FailFast: Come and Play with Ideas on Makers’ Day, part of Belfast Design Week

Twitter FailWhale Artistic Painting
Artistic interpretation of the classic FailWhale, celebrating the inevitability of failure in the fast-moving tech world. Source: ka-92

Fail fast, fail cheap.

Or is it “fail fast, fail often”?

On Saturday, 7 Nov we’re uniting with some of our friends, including The Design Salon and The Potting Shed, for an all-day event, as part of the first ever Belfast Design Week. You’re invited to join us in a creative, hands-on, welcoming environment, as we all take the journey from idea to soup.

Event Summary: Sat 7 Nov 2015 // 10:00 until late (12:30 – 16:00 at Farset) // Register here: FailFast: Makers’ Day Field Trip to Farset Labs // It’s all FREE OF CHARGE.

Yes, soup. We will begin the day at The Hive, venture over to Farset in the afternoon, then end up back at The Hive for a pitching session, while we enjoy some hot refreshment with Belfast Soup. Mmm, soup.

Then we’ll all go to the pub. Mmm, beer.

That Saturday of Design Week is designated as Makers’ Day so roll up your sleeves and come f*@k things up with us. You don’t need to consider yourself a designer or maker to get value out of the day. It’s a good chance to make some smart, creative friends and take part in the fascinating process of developing ideas.

Here’s the planned Itinerary:

  • 10:00 – 12:00: The Potting Shed @The Hive : Bring your new or existing idea to the Potting Shed team and get their multidisciplinary input on how to make it happen or bring it to its full potential.
  • 12.30: Walk from The Hive to Farset Labs.
  • 13:00 – 16:00: FailFast @ Farset Labs: taking the ideas and designing prototypes to see how they might function in reality.
  • 16:00: Walk back from Farset Labs to The Hive.
  • 17:00 – 19:00: Belfast Soup @ The Hive: Buy some soup and pitch your ideas for the chance to win some startup money to make it happen!
  • 19:00 – Collapse: Drinks at The Sunflower.

And here is the official page and links to register for other parts of the day.

For our part, we’re going to focus on that challenging step in the creative process where you have to get your idea out of your head and into the world so it can be given a chance to fail. During the workshop we’ll talk about what prototyping involves, and look at the recent revolution in rapid prototyping, assisted by technologies like 3D printers and the internet. Then we’ll stop talking and play – making simple prototypes with paper and pen and whatever we have to hand.

You can come to all or just part of the day’s events. Or just meet us in the pub in the evening. Mmm beer. There’s no charge but please register if you’re coming so we know the numbers. And we’re seeking techie, creative and communicative people to be in the room to help facilitate progress – please contact me if you can help.

We’re calling it FailFast to resurrect an old project that never got much momentum. I guess you could say it failed, rather fast. But that’s the whole point. There’s a popular sentiment in the entrepreneurial world that failure is a big part of innovation and creativity. So much so that it has become trendy. Most ideas don’t grow into anything substantial. Most startups collapse. The important thing is to try – develop your idea, get your prototype out into the world, see if it works and iterate on its development, and do so as quickly and cheaply as possible. It will probably fail so if you want something to succeed, fail fast, fail cheap and fail often. So yeh, we’re calling it FailFast.

Oh, and it rhymes with Belfast. Sort of.

Making it Through the Third Industrial Revolution

Digitisation is transforming our world and it is the communities of curious, creative people – like those who gather in makerspaces – who are best-placed to thrive after the dust settles.

The Maker Revolution

Update: link to presentation slides on SlideShare

My friends at the youth-led Create conference generously invited me to speak to their audience of a couple of hundred 16-18 year-olds last week. The offer triggered an instant drain on my free time as I tried to find some coherence in my thoughts on the Maker Movement. If wanted to use this speaking slot as an Archimedes lever to dislodge the attendees from any traditional career plans and catapult them into the chaotic, creative world of exploring, tinkering and production that we love so much in communities like Farset Labs. But I would have settled for just sharing one big idea about the world that got them thinking in a new way.

Fortunately, there is a big idea around at the moment that provides a context for the emergence of our new maker culture. And by big, I mean really, very, exceptionally big. Like world-changing, epoch-defining big. Simply put, the idea is that we are in the midst of a global revolution that is taking us into a new socioeconomic era, and we have the opportunity to hack our way to a happy future.

Of course, we can’t know right now what this period will be called in future. Just as it might have sounded weird in 1850 to ask a friend, “how’s the Industrial Revolution going for you?” We can’t see it clearly from the inside. Leave it to historians to define past generations.

But we can get some perspective on our current situation. We can take the reference frame of human innovation over the course of our existence. Here’s a quick run through…

  • 5-7M yrs ago – our ancestral apes began to move out of the trees and into the African plains.
  • 2-3M yrs ago – we see the first signs of basic tools being made.
  • ~70,000 yrs ago – humans start to show evidence of specialisation in their hunter-gatherer practices.
  • ~18,000 yrs ago – specialisation develops into the cultivation of crops and domestication of animals, launching the Agricultural Revolution (aka Neolithic Revolution). This gives birth to great phenomena such as large settlements, division of labour, hierarchical societies and religions, trading economies, and armies.
  • Late 18th Century – powered by inventions like the spinning jenny and steam engine, the Industrial Revolution kicks off. People go to work in factories, from which emerge modern, hierarchical companies with new concepts like management. The human lifespan doubles and a new middle class emerges. We enter the Industrial Era and again the world changes forever.
  • 1950s–now – computers and the internet underpin the Digital Revolution, as the world goes from atoms to bits. We are now in the Information Era, characterised by the democratisation of communication, connection and knowledge resources.

Welcome to the Third Industrial Revolution

To summarise the above timeline in another way, we can say that there have been three transitions between major economic epochs in human history1: 1) foraging to horticulture, 2) horticulture to agriculture, and 3) agriculture to industrialisation. And within the last stage, there have been three industrial revolutions: the one we call the Industrial Revolution (late 18th to early 20th Century), the Digital Revolution (1950s to now), and finally the, err, well, we’re not sure what to call it yet…

Neil Gershenfeld Quote
A quote from Neil Gershenfeld, Director, The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT and founder of Fab Labs.

The latest revolution, if we just assume that’s what we can call it, is essentially a combination of its Industrial and Digital ancestors. We went from atoms to bits, now we’re swinging back, as the atoms themselves become the new bits. In other words, where the digital world brought the costs of publishing, communication and learning down to the level of discretionary income, the same thing is now happening with the tools of production.

Think of the costs (of all sorts: money, time, expertise, etc.) required to go from having an idea, to selling a product in a global market, just 15 years ago. Even if you could have designed the product yourself, you might have needed to pay a hefty fee for the software to do so. Making a first prototype would typically have cost tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds, which you would probably have needed to source from banks or other traditional investors. And all that, before you have even tried to take your product into the market.

Now, the cost of access to manufacturing tools is often around 1/10,000th2 what it was just 10-15 years ago. And to learn the craft of using those tools often takes weeks now, not years. The journey from idea to global product business in this new paradigm might look something like this:

  1. Design prototype with free software, like Google’s SketchUp.
  2. Build prototype in a makerspace, or send the design to a single-run manufacturing service, such as Shapeways or Ponoko (for pocket-money prices).
  3. Go to a crowdfunding platform (eg. Kickstarter) for early production and development costs.
  4. Use an online service like Alibaba to connect with a manufacturer in the Far East, firing-up their facilities and running-out the first few 1,000.
  5. Bring the product back to home soil, collaborating with high quality local manufacturers, to customise and produce the next few 10s of 1,000s.
  6. Maybe head back out to Asia now, for mass-production in the 100,000s and beyond.
  7. Retire or go back to 1.
Quote by Mitch Altman
Mitch Altman, a hacker hero and no obvious capitalist, connects the joy of creative expression with the opportunities it can offer us.

If the Digital Revolution democratised connection, now affordable tools are democratising manufacturing too. The machinery available, of which the poster children have been 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC machines, allow us to operate from the nanoscale up to the size of buildings. Now almost anything that can be imagined can be built by ordinary people. This is a first for our species and planet, there is no precedent or rulebook to employ here.

The rising popularity of hacking and making may be a response to this new environment and is certainly an avenue to benefitting from the opportunities it presents. That is not to say we should all focus on saleable products, it is just as much about play, artistry and education. Communities are forming all over the world, united by the childlike joy that is felt when we are able to explore our curiosity and make things – to express ourselves in creative ways. We are grouping together, sharing ideas and seeking places in which we can interact and collaborate. Makerspaces and hackerspaces are nodes in this rapidly growing global network. Three years ago, before our members assembled and launched Farset Labs out of their own pockets, it felt like Northern Ireland was missing the revolution. It felt like Farset needed to exist.

At time of writing, lists nearly 2,000 locations worldwide. And those are just the ones who self-identify with the “hacker” label and have been added to the list. We can assume there are many more venues and groups that exist under the broad definition of hackerspace, makerspace, hackspace and so on – and let’s not get into the name issue here.

Digital Darwinism

So the Maker Movement seems to be a response to, or a result of, the shift from one socioeconomic epoch to another. An obvious analogy to this concept is the response of species to changing environments. When an asteroid smashed into Earth 65M years ago, triggering a global extinction event that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, it was our small, furry ancestors who seized control of the food chain. They were better suited to survive in the new climate that suddenly engulfed them.

Evolutionary analogies are popular in this context. In what can be called Digital Darwinism, organisations are seeking strategies for becoming more adaptable as their world changes, and does so at an accelerating pace. A statistic that possibly highlights this process is the falling lifespan of companies. A popular study by Richard Foster, of Yale University and Innosight, showed that companies on the S&P 500 Index had an average lifespan of 61 years back in 1958, which came down to 25 years by 1980, and 18 years by the time of the study, in 2012. He and his associates put this down to what economists call creative destruction.

Which species will survive and thrive in a future where digital manufacturing – and who knows what next – is placed in the hands of the masses? “Survival of the fittest” is the catchphrase of Darwinian evolution, but it’s a bit of a curse on Darwin’s actual theory. The idea of “fitness” can be mistaken for something like strength, speed and agility, when it’s supposed to mean “better designed for an immediate, local environment”3.

Better suited to the post-revolutionary world is somebody who can not only change her behaviours to meet the challenges of the new environment and exploit its opportunities, but can also make change itself one of her capabilities. We don’t know when the next revolution will occur or what it might involve. But take another look at the timeline above – it’s striking how the periods between each revolutionary event shrink exponentially as history plays out. Likewise, the time taken for each change to run its course is much shorter each time. If change itself is a shifting problem, we should make adaptation part of our fitness regime.

Innovative adaptability in a world of accelerating change requires a curious mind and a creative spirit. Those who make and share things become learners and teachers simply by their actions, and they do so more effectively when they are together, in communities like ours. Their passion for new and interesting things could be their greatest strength.

In other words, the geeks shall inherit the Earth.

Ben Bland speaking about Farset Labs and the Maker Movement at Create 2015
My closing slide at Create 2015. If we have the tools to hack anything in the world around us, we can make anything we want.


  1. From introduction to The Global Startup Ecosystem Report.
  2. From The Maker Movement Manifesto, by Mark Hatch, CEO, TechShop.
  3. From Survival of the Fittest Wikipedia article.

Welcome a New Director of Farset Labs and Some Parting Thoughts from an Old One

Presidential letter on Resolute desk
A passed note from Incumbent to Incoming.

With my imminent departure for Nicaragua looming, I have the immense honour of welcoming Conor Robinson as our new incoming director, having been voted-in by the community. Conor, congratulations and welcome to the fray. I did a little air-punch when I saw that Conor had registered for election. Now Farset is getting an upgrade: replacing its most aged part with a new, faster, more functional one.

I have for years referred to myself as a “wannabe geek” to avoid anyone thinking that I actually know how to do anything technical. And, well, Conor’s one of those guys who does. But directing an experimental organisation like ours needs much more than tech credentials, and I think Conor brings the full set of tools to the table. He’s calm, friendly, organised (or at least he looks like he is because he’s always carrying a notebook!), and damn smart.

As Conor steps-up, I am stepping, well, kinda sideways. Quite a way actually. 8,341.14km in fact. I hope you will forgive my self-indulgence at taking this opportunity not only say hello to our new director, but also to offer some thoughts from a parting one. You know, like the private note the old president traditionally leaves for the new one… except it’s public. And not in the White House. And probably not as useful.
Continue reading Welcome a New Director of Farset Labs and Some Parting Thoughts from an Old One

Thinga-me-GIGs: Gathering the Internet of Things Community

Internet of Things

I can’t wait for the Internet of Things, it’s gonna be epic. Wait, no, it’s already here. But it’s gonna be cooler next year, right?

The connected world has been shifting from bits to atoms for a while and it feels like we’re finally riding over the edge of a kind of Cambrian Explosion of connected tools and systems that could reshape every sector of life. Or maybe not, maybe that’s just starry-eyed confirmation bias. We’ve spoken with a lot of people in the last few months about how to stay on top of the Internet of Things (“IoT”) movement.

We’re trying to figure-out what the right level of discussion and engagement is for Northern Ireland’s part in the revolution. So earlier this month we got a few good people around the benches in the sunshine outside the Labs to move things forward. Below are some disjointed notes following that session. Better to think out loud.
Continue reading Thinga-me-GIGs: Gathering the Internet of Things Community

Get Kids Coding, Designing and Building This Summer 2014 with Our Special Four-Week CoderDojo Course


Summer can be either be downtime or uptime for kids, families and businesspeople alike. For our members who volunteer to run CoderDojo at Farset Labs it could have been a good time to chill out. But noooooo, they’ve only gone and made more work for themselves.

This July and August, bring your kids to Farset Labs to learn their choice of the following, in four weeks:

  1. Build and program a LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 robot. The robot was part of the kit kindly donated to Farset by the Nerve Centre for just this kind of hands-on learning. Well, it’s not just about the learning, right? It’s the errr…. Robots! UPDATE: LEGO sessions were booked-out in a couple of hours! Sorry. Hannah is taking names for more LEGO sessions in September, just email
  2. Design a working computer game with GameMaker.
  3. Design and build a website.

Normal CoderDojo will resume in September. See the calendar for details.

Aaaand, while we have your attention, it’s worth reminding everyone that Farset has no public funding and is run by volunteers. No, wait, not quite volunteers: in fact all of us pay to be members in the first place. So if you or your contacts are interested in sponsoring great causes like our CoderDojo events, or getting behind Farset in its mission to develop everyone’s creative and technical skills, get in touch. And you don’t have to be a deep-pocketed company, Farset’s lifeblood is our recurring monthly member payments, and we are always keen for small personal donations from visitors to the Labs. ‘Nuff said about filthy lucre, now let’s get back to the… errr… ROBOTS!

Register for the CoderDojo Summer Course here.

P.S: No nasty remarks about my design skills on the flyer. I stayed up to the wee hours putting that abomination together. It’s MY abomination and I’m proud of it.