Yes, you can do both and when you head to the Maker Expo at Kitchener’s City Hall on Saturday, you might catch a glimpse of Chief Maker Ben Brown. But a glimpse might be all you see as he is the event’s ‘organizer behind the organizers’ and he’ll be busy making sure the maker’s have what they need to bring you “an amazing day of diverse family-friendly makers, artists & organizations who create amazing things in celebration of the do-it-yourself spirit.”
He wants to make sure you can get your hands all over things, from robots and video games to giant light bright boards and Minecraft paper crafts to knitting projects. He wants to make you excited about learning and making things yourself.
As co-founder of KwartzLab Makerspace, Ben is an maker-movement evangelist and is pretty jazzed about the diversity and quality of makers across Waterloo Region. He likes to help people make things; a meta-maker or an enabler, as he calls it. Often comfortable working in the background, Ben’s awesome work needs a some serious light shined on it so we chatted about Saturday’s Maker Expo, his role as a community developer and his love of all things zines.
What was the impetus to plan a Maker Expo?
I love do-it-yourself and by extension, maker culture. I’ve attended Maker Faire events both in the US and Canada over the years, and represented Kwartzlab at a number of them as well. When Jaymis Goertz (lead organizer of Waterloo Mini Maker Faire 2013) got the ball rolling for a maker event in town, I jumped on board immediately and did whatever I could to help. It turned out to be a huge success, and my enthusiasm for awesome, local maker events grew from there.
Unfortunately due to several factors, a follow-up event never materialized, so this year I vowed that we’d have *something* happening for the region, no matter what. Nine volunteer organizers and one name change later, we started working on Maker Expo.
What does Maker Expo Chief mean?
I suppose it means that I organize the organizers. I try to ensure everyone has what they need to get things done in our ridiculously short time fame, as well as help solve problems. It also means I delegate a lot. You can’t let your core people burn out, which is all too easy for an all-volunteer gig like Maker Expo; you need to spread the work around.
On the other hand, you don’t always have time to make decisions by consensus. There’s a popular term in the maker world called ‘bike-shedding’, where a group of well-meaning individuals spend so much time and energy deciding what colour a theoretical bike shed should be, that they never actually get around to building the thing. Sometimes a little steering is required to keep things moving along.
I know you have a big committee and an army of volunteers to help pull this off. How many human hours do you think have gone into the planning?
From our group of organizers alone, I could easily estimate a couple thousand hours so far. On the plus side, a hefty chunk of those hours have gone into reusable efforts, so we’re not stuck reinventing the wheel again next year. Oh yes, Maker Expo is no one-time affair!
That doesn’t even account for our 90+ volunteer’s time on the big day… another few hundred hours at least.
Why is this kind of maker event important for you to host for the region?
It’s important to me because I love to show people what’s out there — all this cool stuff that’s happening on their doorstep. There’s so many separate groups working on awesome things in our region that the general population may never hear about otherwise.
I really enjoy meta-making: making things that assist or encourage others to make things. I guess I’m an enabler. I’m cool with that.
Community connections seem to be important to you. What’s your motivation for this?
Waterloo Region is a diverse community with many different parts which are not always connected together. One thing that all these groups and sub-communities do is make things, whether it’s physical like a product, art or space and events, or something virtual, like ideas, and ways of accomplishing them.
One of our core goals for Maker Expo is bridging the gaps between these groups through making and knowledge-sharing. Well that, and putting on a kick-ass show of course.
What do you hope someone who comes to the event would leave thinking or feeling?
I hope people come out to Maker Expo, check out all the awesome stuff that’s happening around the region, and leave the event inspired to make something of their own, or to cultivate an idea they may have had before. [Chanting….ONE OF US, ONE OF US….]
Tell me three things you are most excited about at the Maker Expo.
It’s really hard to nail down specific things and going through our exhibitor list has given me goosebumps in the past.
Bot Brawl is going to be awesome. We’ve even been able to convince the Mayors of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge to face off during the competition. The rivalries have already begun!
The Learn to Solder workshop is always fun for all ages — learn a new skill and take a cool little project away that you made yourself. Kwartzlab has a long history of running soldering workshops, one tradition that I’m proud to continue through the expo.
Personally I’m excited to see how the event will unfold. It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done. I’ll be even more excited once I wake up next Saturday without any rain clouds looming above.
Tell me a bit about Kwartzlab and what you do there.
We like to say Kwartzlab is a shared workshop, where people can come in and use specialized tools that they wouldn’t ordinarily have in their own garage or basement. In reality, it’s so much more than that. There’s a huge community aspect to it as well. Members collaborating on projects and sharing skills.
We’ve been open to the public every Tuesday night since we began six years ago. People can come in, get help with their own projects or just see what others are working on. It’s not just about promoting the lab though, it’s also about getting people inspired to make things themselves. I guess you could say Maker Expo is really just a mega-sized version of what we do every Tuesday.
I don’t tend to work on my own projects at the lab (something that I always say I’m going to do soon). I’m very much in meta-making mode there too. My focus has always been on improving the space and it’s capabilities, and fostering the community around it through events.
As a founding director of Kwartzlab, you’ve likely seen a lot of changes in membership and activities. What are you most proud of?
There’s been a wide selection of workshops over the years, not to mention an emergency move from one end of downtown Kitchener to the other. Not as many changes in membership as I once expected though. I mean, people come and go, but the community and atmosphere hasn’t changed much, and it’s still growing.
I’m proud that Kwartzlab is thriving and attracting new members with new ideas. I’m even more proud of the impact that our little space has had in Waterloo Region in such a short period of time.
What are the things you like to create? Fellow Maker Expo organizer Darin White calls you an IT ninja. What is your background?
My background is definitely in computers, and more computers. I like solving problems, and the tech industry has no shortage of those. I was self-employed doing on-site work since high school, until recently when I settled down for an IT gig at a non-profit. I had no idea paid vacation days would be so AWESOME.
The things I like to create nowadays are mainly online. I do a lot of freelance web development. I also try to write whenever I can and am looking forward to participating in NaNoWriMo soon. I’m also starting a YouTube channel, which I’ve always wanted to do. My to-do list is ever-expanding.
Tell me about your zine history.
Oh, I love zines! In the early 2000’s I ran a punk distro called Deeply Disturbed. We produced a ridiculous amount of 1″ buttons, posters, flyers, screened t-shirts, made swag for local bands as well as distributed a selection of free zines from Ontario and beyond. It was good times. The distro is long gone, but my zine addiction and the button press lives on. In fact, it’s constructed every Kwartzlab pin ever made.
My favourite recent zines from KW are Lil’ Berlin and The Golden Bat, from last year.
What arts and culture things do you like to do?
I like to see pop-up performances, whether it’s music, a play or something else. I am seriously looking forward to IMPACT 15 later this month.
Do you have a wish for Waterloo Region?
I’d love to see the region focus more on it’s inhabitants and the cultures they create, as opposed to attracting big business and condo developers. Plus, significantly improved planning of construction-related closures. I’m debating getting big off-road tires for my little Mazda.
P.S. Ben’s favourite topic of conversation: video games.