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Departed from France three years ago, Low-tech Lab’s dedicated catamaran is touring the world in search of frugal innovation. In Taiwan, the crew met the local maker movement and those advocating more sober, citizen uses of digital media.
Chronicler in residence (words and photos)
After a weeklong journey from the Philippines, the Nomade des Mers dropped anchor in Taiwan’s capital of Taipei. For the past three years, with engineer Corentin de Chatelperron at the helm, the catamaran and its rotating crew of volunteers have been doing a world tour of low-tech innovations—frugal and resilient technologies that respond to humanity’s basic needs, such as access to water, energy or healthy food. All these local inventions are duly documented by Low-tech Lab and made available in open source for free and universal access.
“This stop was somewhat paradoxal for us,” says Corentin. “Taiwan is a world center for electronics with industry giants such as HTC, Asus and Acer. It’s a very high-tech country, but we thought it was precisely here that we should look for ways to make electronics more sustainable. So far, according to our three criteria for measuring the level of low-tech (useful/accessible/durable), digital media doesn’t score very high, in addition to being a major source of pollution and waste of natural resources. But it’s also an essential tool for communicating and sharing knowledge on a global scale. To go without it would radically change our lives. We could always go back to the sextant and paper maps on the boat, but our mission to find and share good technologies would no longer be possible without the Internet.”
This stop is also a chance for the crew to discover a bit of Chinese culture. “We would have liked to visit mainland China too,” says Corentin. “As the rising power of the 21st century, it’s a shame to do a world tour and go right past it, but the authorizations are impossible because of all the plants and animals we have on board.”
The crew has several missions to improve the boat during this stopover. First, design an automatic monitoring system for the hydroponic greenhouse growing in the cabin, which is suffering from the tropical island heat. Next, build the most basic, user-friendly computer possible in order to access the Internet on board. Finally, modify a folding bicycle so that it can charge a smartphone while moving.
But all this requires components. Fortunately, Taipei has one of the biggest electronics markets in the world. Right downtown, across from the National Taipei University of Technology, amidst a cyberpunk cityscape of neon lights and giant screens, stands a six-story shopping center surrounded by dozens of shops selling the latest smartphones, gaming graphics engines and LED strips by the meter.
And it’s just the tip of the iceberg, as going down what looks like a subway entrance leads to an entire underground multi-level mall of more or less specialized shops—a maker’s paradise! Each shop is stacked from floor to ceiling with components, lined up on meters of shelves in small boxes or bags. Looking up, we see solar panels and forests of multicolored cables.
Corentin quickly finds what he came for: small modules costing a few euros that convert the current without having to do painful calculations in resistance; other modules that open the relay or recharge used lithium batteries; and above all, an Arduino microcontroller board and a Raspberry Pi microcomputer.
Back on the boat, I end up in charge of remote-controlling the greenhouse. Panic! My only experience with Arduino is limited to YouTube tutorials for building droids, where I tended to skip the boring part on the code… Luckily, I brought along a beginner’s manual, so after a few hours and a lot less hair—plus some help from Corentin to cut unnecessary lines of code—I had a working prototype!
Screwed onto a wooden plank, the Arduino board is flanked by two batteries, the relay and various modules to adjust the current, plus a terminal to power the pumps. When the temperature rises above 30°C, the heat sensor sends a signal to the Arduino to turn on the fan. Every 15 minutes, the system powers either two water pumps to irrigate the hydroponic cultures, a bubbler for the spirulina or two lithium battery cells—all solar-powered and autonomous, of course!
Corentin works on the Raspberry Pi with help from Gia, a French-Taiwanese maker who discovered the microcomputer two years ago, and has since built a game console and soon a robot. On the backside of the plank that holds the Arduino, they attach the Raspberry Pi. Corentin says, “We chose the Zero W model, which is the size of a stick of gum and only costs $10, but it has Wifi and Bluetooth.”
“This is the first time I’ve tinkered with a Raspberry Pi, and it’s pretty impressive,” says Corentin. “All you have to do is copy-paste the program onto the SD card, plug in a monitor and you have a PC! All for just a few euros and very little electricity.” The newly christened microcomputer will be used to consult nautical maps—as long as it can resist corrosion from the sea air, which completely destroyed an Arduino board forgotten under the workbench.
To avoid this, Corentin uses a technique tested a few weeks ago for the solar lamp: thermoforming plastic bottles. The plank becomes a drawer inside a wooden box, while he melts a plastic water bottle around it for protection. The result is a classy low-tech computer, complete with an outlet to charge your phone once you unscrew the cap of the ex-bottle!
To convert the bicycle, the crew ventures out to meet OpenLab (which Makery visited a couple years ago). Founded in 2010, it was Taiwan’s first makerspace, established on top of a hill in the former military barracks of Treasure Hill, now resettled into an artist village.
Treasure Hill and maker pirates
Honki, one of the founders of OpenLab, welcomes us inside. The tiny space is filled with all sorts of machines and inventions at various stages of development. In the hallway, a group of students tests a model airplane made of balsa wood and plastic weighing only 2 grams. A small rubber band spins the propeller, allowing the aircraft to fly several meters, maybe even beat a Guinness World Record. On a table, circuit boards featuring the silhouette of the island bark “Taiwan, number one!” when you press a button. “It annoys mainland Chinese,” Honki laughs.
“One might think that Taiwan is a capital of makers, but it’s not the case,” says Honki, referring to the relatively cramped space. “In reality, the movement is having a hard time taking off within the Chinese world. It’s a bit more present in Taiwan or Hong Kong than in Singapore or Macau, because they’re democratic countries where there are more ‘weird’ people. But globally, the Chinese mentality is ‘Are you going to make a profit?’ When I was little I loved tinkering, but for my parents it was a waste of time. Nowadays students lead maker projects, but only to get grants, then they stop. There still isn’t a culture of the gratuitous and disinterested act.”
To support the projects, the workshop has an enormous stock of recycled spare parts, meticulously organized in drawers—a true source of pride for the members. Johnny finds a small printer motor, which he starts to convert into a dynamo for the bicycle. The 75-year-old Australian knows what he’s doing. He cofounded an eco-village and planted a jungle where there was nothing but desert, in Auroville, India in the 1970s. He has been living and building low-tech machines there ever since, when he’s not traveling with Corentin.
But making the motor spin backwards is not enough to produce electricity and charge the phone. It produces an alternative current with a very high tension. After soldering a few components, Johnny and Corentin install a diode bridge and a USB module to stabilize the current at 5V. A small plastic box protects the components from the rain, and a wheel in contact with the bicycle tire powers the whole package.
The three projects are finally accomplished. The tutorials are in progress, and a team from the TV channel Arte even filmed their making-of for the next season of the documentary series. Time for a break, where the team took a two-day hike on the volcano that overlooks the city, before heading back out to sea.
“We should have stayed two months longer, because we’ve only just discovered the world of low-tech electronics,” says Corentin. “I’d like to go further with the low-tech computer, the possibilities of Arduino, local online networks, recycling electronic waste, sourcing more ‘fair’ and eco-friendly components… I also really want to build my own phone with a Raspberry Pi and a touch screen!”
Already further adventures await the Nomade des Mers in Japan with a stop dedicated to micro-organisms (bokashi compost, lactofermentation…) and a minimalist lifestyle. But I’m flying back to France, before exploring more feral labs this summer!
More information on the Nomade des Mers
Jean-Jacques Valette is chronicler-in-residence of the Feral Labs Network supported by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.