The Future of Craft

Written for Four Seasons Magazine

Will the rise of digital making see the emergence of a cottage industry 2.0? Can bespoke objects made digitally ever attain the emotional and monetary value of hand craft?

Every September the Peak District, a wild and rugged blob of moorland national park situated between Sheffield and Manchester in northern England, plays host to the Wardlow Mires pottery festival. The festival consists largely of a tent in a muddy field in which ceramicists from across the UK and occasionally further afield (this year four Japanese potters made the trip) flog their wares to a modest but committed clientele and un by an acclaimed potter Geoff Fuller, also landlord at the unique, rustic Three Stags Heads Inn down the hill. Geoff’s wiley, eccentric character emanates from every corner of the pub, where you’re as likely to share the bar with a local hunting hawk as another human. The same can be said for his pottery, which is uniquely his, in character and foible as much as craft and skill.

Wardlow Mires is a far cry from the day-to-day world of digital making and manufacturing I have inhabited since 2013 when I founded Makerversity. Based at Somerset House, a 300 year old neoclassical masterpiece on the banks of the River Thames, Makerversity is a campus for new making businesses of all kinds, but with a particular emphasis on emerging technologies and practice. Founded as a result of the emergent digital manufacturing sector (for which the most common reference point is the 3D printer), Makerversity, now also in Amsterdam, provides space and access to digital manufacturing tools to over 300 synthetic biologists, creative technologists, product and wearables designers and more. But sadly no potters. Pottery and traditional crafts in general are not as easy to cater for in a city centre workspace as digital makers and garner a different type of interest.

In fact, many of the most interesting creators based at Makerversity are not only designing and making products using new tools and processes, but subvert and disrupt existing consumer-producer relationships. In particular, several are challenging supply chains from fashion to farming. The trend we’re seeing here is high value consumer products being produced locally and either designed or customised by the consumer, thus offering them an unprecedented level of control over the product they buy.

Unmade, Makerversity’s most notable success story to date, have rewritten software used to run industrial knitting machines. Customers are able to create unique knitwear designs in-store, where garments are also manufactured in a matter of minutes, thus completing the designing, making and purchasing process in one place. This exemplifies the rise of ‘distributed manufacturing’ as a viable method of creating unique and limited edition high-value items, having moved far beyond the early days of churning out pixelated plastic on 3D printers.

This fascinating development and undoubted seminal moment in the history of consumer products shifts the value (perceived or otherwise) of the ‘designer or ‘craftsperson’ in this process from that of ‘creator of objects’ to ‘creator of processes’. That is to say, the craft in Unmade’s business is largely in the incredible technical skill that goes into writing interactive, intuitive software that is able to be easily manipulated by the customer (or should we say designer?).

Even disregarding mass customisation, digital manufacturing is supporting the emergence of a new type of cottage industry. With machines no larger than a desktop printer now able to print, mill, rout and mould almost any product cost effectively and with immense precision. More and more small, local businesses are now creating and fulfilling small batches or one off objects. There are many experiments underway in this space from Fab City to Mayku, all exploring the role of digital in local, limited edition or bespoke production. The opportunity for small businesses to locally fulfill a community’s needs is now more than a pipe dream and one that can be executed with a precision, speed, cost and uniformity impossible in traditional craft production.

Less productive, more expensive, less reliable and less flexible than digital making, you could be forgiven for thinking the future of more traditional craftsmanship looks bleak, but perhaps not so. On the face of it, this new wave of distributed makers sound similar to the craft makers selling their wares in the Peak District. Arguably there’s a crucial difference, one that has significant implications that get to the very heart of why we value craft in the first place and what we’re really paying for when we buy beautiful objects.

Craftspeople, although making at a local level, are in many respects the antithesis of distributed manufacturing in action. Our Japanese purveyors at Wardlow Mires demonstrate this brilliantly; each pot they make is unique and as such desirable precisely because it was made by them, in their workshop in Japan. Geographical differences in the PH of the water used to make the pottery or the type of wood used to fire kilns would completely change the complexion of their work.

As such, they are producing objects with an indelible fingerprint, irreplicable by man or machine in any other context. However beautiful, a digitally produced object currently lacks the personality of something made in transient conditions by the imperfect human hand, even as a one off or small batch.

Achieving personality in an object isn’t the only challenge with digital manufacture. With consumers as customisers, infinite design possibilities often engender choice paralysis. How does one engage in a process where consumers are suddenly thrust into roles of designer and customer? Is the the moment of creative genius that brings an object into being something a consumer wants the responsibility of themselves? Isn’t the idea of buying a product that another, professionally trained and talented individual (or team) has done that hard work for you? This is a challenge still faced by arguably the longest standing mass customised product out there, Nike ID. The problem is, most people make horrible sneakers when left to their own devices.

Looking forward, it’s this challenge that is some of the most exciting and nuanced advances in distributed manufacturing and consumer input. The aforementioned Mayku’s first product is a domestic scale forming tool that plugs into a home vacuum cleaner, allowing users to use suction to create custom moulds, used in turn to cast objects. This mechanised but very personal crafting tool celebrates the power of distributed manufacturing alongside the personality of traditional processes such as casting - no two objects are ever cast quite the same. Interestingly, Unmade have been working with this challenge too, but with a different bent. Customers are now able to manipulate design templates created by leading fashion designers rather than creating their own from scratch, striking that sweet-spot between the credibility and desirability of renowned designers and the choice and individualism of customisable products.


The coming decade is sure to see a continued advancement in the nuance and subtlety through which consumers contribute to the creation of products. As user experience and material quality improves we’re sure to see a focus on how character, personality and digital manufacturing can become more than the sum of their parts. This might well not just be consumer facing either. It’s just as exciting to see what a master craftsman can do by incorporating digital making into their processes as it is to explore the next versions of consumer customisation. After all, the irreplicable beauty of a crafted object coupled with the input of time and learned expertise is what craft is all about, and if that time and learned expertise expands to new tools and processes it’s an interesting prospect. Whatever the tools, the expertise that underpins craft will still be as valuable in 20 years as it is today, and that’s why many craftspeople will continue to carve a niche in the increasingly digitised world of consumer products, however imperfect or undistributed they remain.

Understanding The Limits Of Your Capabilities

We woke up to a new country yesterday morning. Well, we woke up to the beginnings of some upheaval at the very least. Things are going to be very complicated for a while. As an owner of a business both in the UK and The Netherlands I, like most people who voted, have no real idea of what the implications on my long term future will be. This wasn’t a vote about policies or grounded in logic, facts or a clear road map either one way or another. The remain/leave campaign has been talked to death and I don’t want to write about my standpoint (though for the record I am a remainer), but watching Mr Cameron outside No.10 made me think about something more general than the intricacies of discussions on battle buses and TV debates over the last few months and that in reality means we won't see very much change in the long term.

Our Prime Minister cut a sorry figure as he addressed the media yesterday. His resignation speech could be boiled down to a simple message; 'with my head and my heart I tried my bestest, I promise’. How, for a man so certain of himself for so long, espousing the virtues of his ever changing policies, ridiculing others for theirs, could it come to this? The answer is one that was provided for me in a different context a few months ago, by someone much smarter than I. Problems like this are so often caused by people who don’t understand the limits of their own capabilities, or if they do, aren't willing to share them. A simple lack of understanding that you are not equipped to deal with the situation you are in or the journey you are embarking on is a sorry and dangerous place to be. Couple this with the ambition innate in almost all of us and the rhetoric pumped at middle and upper class youngsters that the sky is the limit, you can do anything, be anything, and things can get toxic. 

Over a lifetime this can breed a position where someone believes they are capable of anything, dealing with any situation and possessed with the skills, vision, leadership and authority to overcome any task. In fact it all seems like fun, a bit of banter, some good old fashioned hard work too of course. There’s some scrapes and some u-turns, but with you at the helm telling everyone you know what to do, what really is the worst that can happen.

The last three years with Makerversity have been a rollercoaster for me personally as I grapple with exactly this. I’m from the privileged leafy suburbs of North London, I bought and sold a house in the capital (yes I'm part of that problem too) and in 2013 I took a big risk* to start a business that has since blossomed very quickly. 

When you take risks, push yourself and things go well, it’s easy to think that it’s because of you that things have played out that way. While this isn’t a fallacy, it is more complicated than that. It also doesn’t mean that because you’re good at one set of things, you’re equipped to deal with the changing personalities, pressures and scenarios that continually present themselves when you’re leading something dynamic, be that a startup business or a country. The other side of this is that people start expecting you to have the answers. It feels like you would let people down if you don't. The realities of working with people in this position can be frustrating even when things are going well. There is little space or time in modern business or politics for people in this position to openly evaluate their skills, but once you assume a role it's absolutely essential you do so and you're honest with those around you about what you don't know.  It is very very difficult to explain to someone intelligent and successful that they don’t know what they don’t know, and how not knowing is a huge risk. In many respects I spent the first 18 months of Makerversity feeling more and more confident in my abilities to create whatever I wanted. I have spent the subsequent 18 months slowly learning all of the things I’m not good at and trying to find the people much better placed than me to do all of those things instead.

It's important to say that I am a huge advocate of taking risks, trying your best and putting yourself in positions that you're uncomfortable with and learning through action not theory. It's a huge part of who I am (or want to be) and most of the people I look up to do the same in some way. However, what is equally important is to do so with a sense of realism about your situation, capabilities, weaknesses and strengths and to help others with whom you're involved understand this to the best of your abilities. If you are able to be brave in the choices you make, be braver in your self-appraisal and in sharing that. The problem if you don't is that the people around you believe you have the answers, they trust that if you didn't you would say so. They place their futures in your hands, base their decisions on yours. 

Start a business or a life in politics and not being aware of or mitigating against your own shortcomings will for a while at least be ultimately be your problem. Your business never takes off, you aren’t elected - that’s about as far as the shockwaves reverberate. Go much, much further before the wheels fall off and you’re ignorance will bring down a lot more people than just you. There will always be shit and always be a fan when you’re at the top of something. The more you understand what you don’t know, what you can’t do, the better your chances of avoiding a collision. 

Over the last three years including some long stays on the West Coast, I’ve seen and worked with many other people who are grappling with the this issue. More worryingly still, I've met many people like this who should be worrying but aren’t. This ignorance regarding the limits of ones own capabilities causes a huge amount of damage in the business and civic world. Indeed the damage done is particularly as a result of those who are by and large very good. Some people are brilliant but none are perfect. However, the two can get muddled when riding the rollercoaster of success.

The problem with brilliant, privileged people is they will go far and once they’ve gone far, they’ll believe they can go further and further. This confidence can be very convincing, even alluring to those around them and for some will eventually propel them to the top. Once there, having never stopped to question their invincibility, they probably won’t see the shit or the fan before they collide.

David Cameron is a man of some intelligence and charisma and I don’t believe he’s a bad person. He doesn’t believe he’s a bad person himself of course, but what has just dawned on him is that perhaps he is no economic genius, judge of the public mood, nor a particularly good leader. Cameron's premiership will be remembered for his unequivocal assurance that whatever agenda he was pushing at any given time was 'the right thing for Britain'. He was a chameleon Prime Minister lurching from one thing to another as the winds of opinion changed from the Big Society to migration. The one thing he always was as a leader, at least in public, was certain he was capable and certain he was right. 

Unfortunately for him the realisation that he might not have been came too late and it’s ruined his chances of a favourable legacy. Unfortunately for the rest of us, his lack of personal awareness means as a nation we find ourselves in a bizarre position that will likely negatively affect millions of people. But, of course, he did try his 'bestest'.

There are almost certainly many people in the startup world who will see the same boom and bust as Mr Cameron as a result of the same ignorance. Or if not ignorance then fear of appearing weak or stupid. A rapid rise to the top, realising you're ill equipped too late in the day. Who knows, I might not have realised the depths of my inabilities either and could one day find myself on that pile, inadvertently dragging others down. I hope not.  

What I do hope for is that we turn a corner in the way we hear from business and political leaders. Is it so hard to say 'I don't really know', 'I'll speak to someone who knows more about that than me and come back to you' or 'I'm probably not the best person to do that'? If you understand this and others do too, then plans can be made, experts can be found, risks can be mitigated and most importantly in many respects, trust can be built.

There are two forms of trust - the trust of belonging and the trust of reliability. You trust your family because you belong to them. You know they're far from perfect, you know their foibles  but you trust they will do their best for you. Even when things go wrong, the trust of belonging remains strong. Trust generated through reliability is much more brittle. Your phone stops working, your train is late and within seconds trust is gone. The trust of belonging is built on a mutual understanding of honesty, character and capabilities. Until we're able to properly appraise this in public, we won't see a change in the way we trust our business and political leaders. The brittle boom and bust rise and fall will continue, and there will always be the bitter taste of having been cheated or lied to when things fall apart.

There are two examples of leaders exemplifying this trust of belonging I've been aware of in recent times. One is very close to me, and that's my business partner Joe Smith. When we started Makerversity Joe continually made clear to everyone that we were just some guys trying something difficult. We weren't sure where it would go or whether we'd be any good at it, but we were giving it our best. Through this we were able to generate realistic expectations and a great deal of trust and belonging from those who came on board. As Makerversity has grown, the pressure to 'be seen to be more professional' has made it harder to retain this honesty, but I think thanks to Joe we still manage to, by and large.

The other example takes us back to 2009 and the surprise appointment of Alan Johnson MP  as home secretary. He "acknowledged his lack of economic experience, saying he was being "chucked in the deep end". Asked by the BBC what his first move would be in the job, he joked that it would be to "pick up a primer in economics for beginners". He was ridiculed for this, but I am a huge admirer of his honesty and self awareness. It made me trust that he was seeking advice, canvassing opinion and decisions he made would be considered and researched properly.

I would love to see more people like Joe and Alan in positions of responsibility. Whether you're riding the wave of privilege or genuine brilliance, go for it but constantly question yourself, your proficiency in any given situation. When you are responsible for others salaries, benefits, citizenship and wellbeing, you damn well owe it to them and yourself to understand and communicate the limits of your capabilities, affording them agency to make their own informed decisions. In fact when you start to it can be very liberating as you let those better than you come to the fore.

Oh and if this resonates and you're wondering how to go about objectively assessing your own capabilities don't ask me to help, I’d be rubbish at it.

 

 

*A big risk in the context of starting Makerversity is very different for me than many people. The worst case scenario of failure would probably have been to move back in with my parents, who would have looked after me and supported me. With their help and that of my good education (which I can attribute to a mix of their support, the postcode of our family home and some inheritance from my grandfather) I would probably have been OK again within a year, and have a great story to tell about that big risk I took.

Education - Pearson Blue Skies

Education in the time of the Third Industrial Revolution

Education systems were built to serve the first and second Industrial Revolutions. Neither education nor production models have really changed, until now. The third Industrial Revolution is upon us – people can access and create content anywhere, any time and increasingly this also includes manufacturing/making capabilities. How can we develop new education models to reflect this and to enable increasingly flexible, experimental and fairer learning environments, that help build a more resilient and confident workforce for the future?

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