The holiday decorations at the White House this year were decidedly nontraditional. They included a robotic replica of the Obamas’ dog Bo, crowdsourced lighting design, and 3-D printed Christmas tree ornaments designed by contest winners. The design and tech invasion was an extension of the administration’s efforts over the last year to encourage making, the name some people have given to the surge of interest in emerging technologies like 3-D printing, as well as traditional crafts like sewing and building, to create innovative products.
“Our parents and our grandparents created the world’s largest economy and strongest middle class not by buying stuff, but by building stuff — by making stuff, by tinkering and inventing and building,” President Obama said before the inaugural White House Maker Faire in June. This year, the administration appointed Stephanie Santoso, a Phd candidate at Cornell University, as the senior advisor on Making to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Her team has been instrumental in pushing for initiatives to help fuel the maker movement across the country. (Plus, she helped build the robot dog.) We talked to Santoso about her role and the importance of maker culture in the future of American innovation.
Co.Design: Why were you brought in by the administration? Can you describe your role?
I’m the Senior Advisor for Making. I’m an advocate for the maker community, and I try to find opportunities for makers at both the federal level and the local level. I started working at the White House in January and helped to plan the White House Maker Faire. The Faire was really designed to be a call to action, to signal to everybody in the U.S. and around the world. Making is going to be super important for technological innovation and solving pressing problems, whether that’s related to global health or empowering makers who have great product ideas to take those ideas to market.
A lot of what I do is working with federal agencies to figure out ways they can provide resources to makers in a number of different contexts. One of the big things we’re interested in is how making can spur interest in STEM subjects as well as arts and design, since it’s so interdisciplinary. Trying to figure out how we can create more hands-on opportunities for kids and students to tinker and build with those ideas in the classroom. My other focus is helping Makers who have good ideas, whether that’s a solution to a problem or a new product, to figure out how to scale them and produce them in the U.S. A lot of this is tied to our interest in creating communities in the U.S. for people to both co-design and produce their products, domestically.
How would you define what a “maker” is? What makes it a movement?
There are lots and lots of different definitions for makers out there. The thing we love about the community is that people are self-identifying as makers. So, a maker is somebody who creates something with a certain set of skills. A maker could be somebody who is really passionate about sewing and embroidery or it could be someone with a love of carpentry. In the White House Maker Faire, we also saw a lot of individuals who were using innovative technologies in their projects. One great example is two teenage sisters who, with their dad created, their own robotics company.
I think the underlying ethos of the maker community is that you have all these people who have really different skill sets and backgrounds and what links them together is this love of taking their ideas and creating them. Those ideas could be passion projects, but a lot of those projects are focused on tackling specific problems. For example, there’s an individual who used 3-D printing technology to develop a stent that can be used to clear the breathing way of premature babies with a particular disorder. So that’s an example of somebody who’s obviously skilled in medicine and has come up with a really interesting and innovative way to use technology to fix an existing problem.
How was the decision made to focus the White House Christmas decorations this year on tech? As far as I’m aware this was the first year the decorations have been tech-centered.
This year the administration and the president have been really focused on highlighting the benefits and potential for the maker movement in contributing to American innovation. Throughout the year there’s been various initiatives that’ve done that, for example, our Maker Faire. Looking at the way that new technology is providing opportunities for individuals to really use their creativity and harvest their DIY capabilities to create things provided inspiration. The White House team that focuses on the festivities for the holidays, including creating the decorations for the holidays, they came to our team, the tech and innovation division, at the OSTP (White House Office of Science and Technology Policy). We sat down and talked about some initial ideas about how we might be able to integrate more technology into the holiday decorations at the White House.
It’s an interesting paradox that these technologies that can drive innovation in our country are also something that a lot of people worry may displace workers in the future: automation of jobs previously done by people, for example. Is that something you’ve thought about at all or are trying to address in any way in your role?
My focus is really on thinking through how to expand the maker movement, but what I can say about the concern about technologies like robotics potentially displacing workers or eliminating jobs is that we really see these new technologies not as something that would replace human workers but that would enable them, and would facilitate new innovation. We are thinking through how somebody who was working in a traditional manufacturing facility could actually upscale and develop a new set of skills that would enable them to learn how to use a numerically controlled milling machine, or learn CAD-based 3-D modeling software. So if there are workers who have been displaced because their current employers have closed down, they have a really broad diverse set of skills that they can draw from.
What has the response to your work been like so far? What are you hoping people take away from it?
On the day of the White House Maker Faire we announced a huge set of commitments not just from federal agencies but also from educational institutions, colleges and universities, nonprofits that focus on education and industry, who all had various commitments that they put forth to create more opportunities around making. That could be from an educational perspective, so trying to support making in schools, or at the community level. We also had over 100 cities who signed on to the Mayor’s Maker Challenge, which we launched back in spring of this year, to bring cities together that are invested in learning how to foster making to create economic vitalization and getting more informal and hands-on learning into their school districts. Just last week a subset of the higher education institutions who raised their hands and said they wanted to be involved announced they had formed a Maker Alliance. This alliance is composed of art and design schools, community colleges, and historically black colleges and universities, in addition to more traditional four year-based universities. Universities really act as this important institution within their communities, and can also can provide resources for making at the community level.
What are any future plans for the White House’s Maker program you can tell me about?
The work that we’re doing around the maker movement at the White House really aims to support the grassroots movement that was already there, and to figure out how can we broaden access to making. We’ve noticed there are areas of the U.S. where there is a really robust maker community, and residents have access to maker spaces. They’re popping up in libraries and museums. But I think there’s a lot of work to be done in broadening access in areas that are smaller, more rural. Creating more opportunities for young women, girls, and underrepresented minorities to use some of these new technologies and tools is a really important goal for us moving forward. We’re going to try to keep the momentum going around these initiatives. There was a lot of excitement that came out of the White House Maker Faire, and we’re having a lot of cities contact us to ask how they can get involved or what types of resources might be available to them in order to host their own Maker Faire or create a maker space. So a lot of the work will be around continuing to broaden access and participation.