For Limor Fried, a hardware hacker and leader in the booming maker and do-it-yourself movements, there was never a question of waiting for someone else to jump in and do a better job of inspiring girls than Lego has done with its widely-panned Lego Friends set.
The product was featured on the cover of Bloomberg Business Week last year and drew worldwide attention as the global toy company's first major attempt at showcasing girls in a new set. Still, many Lego fans were upset that the company had focused on well-worn stereotypes and had ignored the modern reality that girls can do pretty much anything they want, whether or not there's pink or purple involved.
For Fried, who runs open-source hardware developer Adafruit Industries, it sounded like it was time for a little culture hacking.
This week, Fried and business partner Phillip Torrone unveiled Ladyada's Workshop, a Lego set they designed that features Ladyada (Fried's hacker alter ego, wearing her work outfit) in her comfort zone: a workshop with a pick-and-place machine, a laser cutter, a sewing machine, a soldering station, a computer, a microscope, and shelves of parts and packages. And for good measure, her cat, Mosfet, looks on admiringly.
You might think that this is pure folly, but Fried is banking on succeeding at one of Lego's recent initiatives. Known as Lego Cuusoo, it can commit the toymaker to manufacturing any community-created set that gets 10,000 votes on its Web site. As the Lego Cuusoo site puts it, "Have an Idea? Create a Project, share your product concept, and see what other people think....Projects with 10,000 supporters are reviewed quarterly by Lego for a chance to become an official Lego product."
In April of last year, Fried was on the cover of "Wired" magazine's DIY issue. An MIT Media Lab alum, she runs Adafruit Industries, a leading open-source hardware developer, and was a keynote speaker at the recent Hardware Innovation Workshop. In other words, her geek cred is off the charts, so getting 10,000 votes for the project is likely a no-brainer.
"After I saw the controversies around 'Lego for girls,' I thought about what type of Lego set I would have enjoyed as a kid, and thought about one I would have liked to imagine myself in as young maker," Fried told CNET. "So instead of complaining about the current state of play sets which aren't quite inspiring for young girls who may want to be engineers, we worked with (Lego artist Bruce Lowell) to make a workshop like the one I have here at Adafruit. I do this for a living each day and I think it's important that kids can actually see someone in real-life that is doing engineering so they can imagine themselves doing this too."
That's a sentiment that others who have been critical of Lego Friends can certainly agree with.
After the controversy began, a pro-girls organization called Spark a Movement wrote an open letter to Lego, airing its disappointment at the company's portrayal of girls.
"We represent the girls, the parents, the children, the fans, the hobbyists, the collectors, the friends, the big sisters and brothers, the grandparents, and your future," the letter read. "And we are very disappointed. We used to believe in you. You used to create and market toys in line with your published mission to 'inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.' We bought your blocks to build magical fortresses, castles, space ships, and fantasylands. We trusted you. Until last month, when you sold out our girls and started to blow away their future with little yellow, plastic hair dryers."
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Spark a Movement sent that letter, along with an online petition that eventually had more than 56,000 signatories, to Lego, demanding that the company "stop selling out girls."
Now, Dana Edell, executive director of Spark a Movement, said that the Ladyada's Workshop project is "exactly what we were advocating in our petition, that Lego should create Lego sets where girls are active, are engineers, and leaders, and not playing stereotypical girl roles."
And it's not just women who feel that way. Told about the concept for Ladyada's Workshop, Alex Ignatovsky, a San Jose, Calif., parent of a 4-year-old daughter (and a 7-year old-son) who had been disappointed with the Lego Friends line, applauded the notion.
"That's perfect, because it shows an active, engaged girl, not just one hanging out at home," Ignatovsky said of Fried's proposed set. "It's nice to empower girls. Even though we tell them every day that you can be anything you want to be, and do anything you want to do...it's nice to get an extra validation from the outside world."
For her part, Edell said that after sending the Spark a Movement letter and petition, Lego got in touch and set up a meeting where she and several of her colleagues got a chance to air their grievances before three top Lego executives. Edell said that she came away feeling listened to and that they'd had a "great conversation."
As for Fried, coming up with the Ladyada's Workshop idea was a chance to perhaps inspire girls and show them that there's a potential life waiting for them beyond the Lego Friends stereotypes so many people have objected to. And if 10,000 people go to Lego's site to vote for the project, she might actually pull it off.
Edell is certainly hopeful that that's the case. She explained that when the Spark a Movement team was meeting with Lego, they argued that as the toy giant expanded Heartlake City -- the mythical world where the Lego Friends characters live -- there should be a female mayor, or a female firefighter. "Maybe [Fried's] girl hacker [will end up being] a part of Heartlake City."
Update (1:03 p.m. PT): Lego has approved the Ladyada's Workshop project, and people can now vote for it.