IU researchers lead $1.2 million effort to unlock economic potential of Midwest maker movement

National Science Foundation grant to compare support for making, hacking and 'DIY' in U.S. and Asia

  • Sept. 2, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Hacking, crafting, making, tinkering, "DIY." A wide range of terms reflect a growing international culture of creativity related to making physical objects.

In the United States, signs of this movement are clearest in the proliferation of maker collectives, repair practices and "hackerspaces" in cities from Portland to New York City. Examples of objects created by these "makers" include interactive clothing, custom circuit boards and homemade robots.

But two Indiana University scientists say making isn’t only a hobby, it's big business. And a new grant to IU shows the U.S. government agrees.

Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell, both associate professors in the IU Bloomington School of Informatics and Computing, were recently named co-recipients of $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation to study "making" as a potential driver of the U.S. economy. Also co-investigator on the grant is Silvia Lindtner at the University of Michigan.

The project will focus on studying maker success stories in China, Taiwan and the U.S. Midwest. 

"In Shenzhen, [China], and Taipei, [Taiwan], making is serious business, with billions of dollars in public and private investment flowing in," said Shaowen Bardzell, who also co-directs the Cultural Research in Technology Group at IU. "It's seen as an important part of IT startup culture with government policies, local businesses, global businesses, universities and other collaborators working to support makers in their transition from the workshop to the marketplace."

In these countries' technical, political and educational environments, the IU researchers see strong support for the transition of making from hobby to industry. They also see a roadmap for replicating some of these practices in the U.S.

"Many academic and industry experts believe that making is a harbinger of a new era of computing," Jeffrey Bardzell said. "Using terms such as 'ubiquitous computing' and 'the Internet of Things,' they see computing as increasingly distributed across networks of everyday objects, not gathered together in a single box, like a desktop computer."

The IU researchers point to some specific practices in Asia that contribute to the success of making. In Taiwan, a strong cultural emphasis on computer science and engineering manifests in diverse maker collectives focused on maker education and civic making, and supporting maker startups, such as OpenLab Taipei and MakerPro. In China, the government’s decision to designate Shenzhen as an economic development zone 40 years ago created a tax and investment climate empowering the country’s maker culture to join forces with its manufacturing sector, facilitated by maker groups such as Seeed Studio.

In the U.S., the IU researchers said maker practices are thriving on the East and West coasts. But they also see special, mostly untapped potential for making in the Midwest.

"The Midwest has a proud tradition of manufacturing," Shaowen Bardzell said. "The next generation of computational products -- from cars and dishwashers to clothing and medical devices -- will be closely tied to manufacturing. We see potential for everything from prototyping to mass production in the region."

For the NSF-funded study, the researchers -- both specialists in the emerging field of human-computer interaction -- will spend the next four years documenting and analyzing policies and cultural practices supporting serious makers and maker spaces in China, Taiwan and the U.S. Midwest.

Through extensive field studies in these countries, they aim to identify successful pathways guiding making from a “hobbyist practice to serious business.” They also will actively encourage cross-continental partnerships and the sharing of best practices between maker spaces by building connections between makers, scholars and educators in Asia and the U.S.

In the U.S., the IU researchers will focus on makers in Michigan and Indiana, the latter of which is home to thriving maker collectives such as BloomingLabs, in Bloomington, Ind., and ClubCyberia, in Indianapolis.

They will also personally conduct four summer school workshops -- two in Asia and two in the U.S. -- to bring these stakeholders together to produce how-to guides, kits, policy recommendations, curricula and computer hardware supporting professional making. The summer schools will build upon a conference they previously organized at IU in 2014, titled "Making Subjects," with a series of presentations, round-table discussions and hands-on activities with making scholars and practitioners.

Both IU researchers also have personal experience creating circuit prototypes and sensors in hackerspaces and co-working spaces.

In addition to the new NSF-grant, Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell, along with professor of informatics Erik A. Stolterman, were named recipients of $1.85 million to help create the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing at the IU School of Computing and Informatics in 2012. And in 2010, Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell received $686,000 from NSF to study the ways in which websites such as YouTube, Flickr and Etsy provide massive-scale platforms for users to create and share online tutorials, code, tools and other information technology related to creative activities.

Their interest in the maker movement began during this project, Shaowen Bardzell added, as they observed that not only software but increasingly user-friendly hardware -- such as DIY circuitry kits and 3-D printers -- became central to IT creativity and innovation.

Makers gather at OpenLab Taipei in Taiwan.

Makers gather at OpenLab Taipei in Taiwan. | Photo by Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell

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Shaowen Bardzell

Shaowen Bardzell | Photo by Indiana University

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Jeffrey Bardzell

Jeffrey Bardzell | Photo by Indiana University

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Kevin Fryling

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  • kfryling@iu.edu