The latest edition of the ideas festival at Edinburgh was abuzz with the 'maker movement': a phenomenon that aims to take manufacturing out of factories and put it into people's homes
TEDGlobal's march of the makers: Manu Prakash demonstrates a microscope that can be printed out on a piece of paper and folded into shape. Photograph: James Duncan Davidson/TED
Once upon a time, if you said you were doing a spot of DIY, everyone would know you'd be doing something involving wobbly ladders, pots of paint and, depending on the decade, either stripping your floors or recarpeting them.
No more. Or at least ladders and pots of paint might still be involved, but the end result could be a aerial drone you've built yourself. Or a biotech lab.
Last week's TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh – the festival known as "Davos for optimists" – shone a light on the DIY revolution – a movement that encompasses items ranging from manufacturing to synthetic biology to medicine. After a decade in which digital technologies have disrupted industries from music to the media, it's capitalism itself that is now under attack. A decade ago, open-source software revolutionised the internet. Now the idea has entered the realm of physical things: open-source hardware. Why stop at making your own website when you can make your own PC? Or car? Or satellite?
Catarina Mota, a 38-year-old Portuguese PhD student, is typical of the new breed of DIYers, or, as they tend to call themselves, "makers". She's a member of a 40-strong "hackerspace" in New York – a co-operative workshop where members share tools such as laser cutters – and develops and makes "smart materials", ones that can change colour when you touch them or react to voltage. In the three years since she began, the maker movement, fuelled in part by the rapidly decreasing cost of 3D printers – devices that create objects layer by layer out of liquid plastic – has become a phenomenon. Mota's hackerspace, NYC Resistor, is one of the oldest, but there are now 1,500 in the world.
Like most makers, she's self-taught. "A lot of people were doing these sorts of things as kids and then stopped," she said. "As manufactured goods became cheaper, we became consumers. But now everything has changed. We don't accept things as they are given to us. We make technology work for us. And we can make a living from it: it's not just a hobby. It has the potential to change economics profoundly. Companies can compete on quality no matter what their size."