Our deepest thoughts

Tech that keeps giving

Written by John Lamerand in category 
August 2, 2016


When you offer someone a rose the fragrance will stay on your hands.

When you teach someone how to recycle, upcycle and hack you create makers. Makers don’t just tinker with toys, they create new economies.

One of the many reasons that Wayne and I “clicked” was that we both salvaged useful parts out of the things that most people throw away. With a computer shop Wayne had a constant supply of electronic goods that were brought in by customers who hoped that new life could be breathed into them. While the printer, computer, phone had “had it” there were parts that were still useful. Now, a consumer does not usually want one or two batteries or a few motors, they want a more complex solution, like a motor that drives a page through a printer.

While I did not have a computer shop I was a ravenous collector of discarded tech on large rubbish collection days and at garage sales. At one garage sale on the North Shore of Sydney I bought a slightly broken laser printer. The owner said that the paper did not feed well through the printer and he was almost apologetic when he asked $10 for it. I took it home, made the paper take up roller slightly sticky and got a year’s use out of it. And “why would I want someone else’s discarded inkjet printer?”, my wife asked. “I’m glad you asked, honey” I replied, “this printer has two wonderful stepper motors in it and each of them has a rotary encoder.”

If we lived in Shenzhen Wayne and I would probably buy what we needed from the thousands of entrepreneurs who dismantle pre-loved technology. Chances are we’d be living without the benefit of cavernous garages. We would also be able to pick and choose what we wanted and when we had chosen a part to go into a design we’d be able to get hundreds of identical recycled parts. While I may have dismantled many dozens of printers I might have half a dozen of any given part that is identical.

If we do start manufacturing our home-grown kits in large numbers we will probably get the work done where the parts are the best value: Shenzhen.

There is a lot to learn from a place like China. In the west we might have forgotten that when the Swiss first got into watches they were copycats and the French and German manufacturers were angry and snooty with the Swiss. What happened in Switzerland is curious: individual makers got very good at one particular task: one maker might be making hour hands and another might be winding springs. This method of building a watch business has a name: établissage.

In Shenzhen today they have an eastern version of établissage and it works really well. It sprang out of a supply chain movement called shanzai. As workers left big factories they brought their knowledge and a few blueprints with them and innovation without my concern for intellectual property gained pace. Because everyone realises that it is counter productive to be unpleasant to other members of your network strong relationships have been established. As a result a new, fast business model has sprung up. You don’t stay ahead by hoarding IP (intellectual property). Instead you keep innovating and hope to stay ahead of everyone else who wants a piece of the pie. If you want to develop a new thing it might take you 12 months in the West. The same task will take 3 months in Shenzhen and at the same time what you have developed will be modified and improved upon by others. In one sense everything in Shenzhen is open source and the trick is finding out how to stay nimble enough that you make money.

If the West wants to keep up with China perhaps we need to be more prepared to “offer flowers to others” and not rest on our laurels. We might also want to get better at upcycling, recycling, hacking and making.

afterword: this article in wired.com made perfect sense in light of the blog post
You Won’t Believe What Facebook Is Giving Away for Free Now

Wired article Summary: In a sense, open sourcing code offers the same potential benefit that publishing research in peer-reviewed journals does for scientists. In other words, Facebook is betting that giving away its AI tech will make for better software, because it too can benefit from the new ways others use it.

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