The school kids were sitting on the pavement at the Roman fairground, eating their sandwiches, supervised by a few teachers and behaving really well.
They all came to the Maker Faire to learn to do something with their hands, their days, their lives. Because the message from the press and the organizers is insistent and simple: the new Italy has to make its way in this world starting from scratch.
Maker Faire In Rome is in its fourth edition, and it is huge, growing in fame and audience. It has outgrown downtown Rome and is off in a genuine fairground: it is the biggest Maker Faire in Europe, despite, or maybe because of, its very Italian regional character.
This year a Maker Faire jury gave away the brand-new “R.O.M.A Prize” — a lavish 100 000 euros to the best Maker Faire project. Out of 2000 entries, ten were selected and publicly presented. The prize was won by Talking Hands, an instrumented glove that instantly translates the silent sign language of the hearing-impaired into audible spoken words.
This inclusive and kind-hearted project was judged to have more “social impact” than its rivals, which were mostly start ups, one-man garage projects, and Internet platforms. Despite its huge size, Maker Faire is still a rather strange event with an electronic frontier sensibility. Any American event of that scale would have had hundreds of merchandise booths and much bigger food trucks.
Maker Faire has begun to attract its own kind of celebrities, such as Grant Imahara, a TV star of the “MythBusters” series. This American TV show, where special-effects experts investigated folk mysteries and often blew them up on screen, was a famous demonstration of the Maker Movement’s technological populism. The American celebrity was happy to encourage his many Italian fans before rushing off to admire Rome.
In Italy’s fertile cultural circumstances, a “Maker Faire” becomes two thousand European craft and technology projects spread across 100000 square meters. It’s a display of “The Future of Everything,” echoing the message of the recent gala issue of WIRED magazine, as guest-edited by the President of the United States. Barack Obama’s popularity is soaring as he departs after two terms, and Obama exits power as a forward-looking geek technocrat, telling the voters that it’s a fine thing to be alive today with so many publicly accessible technologies.
Italy has its own ways of dealing with public technologies, and the Fablabs growing in cities across Italy have a campanilismo feeling of Italian urban patriotism. Where Americans might “do it yourself,” Italians will “do it in town.” Professor Neil Gershenfeld of MIT, the original creator of the “Fab Lab” concept, delivered a stirring lecture at Maker Faire, where he proudly described the way his digital fabrication laboratories have integrated themselves into European “Smart City” politics. Barcelona is probably Prof. Gershenfeld’s star pupil, but Rome’s Maker Faire is so big and charismatic that it attracts every Fab Lab in all of Italy, and even Makers from outside the Europe Union.
Maker Faire Rome is like a catalog of shared open source research and development. It’s impossible to summarize an event that includes laser-cut plywood wheelchairs, 3d printed baby incubators, augmented reality zebra crossings for overcrowded streets, artificial ventilators for the polluted air of New Delhi, and paste-on digital microphones that can turn any physical object into a musical instrument. It’s clear, though, that the vitality here is not about conventional commercial schemes. It’s about human need — gizmos to console children who fear the dark, and arcane kitchen gear to defend nourishment from industrial fast food.
Casa Jasmina from Torino had its own Maker Faire installation, designed and constructed like a fairy tale castle. This exhibit mostly displayed Maker prototypes and experiments, although Casa Jasmina is a genuine physical residence that can meet the needs of real people, the guests who eat, sleep, drink and experiment there.
Without vision the people perish, and the best way to have a truly great idea is to have a thousand exciting ideas and to enjoy getting rid of all the silly ones.
The daily life of tomorrow does not require genius or gigantic funding schemes. It requires sincerity and engagement, an honest willingness to place our own bare human hands right onto the quivering substance of the 3Dprinted plastic dream.
If we ever alight on Mars some day, we’ll have to arrive on that alien surface without shipping up dismal tons of our contemporary hardware. I don’t understand everything that Neil Gershenfeld declaims, but a vision that’s merely a spreadsheet, a budget and a checklist, that’s not a vision I would share — I want a real one like his.