Innovating crosspoints; maker communities, DIYBio and universities

I was reading the article the other day about maker communities and how they are harnessing new tech and may help reboot manufacturing industry.  As someone working at university, it prompted me to think about the relationships that I am interested in developing with makers and DIYBio communities.

What I want is to make academics relevant and embedded in the community.  One of the  projects that I was involved in was called #Patchworks,  part of the Lancaster University Catalyst programme. Catalyst brought together a team of academics from a range of disciplines including social science, computing, design, environmental and management science and includes myself in biomedical sciences. It unites  with community organisations – large and small – based in Lancaster, Manchester, Derry-Londonderry, and further afield by working with high-profile partners such as the Manchester Digital Development Agency, FutureEverything, the RSA, and Community Matters.

The Patchworks project is a fusion of 2 community groups with Lancaster Uni academics; madlab in Manchester and Signposts in Morecambe.  The project is nearing its end now.  The idea was to carry out  transformative research on the theme of citizen-led social innovation.  This actually means people with needs coming up with a question and going through a creative process to develop cheap open source products that help them in their lives; improving overall health and well being. In this case the question was ‘how can technology be used to improve the lives of homeless people?’.  You might ask what is this guy doing working on this type of project? Well I think that the most creative areas are around the edges of what we know and experience. Everyone involved in this project has had to step out of their comfort zone and inhabit what I call the ‘discomfort zone’. Where we sometimes need to admit our ignorance and make mistakes becuase of our lack of knowledge and experience.   It has been a fantastic learning process for all involved in this and I hope to write more about this in the near future.

Meantime here is a short film intro about the project.

Anarchaea? DIY biology and garage science

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Popped into the aptly named MADLAB  down a little side street in Manchester to see the latest goings ons on the DIYBio front.  This movement has been growing slowly but surely over the last few years and is composed of a loose knit community of DIY bioresearchers who want to take part in the molecular genetics revolution of the last few years but are outside the so-called ivory towers of traditional academic/commercial company circles (which also includes me, although I do try and climb down and poke around outside the ivory tower now and then). I was led to look into this field by my interest in BioArt; there seems to be some natural link up here between artists/creatives and other techie types and after reading some of the blogs and stuff out there I must say I am impressed by the creativity and knowledge that these people are bringing to their work. Madlab was awarded a Wellcome Trust grant  together with Manchester Metropolitan university to set up “Manchester DIYBio” including this DIYBio UK summit weekend (see pictures above).

On arrival I found Cathal Garvey enthusing about his work and on  his blog a sort of complex molecular biology  at home makes for compelling reading for someone like myself who is used to dealing with molecular companies  trying to sell me kits for 500-1000 pounds. Molecular biology and a lot of bioscience research these days (well I’ve been around since at least 10 years BPC  [before pc])  seems to entail buying a kit for everything; its like fast food for science labs. Pick your kit,  add some ingredients, mix, stick something in the microwave and PCR machine etc and there you have it.  The researcher may not have a clue about how they got the answer but what the hell…Yes, I know there are a lot of researchers out there who do understand what they are doing but it is only too easy to sleep walk through some of these methods.  One of my  first experimentswhen I was doing my Phd involved inventing my own piece of apparatus that I called a locust crapometer; it measured the food transit of the locust digestive tract;   and when Cathal started demonstrating how he makes his lyzozyme, starting with egg white and 40% vodka I was reminded of the days when bioscientists had to make the buffers and substrates for enzyme assays and  understood what they were doing throughout the experiment. What also impressed me was that Cathal managed to get  Irish EPA approval; namely a GM site licence to work from his home on genetically modified microbes.  There also seems to be a good awareness amongst this community about the safety aspects of what they are doing.

For me  this sort of DIY approach has a number of  other benefits; it could lead to the development of some cheap non-patented kit and biomaterials that can be of use by the scientific community as a whole; amateur professionals etc. Already we have seen the development of the openpcr project and the 600 dollar  PCR machine that can be run on your  own MAC or PC via a USB port.  I work in tropical medicine and am interested in the potential use of this approach as intermediate technologies for diagnosis of parasitic diseases at local community level.

Apart form the practical implications the creativity of some of these Anarchaeaic DIYers is outstanding…Mark Dusseiller is a transdisciplinary art/technologist who works with his self termed hacteria and dabbles in open source bioart.  This video shows his approach to making a cheap microscope which can be used by anyone at home.