it mean for our city? I have my hand in a few parts of Ithaca’s maker culture and admire it’s many other parts. My sense is that Ithaca has a lot of the pieces in place to elevate the spirit of creativity and invention that is already so deeply embedded here. Let me list some of these pieces that are already here to help us connect the dots, starting with organizations that serve youth to ones that support artists, tinkerers, and inventors–and those that support hardware startups and manufacturing.

We have organizations like The Science Center, Ithaca Physics Bus, and Xraise, who are working hard every day to make sure our young people grow up seeing themselves as STEAM innovators. We have a rich tradition of art and hand craft and music (fun fact: the Moog Synthesizer was invented here). We have Ithaca Generator, a high tech community makerspace right in the heart of downtown and Hammerstone School Carpentry for Women. We have higher education, like Cornell, Ithaca College, and TC3, who foster the integration of creative thinking, technology, and problem solving.

We have programs like Challenge Workforce and Fingerlakes Reuse that train people with disabilities or other job challenges to do product packaging and electronics repair. And we have co-working spaces and business incubators like Rev Ithaca that houses a prototyping lab and hardware accelerator. As far as manufacturing goes, we have contract manufacturers like Wicked Device and Incodema 3D that have manufacturing expertise and specialized tooling.

In addition to our rich maker culture, Ithaca is a walkable city with trails along three waterfalls that run through downtown. We have a flourishing local food scene and arts and culture festivals year round.

So yeah, we’re on the Maker Cities map. Creators and inventors, come check us out. And if you already live here and are interested in invention, be sure to appreciate all that we have because the startups or inventors that have succeeded here didn’t do it alone. They were lifted up by the creative community that we have here in Ithaca. It’s a great place to live and create.

This post was originally posted at IthacaGenerator.org

 

Make Better Stuff Lab at Ithaca Generator

lasers

Last night my students from the Make Better Stuff lab at Ithaca College hosted a public laser cutter demo at Ithaca Generator for First Friday. The Make Better Stuff Lab is a course that I wrote for IC freshmen in which they learn about sustainable design principles and then design and manufacture a product that uses those principles.

During the demo I fielded a lot of questions from observers there about the students’ project. Great questions. I thought I’d post them here:

WHAT IS THE ASSIGNMENT? This project started with a walk in the woods. In teams of two or three, students picked out a leaf from their walk, researched that leaf, then created designs inspired by that leaf.

WHAT ARE THE CONSTRAINTS? All good projects have constraints. There are many for this project, some that are plain old sustainable design principles and some specific to a class of 20 manufacturing a product. All the constraints function to help exercise the students’ imaginations–constraints help us push materials, processes, and ideas beyond the obvious.

WHAT ARE SUSTAINABLE DESIGN PRINCIPLES? There are many. But with this class we are working with the following:

  • Celebrate nature
  • Use responsibly-sourced materials
  • Optimize your design for manufacturing
  • Minimize packaging
  • Turn something old into something new

WHY DO WE MAKE THINGS THAT CELEBRATE NATURE? Last year we hosted laser cut design studios at the generator where the general public made designs and cut them on the laser. Most folks would make beautiful geometric designs, but every so often someone wanted to recreate a corporate logo. Most corporate logos are designed by large marketing teams, but we don’t want to unselfconsciously promote corporations at the expense of celebrating nature. I’d rather promote originality. What we make is what we value.

WHAT MATERIALS ARE YOU USING? We are using FSC Ash veneer that we ordered from Certainly Wood in East Aurora, NY. Veneer is super thin slices of wood that come rolled up but can be flattened out, cut to size, and cut on the laser. It’s a beautiful material, it smells great, and the kind we ordered is FSC approved, FSC standing for Forest Stewardship Council, an organization that sets standards for responsible forest management.

HOW DO WE OPTIMIZE FOR MANUFACTURING? The laser cutter can cut very intricate designs, but it can also create a lot of waste material as by-product and it uses a lot of energy. To address these downsides, the students lay out their designs so that there is minimal waste. Some even used the negative space created by their primary designs to make more designs. As for efficient use of time and energy, we don’t etch because etching can be very slow and there are too many students. That said, I’d like to know how much etching can be done for the same amount of energy used to cut at 60 speed/60 power/500 frequency for ten minutes. That would be good to know.

HOW DO WE MINIMIZE PACKAGING? Packaging serves two functions: it protects the product (in shipping and in the store) and it tells the story of product. So the students have had to design packaging that both protects and sells the product, using minimal materials. Many of them have creatively used recycled card stock for packaging.

HOW DO WE TURN SOMETHING OLD INTO SOMETHING NEW? There are at least two approaches to this: 1) take a discarded object and create a design that gives it a new use. Some of my students, for example, are taking old jelly jars and designing votive shades that transform them into candle holders. 2) build into one design a second use. Some students, for example, embedded flower seeds into their packaging so that when it’s composted it will sprout flowers.

CONCLUSION

So that, in a nutshell, is what we’re trying to do in Make Better Stuff lab. In December we will have a gallery night sale where students will sell their products. To prepare them, we had Emily Cotman from The Science Center and Stephanie Meyer (pictured above) from Museum of the Earth sit down with them and give them feedback on the types of products that sell in their museum shops. Emily and Stephanie were so generous with their time, and their feedback is just what we need to make it through the final stretch of this project.

Keep an eye out for our DIY Gift Sale in December at Ithaca Generator. Happy making!

‘Great Artists Steal’ and other insights from Chris Rock

Artists who have been at it for a while have great insights on the creative process. This NYTs interview with Chris Rock is from November 2014, there’s some great stuff in here if you listen carefully.

1. Great Artists Steal. This is something I have a hard time convincing my students of. They think if they steal that they are not being original. Not true. Great artists steal. All of the time. There are no new ideas so get over it. Steal. And you might as well give credit bc the phrase “Great artists steal and hide their sources well” is dead in the age of internet. Inspiration is everywhere. Let’s celebrate it.

2. Don’t fall in love with your first draft. Amateurs fall in love with their first drafts. Artists don’t. They push it out like the ugly thing that it is, then they get on with the work of iterating through many more drafts. If you’re a writer, that’s rewriting nd editing. If you’re a painter, that’s sketching. If you make movies, that’s shooting and cutting tons of great content. If you’re an entrepreneur, that’s getting feedback and pivoting. Rarely do you nail it right out of the gate. So do your first draft, then move on.

3. If you hired an actor who doesn’t own their character by the end of the process, then something is wrong. To extend this to other art forms, if the members of your project team don’t eventually own the project, then something is wrong. Either they are the wrong team members, or you didn’t let go of control when they were ready to take it. As a leader, you have to start out by modeling investment in the project, the character, what have you. But then you have to watch out for that moment when your team is ready to take the reigns. Give it to them along with your faith and your support.

There’s a fourth point in here that’s not directly related to creativity, but kind of is bc it illustrates the importance of perspective. Chris Rock loves Kanye West. There’s a lot of criticism of Kanye in the news lately and all I have to say is watch that. He’s an important artist to a lot of people. He may not be for you, and that’s ok.

OK. If you have other insights on creativity, then please share in the comments.

Reflection

It’s coming time to see all my people at the holidaze then hibernate for the winter with a few good projects. It’s time to look back at the year, remember what happened, and process it. Here goes:

LUNAR CLOCK, DEC 2013. This time last year I was finishing up a lunar clock that KR helped me with. This was a project that combined interesting media theory (a bit from Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock) with cool technology (laser cutter, arduino, and eagle). I enjoyed turning theory into a designed object–something I could hold in my hands. That’s me in a nutshell. In order to understand something, I have to build it and hold it.

GAME COURSE, JAN 2014. This year started with teaching a pilot course at Ithaca College called “Designing Games for Sustainability.” The class was small but we busted out two cool games. One was an arduino powered waste-sorting game and the other was a laser cut variation of Settlers of Catan called Wasteland. It was amazing to come up with cool ideas and then be able to manufacture and test them. Ideas into reality.

SUSTAINABILITY, MAY 2014. When the semester ended in May, I joined my ASU Sustainability crew at ISSST in Oakland for a great conference. And again in July for a desert retreat. Both gatherings were fun and enlightening in different ways. The former was in an urban setting and academic. The latter was in the desert and spiritual. What I love about these folks is that they value all of it. These people feel like home to me.

MIT >> POP UP DESIGN STUDIO, AUG 2014. In August I traveled with JC to MIT for a Scratch conference. There we met amazing people in the Harvard Grad School of Edu and were so inspired by their work that we came back to our makerspace and implemented a new project called “Pop Up Design Studio.” On the first friday of each month, we open our doors to the public and invite them to make art on the laser cutter. The combination of generosity on the volunteer side with creativity on the public side has been joy to be a part of.

TEACHING, SEP 2014. This fall I’ve been teaching 4 classes in the Integrated Marketing Communications program at Ithaca College and loving every minute of it. As an introvert, teaching 80 students is intense, but there’s nothing I’d rather spend my energy on. The program and the students have this great mix of business and creative thinking going on. It’s a pleasure and a challenge integrating the two – the practical with the wild dreams!

UPCOMING, DEC 2014. In ten days or so I see my family for the holidays. When I get back, I dig into some juicy projects for the winter: product design, electronic music, and a few workshop gigs I’ve got cooking. Winter is a great time for projects. Then when the sun comes out in May, there’s time for being outside with nature and friends. I like seasons and the structure they bring to my year.

LOCAL FOOD. On the local food side of life, I enjoyed a farm share at Sweet Land Farm this past summer and am now a week or so into a winter share from Full Plate Collective. These things keep me connected to the soil, the water, and the air. I’m grateful to the farmers who put it all together.

Let me know how 2014 treated you and what you’re up to this winter.

XO

from ‘What We Know’ to ‘A New Aesthetic’

When we invented industrial manufacturing, we looked to Victorian era products and mass-produced everything from dishware to ovens with Victorian ornamentation. We did this until the Bauhaus came along and demanded that new technologies require a new aesthetic. The members of the Bauhaus “listened” to modern materials and processes and “heard” that they wanted to be simple and clean and not covered in lacy decor.

Another example: When we invented computing, we grabbed what we knew – a type writer and a TV set – and mashed them together to make a desk top computer. Only today are other types of computing starting to take hold. Google glass is a known example of mobile and hands free computing. Smart products with simple micro-controllers, another. Computing is finally moving beyond sitting at a desk or having your head down in a phone screen.

Today we have the desktop manufacturing revolution. There are all kinds of new technologies becoming available but none other has captured the publics’ imagination like 3D printing has. I think this is because the objects that a printer makes look like objects that we know from the store. Objects from 1950-2000 that are enclosed in injection molded plastic. Which is ironic because this late 20th c. aesthetic is the epitome of hiding a products’ inner workings from consumers–ironic because makers are interested in openness and product transparency.

We’re in that early stage of a new technology – making what we already know. It’s just what we do. In art school, that’s how I learned to draw – from copying 16th century masters. But I wonder how long it will take us to move from making what we know to demanding a new aesthetic–to listening to these new materials and processes and hearing what they want to be. And I wonder who will lead this change.