MakePhilly brings geeks and artists together to create

Words like “nanotechnology” and “BEAM robotics” are abstract concepts for many people. We know such things exist, but don’t think they can apply to our lifestyles. We leave the creative possibilities of technology to scientists

Words like “nanotechnology” and “BEAM robotics” are abstract concepts for many people. We know such things exist, but don’t think they can apply to our lifestyles.

We leave the creative possibilities of technology to scientists and engineers who are trained to understand them.But brace yourselves for a radical notion: what if regular, everyday people used technology for fun?

MakePhilly, a grassroots organization in Philadelphia, does just this. At meetings, members share personal projects, teach others new techniques and use technology to build crafts. Members take recycled materials and have competitions to create that meeting’s “Maker Challenge.” Past projects include water rockets, a miniature golf course, solar-powered robots and musical instruments.

Founder Harris Romanoff and co-founder Josh Kope stress the informal nature of the meetings.

“Organization is too formal a term for us,” Romanoff said. “We’re just a group of creative folks.”

“It’s very much organized chaos,” Kopel said.

Romanoff was inspired by Make, a do-it-yourself technology magazine. While MakePhilly was inspired by Make, the duo has no affiliation with the publication.The big event for MakePhilly is the annual Art Buggy Derby held in the spring. It’s a citywide competition in which participants build buggies, or anything that moves by pull or push, and race them against other contestants.

Pretty simple, right? Well, there’s a catch. While racing, the buggy needs to create something or be different in some way from when it started the race. It can be anything from a painting to a rearrangement of objects in the buggy.

“It’s just combining art and technology in a very different way,” Romanoff said.

MakePhilly holds meetings every six to eight weeks. Meeting locations
vary from local bars and businesses
to the University of the Arts, where the next meeting will be held.

“We’re very nomadic,” Romanoff said.The meetings themselves, though loose in structure, have three basic parts. They usually begin with what is called an “Open Make.” During this time, group members can show off or exchange advice on their individual projects. Next, they have a guest speaker from either inside or outside the group give a presentation, which usually lasts about 20 minutes. In the past, presentations included such topics as nanotechnology and brazing.

Finally, there is the Maker Challenge, which lasts for about 45 minutes. People break up into groups and build.

Sometimes it’s a competition and other
times the project is simply fun and educational.

The great thing about MakePhilly is that it brings people together who don’t necessarily share the same background or experiences, Romanoff said.

“We have people who range from Ph.D.’s to high school students. In fact, our two youngest members are in elementary school,” Romanoff said.

“I’d say about two-thirds of the group are professionals – designers, engineers, people working in art or architecture,” Romanoff said. “But the other third is made up of college and high school students, and other people who don’t do this type of thing at a professional level.”

The group runs on donations from members and various businesses. No money is spent on formal advertising, so the group relies mostly on word of mouth for publicity.

Romanoff posted on Craigslist, and the group’s first meeting in February 2006 drew 16 people. MakePhilly has since grown to 135 members and each meeting gets about 25 people.

A goal for the upcoming year is to secure a permanent home for the group, Romanoff said. He says he hopes such a home could eventually be used for other purposes as well.

“I’d like to facilitate access to tools, create a kind of studio collective where people could work and we could hold classes,” Romanoff said.

MakePhilly’s next meeting will be held 3 p.m. Sept. 9 in Anderson Hall at the University of the Arts. It will include a presentation from a UArts professor on eye-tracking and the Maker Challenge involves marbles.

Mary Elizabeth Coyle can be reached at

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