Thousands of independent inventors, with one blind spot

Recently, I was lucky enough to visit the Maker Faire Rome. With over 110,000 participants, Europe’s largest meeting for citizens who want to make innovative new things. Thousands of independent inventors showed their ideas to thousands more wannabe inventors. On one of the days access was exclusively for children, to inspire the next generation of inventors. Altogether, very fascinating!

It occurred to me that there was a lot of undiscovered talent there in the huge hangars, just outside the Italian capital city. There was no shortage of scintillating ideas. Many of them made use of the newest technologies for making prototypes, to which large organisations no long have sole access: 3D printers, lasers that melt powder in highly accurate forms, or that cut out shapes from all sorts of materials. And mini-computers, such as Arduino, that control many inventions and instil them with smart characteristics.

Whilst walking around, I chatted to a couple who had developed a smart city solution for car sharing. The system registers who uses which car and the costs are automatically settled. A pilot in Cagliari is well on its way. I ate “food of the future”, where algae and insects were incorporated into a range of surprisingly edible foods. There was a design for a computer with unlimited computational power, a hyper-efficient electromotor, drones to measure air quality, an enormous printer to squeeze mud and straw into the shape of houses, all sorts of robots and much, much more.

Maker Faire Rome 2016

Professor Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and one of the creators of the Fab Lab concept, awarded the main prize to a couple of students. Francesco Pezzuoli and Dario Corona had invented a smart glove that registers sign language movements and translates them, via a smartphone, into speech. This can reduce the gap between those with hearing impairments and the rest of the population.

So why did I have the feeling that all this talent was, as yet, undiscovered? To begin with: it seems that the makers themselves do not fully realize that – besides having a brilliant idea – a lot more is needed to bring a desirable and successful product to market. They seem to be preoccupied with their own technical solution. But I found many of their answers to my questions regarding their business plans to be weak. Because of this, I fear that many encouraging projects will fail unnecessarily.

Most makers subscribe to the ideas behind the open source movement and most ideas are directly related to creating a better world, for disadvantaged people, for the environment or in other ways. They have an allergy to being “commercial”. Commendable perhaps? But, at the same time it is somewhat strange: Because makers also crave financial stability and a healthy future perspective for their brainchildren.

Maker Faire Rome 2016

The thing that occurred to me above all, was that the visitors to the stands were hardly encouraged to contribute at all. Those guests walked around full of interest, with their own opinions, judgments and additional ideas. I saw them being quite impressed with the various projects and they enjoyed discussing things with the makers. But, the other way around, the technically oriented makers seemed to have a blind spot for the potential contribution of the visitors. After seeing what a project was all about, the visitors generally just walked away without there being any lasting connection. Unless they remember to go online once they get home and search out the maker projects they liked the best.

I believe that the interested public can do much more than just listen: they can sign up to take part as guinea pigs for prototypes and pilot tests. They can share their ideas for application areas and user situations. They can offer their experience and knowledge of, for example, marketing and commercialization.

Apart from some notable exceptions, most maker projects do not achieve large scale penetration in practice. For some, that is not the intention. Other ideas may just not be good enough. But I believe that too often this is because the makers try and do everything themselves. Whilst their strength often lies in the technology and not in other equally important areas. Why do they not endeavour to build a community around their project from the well-intentioned visitors to their stands? Why do they not see the benefit of increasing the reservoir of available knowledge and talent which they could make use of in making their project sustainably successful?

Maker Faire Rome 2016

All in all, the vibrant Maker Faire Rome showed me something highly encouraging: Through access to advanced production technologies an enormous potential for innovation is being awakened within the citizen population. Should large-scale production firms, such as those making consumer electronics, consumables and chemical products, fear a new wave of competition? Well, I actually see the makers as representing a new opportunity for these firms. New forms of collaboration between incumbents and these hobbyists and free spirits have not been well explored. By understanding the makers’ motivations and by offering them resources, new win-win situations could regularly be achieved.

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