OnQ Blog

Invention is in our DNA; it’s about time we got back to it

Aug 4, 2015

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Dale Dougherty is Founder and Executive Chairman of Maker Media, founding editor and publisher of Make: magazine, co-creator of Maker Faire, and the co-founder of O’Reilly Media. In 2011, he was honored as a “Champion of Change” by the White House for helping fellow citizens “meet the challenges of the 21st century.” The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.

To the average person, the term “maker” might imply someone who is just a little bit crazy. We might call them “creative” or “eccentric,” just to be nice. Yet, it is the craziness of inventors, scientists, and designers that drives us forward, breeds new industries, and offers to improve the way we live. They see the world a little differently, and they do something because of that vision. Today, we’re in the midst of a rebirth of this ideal, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Industrial Revolution.

It couldn’t have come soon enough.

Consumer culture has a tendency to undermine something fundamental to our nature: The desire to grab things with our hands, to tinker, to fix the broken water heater, to modify our cars into hotrods. Rather than solve problems on our own, as has been the historic tack of middle-class America, we sit back and let companies find and solve our problems for us. We value a “seamless experience,” where there’s no friction and no need to get our hands dirty.

This hands-off mindset raises a tough question: Do we want to once again become a country of people who make things? Historically, manufacturing has been the ultimate source of middle-class jobs in America. Yet, can you remember the last time a kid looked at you and said they wanted to work in manufacturing when he or she grows up?

Part of the reason for this divide is that the direct link between us and the means of production has eroded, which means we must work together to find ways to revive it—to restore the cyclical relationship inventors should strive to have with their communities. Invent, refine, produce, sell, improve, repeat. This work is first and foremost about awareness (showing people of all ages the myriad tools at their disposal) and participation (creating environments for people to experiment and invent).

At the turn of the 20th century, making was mechanical—engines, gears, and steel. Today, it’s also about code, servos, rapid prototyping, and logic boards. Makers are the people who stand up, grab a tool box, a 3D printer, an Arduino, or a Raspberry Pi and say “I can solve this. I can do this better.” The means to invent and create are more accessible and attainable than they’ve ever been.

In many cases, these crazy solutions pave the way for products. Think of the DIY doorbell camera making the rounds on Instructables or some other online community, perhaps our own MakerSpace, a few years back. Now think of the Ring or the SkyBell, both products now available for purchase based on the same ideas and mechanisms. Think of hacked-together strings of devices, perhaps an Arduino that alerts you when the mail arrives. Now think of the whole community of If This Then That (IFTTT) users, who’ve created recipes that will allow that very thing to work, and of all the commercial products from companies like Belkin WeMo and Dropcam that work with that very same language.

Long story short: Invention and DIY are making their way back into the mainstream.

The first generation of young makers, those who might have attended the inaugural Maker Faire in 2006, are now young adults. They, like all makers, represent a return to the creative spirit that’s inherent in all of us. They’re taking the skills and lessons they learned—how to solve problems, to create from scratch, to adapt something that exists into something new—and applying them in everyday life. Have a great idea? Why wait for someone else to make for you what you can make yourself?

We’ve seen this type of young ingenuity in the maker community from the very beginning. Take early Maker Faire attendee Andrew Archer, for example. By 22, he was the head of his own company, Robotics Redefined, which builds ‘bots for automotive factories and other warehouse settings.

Entrepreneurship has always been a key facet of the maker movement, even if by accident. Someone asks a maker who’s displaying a project at Maker Faire whether it’s available for sale, and a light bulb goes off. “If I can produce more of these, I can sell them.” It’s perhaps the purest way to start a business, deriving a living from something they enjoy, something they believe can do good in the world.

Today there’s a growing infrastructure to support these fledgling companies. Makers can use Kickstarter or Indiegogo for quick funding, Maker’s Row to find manufacturing, and makerspaces like TechShop for prototyping. And we launched the MakerCon conference to give these entrepreneurs a stage where they could go to get venture capitalists excited about hardware in a software-dominated world. As in software, hardware makers will find success in niche markets, those perhaps deemed small potatoes by the tech giants of the world. In these arenas, the risks are smaller, but the rewards much higher.

The value of a tightly knit web of makers, investors, and manufacturers is nowhere more apparent than in Shenzhen, China. As evidenced by the success of Maker Faires there and elsewhere in the region, design and manufacturing work hand in hand. Manufacturers like Foxconn and PCH, both Maker Faire sponsors, may be enablers for a new wave of innovation, providing a clear pipeline for bringing new products to market.

That type of symbiosis is the ultimate goal of our new industrial age. Together, a small group of makers has created the backbone of a sustainable and repeatable development cycle. From these few, who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, the entire community will find new means to thrive.

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