Introducing the 21st-century makers

A global coalition of creatives and engineers are reinventing the craft industry with the help of their erstwhile foe – computer technology. liz lightfoot reports on the expanding movement that’s at the heart of Doha’s WISE Learning Festival

Tuesday 04 November 2014 10:19 GMT
Italy’s Primo playset wordlessly teaches the logical foundation of computer programming and aims to enhance children’s creativity
Italy’s Primo playset wordlessly teaches the logical foundation of computer programming and aims to enhance children’s creativity

Traditional crafts have taken a battering in today’s hi-tech world, as massproduced items can be made in seconds and usually more cheaply.

But what goes around, comes around. Handmade objects are now not only back in fashion, they are being reinvented with the help of their former enemy – computer technology.

People across the world are harnessing digital technology to invent and make anything from tables to speaker systems, and musical instruments to plant watering devices. It’s called the maker movement – a collection of computer scientists, inventors, engineers and creative people alongside those in more traditional pursuits such as embroidery.

The 21st-century makers meet online or in person through makers’ fairs and events, sharing their ideas, expertise and resources. They no longer have to work alone in their sheds or garages: today’s craftsmen and women can hire machinery and equipment by the hour at a growing network of fabrication laboratories or Fab Labs. Equipped with computer-controlled tools, they now bring factory-scale technology to individuals who want to create their own smart devices, tailored to their needs.

The maker movement will be at the heart of the Learning Festival in Doha from 23 October to 8 November, which will accompany the WISE Summit. The displays and interactive exhibits will showcase the way in which basic and accessible technology can enhance creativity in education.

“The Learning Festival will provide our wider audience here in Doha an opportunity to experience some of the most innovative trends in education explored during the WISE Summit,” says H.E. Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, chairman of WISE.

“Playful and ingenious, the makers’ inventive approach offers a powerful way of engaging learners and building their confidence to become tomorrow’s problem solvers.”

Makers themselves will demonstrate their products at the Esplanade at Katara, the cultural village that celebrates the culture of Qatar and other countries around the world. The village provides an open space, theatres and auditoriums for drama, literature, music and the visual arts.

Far from being the enemy of creativity, technology is pushing the possibilities for artists and musicians and providing new opportunities for individuals to customise it for their own purposes and inventions.

The Learning Festival, being held during the annual WISE Summit, invites the general public to see how technology is being used globally to foster creativity in children.

Learning through doing – discovery learning – was given a bad name by those teachers and educationalists in the 1960s and 1970s who misinterpreted the educational theory. Letting children learn for themselves was all too often used as an alternative to teaching them the basics of maths, language, science and the humanities.

By contrast, the makers’ projects have clear aims that will help children understand and use the technology to make personalised products. From the US, a company called JoyLabz will show its invention kit called MaKey MaKey. The simple device lets children turn everyday objects into a computer mouse to connect with the internet. Visitors will be able to try 3D printing for themselves as they design and make objects they can pick up the next day.

From Italy comes the Primo playset that teaches programming logic without the need for words. Children use a wooden board and coloured pegs to create a queue of instructions representing the logical foundation of programming.

Exhibits, large displays and performances will show the diversity of the latest technological exploration in music, art and science. Among them is Looks Like Music by Japanese creator Yuri Suzuki who has designed a “colour chaser” – a mini robot that detects and follows a black line traced in marker pen. As the robot detects coloured reference points along the way it triggers different sounds to make music.

“The maker movement is global,” an organiser says. “As well as the demonstrations of projects that visitors can try, we will have screening zones showing other projects linked to the festival’s theme of creative takes on the use of technology in education.”

One highlight is an exhibition of work by the award-winning Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian who travelled the world with author Graham Brown-Martin to discover how technology is transforming learning in today’s connected world.

She says her biggest surprise was at a remote village school in Ghana where 10-year-olds were reading a novel by Virginia Woolf on their e-readers.

The hundreds of photographs capture the theme of the Learning Festival. Technology can enhance learning and widen horizons in the hands of inspirational teachers and makers who use it creatively.

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