Hacking Peace with E-waste

From Nov 20-24, the small mountain town of Salento, Quindio in Colombia was home to an amazing event — the second annual #PeaceHackCamp — where we co-led a workshop to design and build a 3D printer out of local e-waste.

#PeaceHackCamp aims to accelerate a movement wherein the democratization of knowledge and technology is used as a way to intervene for peace through empowerment, social innovation, and entrepreneurship. The camp combines local action and international knowledge sharing networks to create a ‘Peace-in-a-box’ tool kit that can be replicated, appropriated, and adapted to benefit communities in conflict everywhere. This is the second year this event takes place, after the first was organized in South Sudan in 2015. During this year’s camp, we co-led a workshop that took on the challenge of creating a 3D printer from e-waste, sourcing materials, designing, constructing, and planning its use over the course of four days.

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E-waste 3D printer

Brenchie’s Lab, a makerspace in Aruba, grew out of a workshop to collaboratively build digital fabrication machines. We took advantage of e-waste resources, open source designs, and enthusiastic members of the public to construct the initial equipment for the makerspace. As it is with much of the maker movement, our goal is to democratize technology. Aruba is a small island where specific parts are frequently unavailable, so it makes perfect sense to salvage parts out of old equipment in order to make something new.

When we were invited to join the #PeaceHackCamp, we thought it would be great to organize people to build a 3D printer out of e-waste and local hardware. 3D printers are one of those technologies that excite people, but also have a lot of shared knowledge and resources, both software and hardware. When we combine this with the abundance of electronic and plastic waste around the world it becomes a catalyst in the pursuit of more circular and resilient communities; essentially a tool to hack and improve your own environment. Following in the experiences of groups like wɔɛlab in Togo and the RepRap open source community, we saw it as a great opportunity to test and challenge the process and replicability of building machines out of e-waste.

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Martín Restrepo, one of the camp’s organizers, jumped at the idea and arranged contact with La Galería Makerspace in nearby Armenia to help us 3D print parts to make the latest open source design from RepRap. When we arrived they helped us salvage the key components out of old printers, copiers, and computers, and in the process we merged into a full-fledged collaborative project. Together, we expanded the scope of the workshop to include a process of community-centered design for 3D printing, in addition to the actual construction of a printer.

Unfortunately, when we went to 3D print the parts, we ran into a myriad of problems. After arranging the time and space to print, we ran into a shortage of filament, and once we solved that, La Galería’s printer began having mechanical issues before we were able to print more than a single part.

Just hours away from the workshop, we decided to refocus to include the co-design the 3D printer itself, using only e-waste materials, in an open session with people who had never even seen a 3D printer before. We knew this had been done by the team at wɔɛlab, and had a clear sense of what parts we had to work with, so we welcomed the challenge as a test of replicability and collaborative design, especially for communities where 3D printing parts isn’t an option. To produce any working version of the machine, even one printing poorly, would create the capacity to improve the printer by having it make parts for itself to the point where it could function reliably.

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Surprisingly, everybody was super excited and nobody said that it was impossible — even though we’d never done this before and had only a couple days.

The workshop was amazing. We were able to design and assemble a working Arduino-controlled 3-axis drawing machine and a prototype for an extruder, entirely out of e-waste. The goal now is to make this design replicable by documenting it, sharing it, and developing it further with collaborators around the world. Along with La Galería, we are working hard to make the design notes clear, collect our photos, put everything online, and facilitate further exploration.

#PeaceHackCamp

How does 3D printing contribute to peace, you ask? As with all technology, it depends on what we do with it.

In Salento, our hosts were quick to remind us that just ten years ago, before it had such a booming tourism industry, the picturesque coffee-growing town was a no-go zone in the midst of an intense war between the government and guerrillas. Despite years of civil war, Colombia recently voted against a peace accord in a national referendum, which was met with shock and disillusionment by many people, especially among those most affected by the violence who had cast their votes for peace. The government has continued the peace process and recently passed a revised agreement through congress directly, bypassing the need for public approval, but this still leaves an insecure way forward.

The #PeaceHackCamp offered an opportunity for thoughts and discussions among hackers, designers, and makers, together with farmers and young entrepreneurs from disenfranchised areas around Colombia. The camp was as much about dialogue as it was about technology. It was about re-appropriating the tools often used to divide people, to unite people. It was about people power in a digital era — bringing together experiences from a makerspace in a favela in São Paulo, efforts to support black women in technology in Rio de Janeiro, battles against environmental degradation in the Amazon, efforts to correct fake news amidst civil war in South Sudan, using virtual reality experiences of empathy to bridge otherwise impossible divides — harnessing the power of technologies not to disrupt Silicon Valley, but to disrupt Salento, to disrupt Juba, to disrupt Jerusalem. At a time when the digital and physical worlds are merging, new challenges and opportunities are arising which are rarely discussed from the ground up.

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We left the #PeaceHackCamp with an expanding understanding of what it is to hack, what it is to make, and what the function of makerspaces, hackerspaces, and fablabs are in building a better world. So how do we hack peace? How do we bridge societal divides, create empathy, and ‘make’ solutions for our world? We hack peace by working together, by sharing the tools needed to participate in these efforts and to make local solutions that work. Solutions are never one size fits all, but shared online resources offer invaluable tools to learn, to adapt, to criticize and improve ourselves and the world around us. Peace hackers are courageous and collaborative, work to change things, to fix things, and to make things not only in the physical and digital senses, but also the social and experiential senses, working with and for people, communities, the environment, and the future.

Photo courtesy of Tricilab