Bursting with ideas

The world is going through a ‘third Industrial Revolution’ where highly skilled amateur inventors are creating a new and creative kind of entrepreneurship

In his apartment in Dubai, 29-year-old Ismael Touq is making a 3D printer from scratch. The process involves a computer- controlled cutting machine, lots of coding and electronic know-how, but he insists that it’s not as complicated as it sounds. “I could teach it to a 10-year-old,” he says. “It’s actually a really simple machine.”

Touq is part of a growing worldwide movement that includes amateurs as well as experts. Tech geeks and crafters are turning away from consumerism and towards creating in their spare time, whether they’re making kimchi or programming computers.

The trend has been dubbed the “third Industrial Revolution” by experts who see independent, garden-shed companies selling small batches locally as the next big thing, following on from the era of globalisation and mass productions ushered in by the Victorians. This is facilitated by crowdfunding websites such as Indiegogo and RocketHub, which negate the need for a traditional investment structure to meet start-up costs. Ecommerce sites, led by Etsy also allow sellers to interact directly with customers rather than having to sell through shops.

San Francisco Maker Faire
The San Francisco Maker Faire is billed as the greatest Show and Tell on Earth

In March, Abu Dhabi got in on the action, too, launching a Maker Faire-style expo called Innovator with Ismael Touq, as one of the organisers behind it.

Robotic dogs, a giant human-powered spider, flame throwers, and guest speakers from Google and TEDx all featured, but Touq says that the most important aspect of the event was the opportunity to get fellow UAE-based creators out of their workshops and meeting each other.

The third innovation powering the DIY renaissance, besides crowdfunding and easy-to-use online marketplaces, is the hackerspace: skill- and equipment-sharing clubs, based in warehouses and financed by membership fees.

There, members can pursue their own projects or collaborate with others using high-end manufacturing equipment that they would not normally have access to – which ranges from soldering irons to 3D printers, circular saws, laser cutters and sewing machines. When I wandered through London’s Hackspace last year, I tasted ice-cream made with liquid nitrogen, saw a motor home that had been turned into an immersive game set on a spaceship and watched hobbyists build small “quad-copter” drones that could one day ferry medical supplies in remote parts of the world.

Most inventions don’t come from solving a problem. They start with tinkering, playing

Ismael Touq

Mitch Altman, who invented a gadget to turn off TVs in public spaces, helped set up the pioneering hackerspace Noisebridge in San Francisco in 2008. He travels the world teaching electronics, lecturing and helping new hackerspaces. He frames hacking as “taking anything in the world as a resource, even using it in ways that are not intended, improving on it for our projects and sharing it – and, above all, doing what you do because you love it”. The panel was one of half a dozen at this year’s festival with the words “DIY” or “Maker” in the title.

Bilal Ghalib is an irrepressible 29-year- old Michigan native with Iraqi parents and a Californian sense of idealism. After graduating from the University of Michigan Ghalib visited hackerspaces all over the US, with the intention of making a documentary about the maker movement, but was inspired to quit his job in a small robotics firm and launch Gemsi, an organisation that supports fledgling hackerspaces in the Middle East.

Ghalib has already helped projects get off the ground in Beirut and Baghdad, and he returned to Baghdad’s Fikra Space in March to help map radiation in the area using open-source, home-made Geiger counters. He has also worked with Iraqi doctors to create heart-rate monitors that aren’t dependent on the electrical grid, and when I talk to him he’s in Tunis, helping organise a conference about journalism and open data.

Innovator event in Abu Dhabi
DIYer Cornelia shows off her fire illustrations at the Innovator event in Abu Dhabi

Hackerspaces are multiplying in the region. They have popped up in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Yemen and the UAE, where Ismael Touq first started kicking around the idea of the Dubai Makerspace a couple of years ago. He found a few like-minded souls through an online hackerspace message board, and convinced a Dubai gallery space to allow them to store tools and host workshops there until they got started.

The Dubai Makerspace is currently temporarily housed in Touq’s apartment – which is kitted out with prototyping and fabrication equipment that includes an electronics station, welding station and CNC router – and with a new partner he met through the Innovator conference, and sponsors, he’s planning to move into a bigger, more accessible space soon.

Over 120,000 people visited the San Francisco Maker Faire this year

An Abu Dhabi makerspace, he says, is also in the pipeline. “We want to encourage people to make things just for fun, without any pressure on the outcome,” Touq says. “Most inventions don’t come from solving a problem. They start with tinkering, playing.”