What squealing shirts have to do with democratisation - Notes from the Creating Technologies Conference

Co-Lab's Creating Technologies Conference was always going to be an eclectic affair. Combining fashion, computing, engineering and design, this conference is probably the first time these fields have had a chance to play together, ever, in New Zealand. (And the only business conference where I've  seen a man wearing breeches!)

Keynote speaker was Dr. Leah Buechley (pronounced Beakley, in case you wondered) who spoke twice, first about "democratisation and empowerment", and after lunch she launched into "making technologies".

Dr. Buechley shared her long-time interest in fashion and craft, and her professional interest in engineering. She thought those things would always be separate, but found a way to make them work together, founding the High-Low Tech group at MIT's Media Lab. Dr. Buechley also invented the Lilypad Arduino, a special kind of arduino for use with fabrics. (You learn something new every day; I got several weeks worth on this day!)

The arduino is computing at its most basic: it takes input (which could be sound, light, a switch or control, or just about anything else) and, based on what you tell it, does something in response. For example: a t-shirt that squeals when someone squeezes the waist of the person wearing it. Or, a cycling jacket that activates flashing lights when the sun goes down.

Other speakers came from academia and business, including Ponoko and Zephyr, two kiwi companies who are on the bleeding edge of creating new technologies. Ponoko in particular are all about putting the tools in the hands of (relatively) ordinary people, democratising the ability to design, produce and distribute physical objects.

In some ways it's a rerun of what's happened in the media industry, where the once scarce ability to publish was suddenly made available to anyone with the right (relatively affordable) equipment. It's got potential to severely disrupt the world of business, as we discussed with Dr. Buechley in our upcoming interview for IdealogTV. The disruption could mean great opportunity for companies that help their customers take advantage of new technology; and great danger for companies predicated on the exclusive right to manufacture. Watch for the interview early next week!

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