Engineering education and the Makers movement

Last week, I attended the Vietnam Engineering Education Conference (VEEC 2015) in Danang. As a co-founder of Fablab Saigon, I was invited to share my view on the Makers Movement and what it means for the next generation of engineers in Vietnam.

I was very excited, yet couldn’t help but feeling the impostor syndrom. As a makerspace, Fablab Saigon is not fully equipped yet, as a co-working space, what we have to offer isn’t much compared to what other co-working spaces in town may have. We are lucky that we could start it thanks to the family house that was left by my grandparents.

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What eventually gave me courage and confidence to go on stage was the thought of the community that is now behind Fablab Saigon. What we achieved together is real, even if it’s only the first step of a long journey. The interest from people I met there to build Fablabs in other cities is also real. Soon enough we’ll have a network of Fablabs in Vietnam.

So if people happen to come to visit us, maybe they won’t see us as a “real” Fablab, and we may still be impostors fo a while, until there are enough support from the community, from people who believe in this project to make it even more “real”. I hope that when people visit us, they also get to see that and will want to contribute in some ways.

My main take away from this conference is that Fablabs definitely have a role to play, as a project-based learning ground between universities and the private sector. Thanks to this conference, I am now eager to engage with universities to see how we can work with them in their challenge to train “makers” and not “operators”.

Below are some of the questions that were discussed on the panel, and my answer to them.

The Maker Movement means different things to different people. Some focus on computer-controlled fabrication devices and physical computing. Others on software programming or traditional craftsmanship. Can you define what it means to you and your organization?

For me the makers movement is about developing a new relationship with the things we consume. It is not good enough today to just go to a shop, buy something and consume it passively. Makers want to reconnect with things, how it is build, the story and experience that goes with it. Makers want to express who they are, their creativity and what they care about through what they consume. Makers don’t accept that some things they imagine don’t exist because nobody built them yet.

Makers understand that things we consume don’t fall from the sky, they have a before and an after, that has impact on the environment. To some extent, similarly to the concept of fair trading, I think the makers movement is about fair consuming.

Fablab Saigon is about showing people that they can be makers too, by sharing knowledge and enabling access to the tools.

How is your organization involved in the Maker Movement?

Last year for the fab 10 conference, a conference that regroup fablabs around the world, there were 256 fablabs. This year, there are more than 450 fablabs.

Yet in Vietnam, there is only one as a “planned” fablab, it’s Fablab Saigon. So I believe we are filling a crying gap, not only in terms of facility but more importantly in terms of community.

There are makers in Vietnam. Vietnam doesn’t have to discover DIY. Unlike developed countries like the States, where everything is “made in China”, Vietnam is still quite connected with production means. It’s quite easy to access a laser cut in HCMC for example, most advertising panels shops have one. Yet makers don’t get together to share knowledge, join on projects, etc. So the idea is to build that community in Vietnam and enable it to connect with the global community of makers.

Where do you see the confluence of industry-government-academia in supporting the Maker Movement? Are there good examples of cooperation?

Fablabs are actually a good place of cooperation between industry, government and universities.

The first Fablab was created in the MIT. And the MIT is renown for the synergies it enables between industry and academia. Another successful fablab is the one in Barcelona. It is also deeply linked to a university. Those universities were already quite advanced in their relationship with industries and also run strong cursus on technology and entrepreneurship and innovation. Their fablab adds a makers component to an existing ecosystem.

Fablab Saigon, as a grassroot fablab, has a more independent model. Grassroot fablabs are initiated by passionate makers. In such cases, universities will encourage their students to take part in such fablabs as a window towards real users to test projects or to validate knowledge by sharing it. Such fablabs are also sponsored by strong local industries and they also get subsidized by government. This is the case of several fablabs in France: Toulouse with the aeronautic industry, Rennes with the Telco industry. The French government also selected 14 fablabs to subsidize to foster digital innovation with the French Tech initiative.

Vietnam’s Maker community is in its infancy. How do you see it growing here?

There are 2 aspects that will need to be developed for the makers community.

First the technical skills: makers have to know how to use their tools. Efforts will have to be put in bringing those skills in the education system, or by giving access to this knowledge through massively online open courses. For digital fabrication, those skills are programming, 3D modelling, electronic design, etc.

The 2nd aspect is the sense of community itself, to move from a competitive to a collaborative model, and to be more socially responsible, creating shared value for all.  This will come through events like hackatons and community spaces such as the Fablab Saigon. The community will develop its own understanding of the makers movement, its own purpose by somehow localizing it.

What are some of the best practices that we could recommend in growing the community?

For me, access is key. Makers have to be in a trustworthy environment, where sharing, learning and failing is possible. That’s why I really believe in creating many human-size spaces that are lead by local passionate people. Then regular events like Maker Faire to gather them together, to make them realize that they are part of something bigger and to encourage collaboration between fablabs locally and even globally (e.g with the Fab 11 or FAF 2 conferences). The White House Maker Faire in the US was in that sense an excellent initiative.

Another important point is that the makers movement is cross-generational. Vietnam can take advantage of it, with seniors who are still quite active and often makers themselves. Chris Anderson in his book Makers starts with the story of him making doll’s furniture for his daughters, and then building a drone with his son.

Are Vietnamese engineers well-suited for the Maker Movement and competing with their global peers?

Vietnamese engineers are great problem solvers. They are doers, which is quite well suited for the makers movement. However, they often fail to do user research to test their designs. Products that are build are functional but not user friendly. And the key to a great product is the user experience that it offers.

To nurture talent and develop Vietnam’s next generation of engineers, we have to encourage them to start to test their ideas at a younger age, even when they might not know yet that they will become engineers, they will develop the habit to prototype their ideas and to test their designs against real users.

I hope that the next generation of Vietnam engineers will be able to compete with their global peers, but more importantly to collaborate with them.

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