August 23, 2011

Laptops and Looms. Not Your Typical Conference

I spent the latter half of last week in the Peak District, participating in the rather wonderful Laptops and Looms conference. Russell Davies, Dan Hill and Toby Barnes pulled together an amazing selection of people and persuaded them all to congregate in an old mill in the village of Cromford just on the strength of spending three days exploring how to turn making into manufacturing.

For such a loosely defined event, we managed to cram in so many thing that I'm still trying to unpack it all four days after the event drew to a close. I'm going to try to provide some of the background and raw facts of the conference in this blog post, and leave the more thoughtful stuff to emerge in subsequent thinking and blog posts as it filters through my brain.


Checking back through some of the emails sent before the event, it turns out I was wrong to refer to it as a conference. Russell says "This isn't a conference, it's a conversation." And he's right, that's a much better description, even if it's rather cryptic for anyone who didn't attend.

The agenda was deliberately loosely defined - the introduction to the themes was Russell's August column for Wired UK, and the organising principle was to get a bunch of interesting people, stick them into (one of) the world's first factory and see what happened.

How It Worked

It was an event which addressed a lot of the problems that I outlined in my long conference post. The mornings were the nearest to a traditional conference, with a number of presentations acting as scene-setters or almost provocation pieces, but they often veered off into group discussions on the topics raised.

The afternoons had flexible and varied activities which saw us taking a tour of Masson Mill; a kickabout on the nearby park; a train excursion to Derby to visit the Derby Silk Mill (which argues that it is the oldest factory); and rounding off the three days with an afternoon of cricket at Chatsworth House.

The evenings saw us exploring the delights of Matlock Bath, chatting over a communal meal, or just reflecting on the day in the pub.

All of which meant that there was ample opportunity to discuss things and get to know each other. I think I probably had at least a five minute chat with something like 90% of the people there, which was fantastic.

General Themes and Topics

So what did we talk about?

Digital fabrication techniques, how well they do and don't work. Mass personalisation, with Alice Taylor from Makielab giving an open and inspiring talk about how they're aiming to make everything in the country where it's sold. Matt Cottam made everyone (I think, he definitely did me) jealous of how he's got funding to let him run an awesome new project. Toby played devil's advocate about the drive for shedloads of growth, and asked whether there's a way that the oft-derided "lifestyle" businesses could be the answer. Matt Ward took a stab at defining some of the terms we were using and some of the conditions which fed into the debate (hopefully he, along with everyone else, will publish his slides somewhere). We talked about what's stopping more makers from turning interesting hacks into real products, and wondered how we can more easily replicate Newspaper Club's winkling out of printers in other areas of expertise. We noticed that we don't build our tools any more (coincidentally something that came up in a recent item about HP losing its way) and asked if that fed into the decline in manufacturing. Dan did an excellent job of setting things in a wider context, looking at the decline of the British manufacturing industry, and the rise of China, whilst showing that Germany had managed to cope with the changing world without losing its industrial base. At one point he challenged us to define "what is the point of the West?" How do we engage with the "dark matter" of policy and government so that we end up with a society more attuned to our ideals and values, and less towards finance or call centres. The Makielab guys were helped to build a Makerbot. We talked about ways to collaborate and new ways of working, and I talked a bit about DoES Liverpool. And we debated what is stopping the network of makers from becoming a new wave of industrialists?

There are people whose presentations I've missed, and hundreds of other topics that I wasn't aware that were discussed, because I was busy involved in a similarly interesting conversation elsewhere.

What Now?

In his closing comments, Russell asked us what we wanted to do next. He didn't have any grand vision or plan, he'd just had a hunch that interesting things might happen if he got us together.

He was right. I'm hoping that the discussions and connections continue to ripple out in the coming months. It looks like there'll be another event held in the future, which is excellent news, because I can't state how awesome those three days were.

Tom Taylor said that he hoped that it would spark a raft of good blog posts. I want to echo that hope, and this is the first of my contributions to the pool (and hopefully it won't dilute the quality too much).

There's very little that I'd change if it were run again. That said, I expect that the themes will be a little better defined after we've had a year to continue the conversation.

I think it might be useful to replace some of the industrial heritage sections with trips to some of the local "supply chain" sized firms. Rather than a tour of an 18th Century mill, visit a working injection-moulding factory or similar. See if we can unearth some of the remaining industry to give talks about how they work, so we can see how to use them and also look for new possibilities a la Newspaper Club.

What about having a "gallery" area, and encourage attendees to bring something along to show off. There was so much creativity in the room, and there won't be time for everyone to give a talk about what they do, so fill the area where people get coffee with objects or posters showing what the other attendees do. If you could find someone to staff it, you could even open it up to the public in the times when the attendees are out on some other activity...

Further Thoughts

I'll be revisiting some of the themes thrown up by the conference in the coming days (/weeks..?) and will add them here. I'm also going to try to collect any other writing spawned by the conference from others, and will include links to them too (and I've not read any of them yet - I wanted to get my thoughts down first before diving into the thoughts of others...).


Posted by Adrian at August 23, 2011 10:05 PM | TrackBack

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