Calculative Making: The Fear of Failure in Kenya’s Makerspaces

When I first entered a makerspace in Nairobi in 2016, I was surprised that most people were sitting in front of their computers. My imagination of a messy makerspace where everyone tinkers with 3D printers and materials to build clumsy prototypes was disenchanted. A makerspace is a collaborative workshop equipped with tools and machines to process various materials. Contrary to the origins of makerspaces in hacker and do-it-yourself cultures that are aimed at an anti-capitalist appropriation of mass-produced goods (Maxigas 2012), the contemporary global phenomenon of emerging makerspaces focuses predominantly on entrepreneurial workplaces providing access to digital fabrication machinery like laser cutters, Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines, and 3D printers.

Nairobi’s first makerspace – the epicenter of my three-year ethnographic research – joins the chorus of celebrating digital machinery for the development of cutting-edge prototypes to attract investment. On a state level, developing and innovating technology is seen as a path-breaking driver of national development in Kenya and as a historic moment for the production of local Kenyan products instead of continuing the import and maintenance of technology from the current centers of technology production. The emergence of Kenya’s makerspaces is thus not the result of an anti-capitalist movement or for leisure activities as in many post-industrial Western places, but it reflects the country’s pursuit of a Fourth Industrial Revolution.W

Visions, desires, hopes – the utopian language of science, technology and innovation narratives — is the subject of numerous studies on makerspaces (Ames et al. 2015Ames et al. 2017Coban 2018Irani 2015Sivek 2011). Adding to these critical assessments and deconstructive discourses on global innovation, I seek to enrich current analyses with an ethnographic focus on the everyday affective parts of technology development in a makerspace. I turn the attention to an affect contrary to all the positive connotations of making, to fear. As makerspaces get hyped as places where innovation happens through failure, fear allows us to grasp the entanglements of the intimate and the global in a workplace for making hardware. The fear of failure in Nairobi’s makerspaces shows how local contexts and their positionalities in global modes of production affect the work of Kenyan makers when making is always influenced by “local physical, economic, and human resources [being] embedded in local circuits of people, objects, capital, and skill” (Ames et al. 2018: 16).

Fail…

The praised advantages of digital machinery at makerspaces are based on the idea of rapid prototyping during product development: digital fabrication tools work fast so that developers are able to test their tangible prototypes quickly and  to integrate reiteratively the generated feedback. Using only cheap material to build prototypes, the process of rapid prototyping is said to reduce time and financial risks of developing hardware. These economic advantages are intertwined with a global maker ethos that lauds prototyping as a process that embraces failure. The success of developing products seems to be dependent on how “early and often” a maker or a company failed during prototyping:In Silicon Valley if you don’t fail a few times, people don’t take you seriously. Until you’ve done several start-up plans, people don’t bother with you. Failure is not a bad thing at all, it’s a way of learning how to do better next time. (IP law expert and patent attorney in Kenya and Silicon Valley, interviewed 6 April 2017)

…or not to Fail?

Instead of embracing and fostering failure during making, as  praised in Silicon Valley mantras, failure is the most feared outcome in Kenya’s makerspaces. I encountered the fear of failure mainly during two occasions: either makers feared the theft of their ideas during hackathons and in the shared use of a makerspace, or they feared to build an imperfect prototype. In both cases the critical moment of making is situated in the implementation of one’s idea into “reality” as its materialization becomes visible to others – be it its “human errors” or the idea itself that will be prone to be stolen.

A small anecdote helps to illustrate what exactly fuels the fear of failing with a prototype: One day, a makerspace member showed me the website of a Russian startup that had built the “smallest computer”. He complained that he could not order one because the original cost of 45 Dollars would increase to 100 Dollars due to the high import taxes in Kenya. Further, he doubted that the delivery to Nairobi would work. Nairobi’s makers are confronted with different access to machines and components to prototype and manufacture hardware compared to other places like the United States where procurement is “easy” as “you can simply order components from online distributors much like you’d buy a product from any online store. Individual prices tend to be low and parts arrive quickly, with familiar shipping options” (Mellis 2011: 54). High taxes on imported resources, such as basic soldering wire, little 3-5mm screws for electric circuits, or a huge CNC machine, render imported goods too expensive to buy for most Kenyans. The search for locally available parts lead to the daily circumstance that makers have to call numerous sellers around the city. When being fortunate and equipped with money, they find their needed components somewhere in Nairobi. However, a purchase in the Central Business District or Industrial Area, where most of the sellers sit, means losing at least half a working day by being caught up in Nairobi’s notorious traffic jams. Sitting in a traffic jam is one way to lose work time; waiting for your ordered components, machines or whole prototypes from countries like China or the US for six to eight weeks yet another. The already time-intensive and costly making of hardware is intensified by the difficulties of acquiring resources to prototype and the lack of manufacturing plants for local production.

Calculative Making

The challenges faced by makers in Nairobi led to a different kind of making than that propagated in the maker ethos that originated in places of capital and resource abundance. A maker in Nairobi cannot afford to fail as someone in Silicon Valley fails. Lacking financial resources to buy material and the overall limited access to them makes Nairobian hardware developers use their materials carefully. Failing and wasting resources during prototyping is not an option. Thus, Kenyan makers stay as long as possible within the realms of the infinite resource of computing by drawing models, compiling excel sheets and making calculations to circumvent experimenting and the danger of failing. The ubiquitous practices of planning – or what I call calculative making – observed at Nairobi’s makerspaces are a necessity to handle absences, specific for making hardware in Kenya.

Creating a perfect digital design of one’s idea – be it a Printed Circuit Board (PCB), a water pump or a piece of furniture – is obligatory. Striving for perfection, makers invest much of their time into the design work to “test, improve and polish the design” (electrical engineer interviewed 27 July 2016) before implementation, e.g. when developing a PCB:It’s a lot of simulations, it’s a lot of thinking that goes into the laying out of the tracks, coming up with the right concept, testing it on breadboard before you go to PCB. So the design can even take a week or more and you have not touched on fabrication. The design stage is what normally takes the greatest amount of time because you have to get everything right otherwise, you will be wasting your time going through the PCB line making something that does not work or does not meet the required need. (Ibid.)

Designing a model does not only entail the digital drawing of a perfect model for a fast and smooth implementation but also the visualization of the required components for building its prototype: “The challenges went to the deep details of component selection. Basically, the design consists of selecting components, coming up with a list of those and getting them” (Ibid.).

Calculating with scarcity makes it indispensable for Nairobian makers to write meticulous lists of the selected parts while designing a model. These lists are the basis for the laborious research of where to get the needed materials described above. The logistics of getting materials to prototype is one of the main priorities at the researched makerspaces: Every documentation of a hardware project is not only done for sharing open source knowledge on GitHub and other platforms, but also to include a list of where to get the required resources, so that other people in Kenya can rebuild the hardware. The compilation of lists about where to get specific materials to make a design tangible is just one example among many of how making in Nairobi consists of efficient calculations.

Failure is not equal failure

Making in Nairobi is neither a craft revival like in many post-industrial contexts nor a simple carbon copy of Silicon Valley’s innovation culture. Instead, Nairobian makers float between humble desires for an exciting work life by experimenting with digital machinery, a glorious vision of a Kenyan future driven by a Fourth Industrial Revolution and their daily challenges of trying not to fail during prototyping as it is a precious venture of possibly securing one’s livelihood. Having followed the affect of fear that represents a friction in the maker ethos brimming with vigor and positivity, we are pointed towards specific histories of manufacturing, variegated visions connected to digital fabrication tools, and Kenya’s positionalities in the global sphere of technology production that “silently condition […] the supposedly creative possibilities of design and entrepreneurship” (Irani 2019).

This article was originally published at 4sonline.

Categories Digital Africa Innovation Makerspace

About

Alev Coban is pursuing her PhD in the Department of Human Geography at the Goethe-University Frankfurt. Her research concerns the affects and haptics of hardware development in Nairobian makerspaces and the (re-)making of Kenya’s positionalites in the global paradigm of (social) entrepreneurship. @AlevCob4n

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