Creativity is fundamental to being human; it sets our species apart from most others and yet it isn’t easily assigned to any specific area of the brain. There is something about how the human brain functions that allow creative and abstract thought. It is so fundamental that, without this ability, we may not have evolved beyond simple bipeds.
Given that creativity is an innate ability within all people, it isn’t surprising that with the right tools we can make wondrous things. Access to those tools improves with every generation, a compound effect that results in exponential leaps.
Consider YouTube, for example. It is a community of Makers whose chosen medium is video. How many YouTubers went to university to study media? How many have spent years working in the broadcast industry? And how many have completed hours of drama schooling? The answer is probably very few, on all accounts, yet the results of their labours are clearly good enough to in one way or another to attract millions of views.
Human ingenuity has created the technology that enables both the platform and the content, but it is human creativity that provides that little something extra. Nobody really knows how creativity works at a cellular level, researchers have tried and failed to detect the part of the brain most likely responsible for creativity, but it is clearly a tangible quality we all possess. The Makers of this world successfully mix creativity with the knowledge to produce something that simply didn’t exist before, and every time it happens it is just as amazing as the first.
The rise of open source hardware and software has helped accelerate this process, while online communities supporting the Maker movement have added the commercial synergy needed. This gives Makers access to the technology they use to realise their vision and goes far beyond what we may normally call an ecosystem. It has reached a level of activity that rivals many fully commercial enterprises and is beginning to be recognised as something more significant than hobbyists working in their shed at the weekend.
The next big thing is in you!
There is every expectation that the next big scientific breakthrough could come from a Maker, but just as creativity remains an elusive but tangible property, Makers are also difficult to define. Does it exclude anyone with a professional interest in science and technology? Should it be restricted to those who have had no formal training in either, or can we apply it as liberally as, say, an artist? Art is subjective and has very few boundaries, those that do exist will be challenged as soon as they are recognised, the same could be said about Makers. Tell someone it can’t be done and they will try twice as hard to prove you wrong, and often those who succeed are the ones that don’t know they are likely to fail.
Perhaps that is the discernible difference between a Maker and a professional engineer; the former learns through failure while the latter is afraid to fail. This is extremely liberating for engineers who would like nothing more than to try, try and try again.
We have arguably reached a stage now where Makers are really R&D engineers working in a new field, without the commercial pressures of deadline, budgets and customers. Of course, many Maker projects now successfully transition to commercial products thanks in part to online crowdsourcing platforms, which typically charge a commission on funds raised but provide a valuable route to market for Makers. Companies that practice ‘intrepreneurship’, allowing employees to pursue Maker-style ideas that may become viable products for the company, stand to benefit greatly from the freedom that extends to their in-house talent.
The Maker movement is now so important to commercial companies that they are willing to put significant resources into enabling it. This includes 4D Systems, which now has a site dedicated to Makers (www.4dmakers.net) where people can meet, create, share and discuss their ideas, and make them a reality.
The secret source
It is unlikely that the Maker movement in electronics would thrive if it wasn’t for open source hardware and software. With community-led projects such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino, industry-led platforms like BeagleBoard, and software communities such as Linux, the building blocks are all there. As the level of abstraction from the ‘nuts and bolts’ of technology increases, it not only opens them up to more Makers with fewer skills, but it gives those that do have the skills a solid platform from which to start. This is where they add their own secret source that makes an off-the-shelf board into a bespoke solution.
It is becoming more relevant and more important to consider what happens next; open source platforms provide a trampoline for ideas but they can also be used for mainstream production volumes, at least up to a point. More commercial companies are willing to engage with Makers in low-volume projects at an early stage, providing valuable support and expertise in order to help individuals achieve their goals. This can be seen as ‘paying it forward’ by some or simply as good community spirit by others.
One thing is certain, it’s never been easier to take a ‘back of an envelope’ idea and turn it into something real.