Making Swift Solutions


By Brian Fencil

Photo courtesy of Erik (HASH) Hersman.

In a small town in Southeastern Indonesia, a worker uses an old truck engine, axel, and a few pieces of wood to make a derrick. He stomps on the gas, the axel spins, a cable winds and the bucket of crude oil, 400 meters underground, comes flying up.

Throughout 4,000 plots of land in this town, men use DIY machines to extract and refine oil. In South Africa, a cell phone is attached to a sheep’s collar, and when the sheep and the heard panic, the collar calls the farmer letting him or her know the heard is in danger.

Creativity is everywhere, but we often only hear about one type of it: the new creation. However, there is great innovation in places where resources are scarce, and innovation is vital for “survival, enterprise and self-expression,” and Makeshift, a quarterly magazine, is the field guide to these DIY inventions.

Makeshift Media, the group that produces Makeshift Quarterly, digital content and email newsletters, started in 2010, when it published its first book Making Do, an ethnography on Africa’s informal economies. To write the book, Makeshift’s executive director, Steve Daniels, spent years doing research and field work to fully describe the resourcefulness of steel and wood workers with limited resources, and used this to inspire other to remove barriers hindering innovation.

Daniels, and many others, then set to work on issue one of Makeshift, “Re-Culture: Reuse, Repair and Recycle at the Grassroots”. In the spirit of the makeshift inventions they were covering, they produced the issue from spare parts: contributors’ nights and weekends, limited funds they hustled together, and support from communities.

In the Fall of 2011, Daniels gathered a motley crew of investors to expand issue one into a quarterly magazine. From the start, Makeshift promised to be more than just a niche magazine about innovation. Through understanding makeshift innovation in fringe economies, the Kickstarter presentation video claimed, we could “rethink how to industrialize, plan better cities, and do business more sustainably.”

After just 33 days on Kickstarter, the campaign raised nearly $43,000, far beyond their goal of $15,000. With the support of the community, Makeshift created subscription services, an advertising and accounting department, purchase software, improved their website, and covered printing costs. Now, with infrastructure, Makeshift has published 10 issues, and is expanding.

The magazine now has over 300 contributors in 80 countries, and uncovers stories of street-level ingenuity that are not covered in other news sources. Often, Makeshift writers find their way into black markets and along smuggling routes, but they do not cover illicit activity for shock-value the way other new sources do. Instead, they take a disinterested stance on the law, and focus only on the innovation, whether it be new techniques to irrigate fields, or the probably illegal activity of hobbyists who make mini nuclear reactors.

But, Makeshift’s unique coverage is only part of what they are accomplishing. By uncovering and sharing these stories, Makeshift aims to make us rethink innovation and to connect makeshift inventors around the world.

The Makeshift Institute, a partner with the magazine, is a think tank based on the lessons learned from constraint based innovation. They host talks, workshops and advised the UN, on how to rethink innovation. The talks and workshops they give help individuals and businesses breakdown barriers that are hindering their innovation, and Makeshift has taken these lessons to heart as well. Hence the magazine is modeled after the collaborative and amalgamated innovations they cover. There is no central office for Makeshift, no full-time employees, nor emails. Their avant-garde approach to businesses has even created a business wear they call “Pajama Professional”.

Their unique coverage and goals have grabbed the attention of a growing world-wide readership, Forbes, The Atlantic, BBC, and TED. And as the world changes over the coming years, Makeshift might be at the forefront of a global movement that will reshape our appreciation for repurposing and recycling.