Written by Margaret Heffernan
Technology is cheaper than ever, and advice easier than ever to get, so people are innovating all the time, every day. This could transform how you treat employees.
Mubarak Abdullahi made his living in Nigeria repairing cell phones and computers. But he’s also built a functioning helicopter, using spare parts and a 133-hp engine salvaged from a Honda Civic.
In Qiling, China, Zhang Wuyi made his own submarine, which reaches a depth of 20 meters, and can travel for up to 10 hours.
Meanwhile in Rhode Island, a school teacher, Ross McCurdy, has worked with his students to rebuild a 1923 Model-T Ford, which now runs on a hydrogen fuel cell; it is so clean, say McCurdy, you can drink the emissions.
What these examples–and hundreds more like them–have in common is that they’re representative of the “maker movement” 0r, given its lack of organization, the maker “moment.” Either way, it derives from the fact that technology is cheaper and easier to use than ever, while help, input, and advice is easier to find than ever. Put those two elements together, alongside impatience with traditional institutions, and you have a great deal of innovation.
Through Instructables you can benefit from the experience of other inventors. With Arduino, you can learn to build your own computer. At Open Materials, you can learn about how to make smart materials, like magnetic paint that’s stronger than the rather feeble offerings currently on the market. If you join TechShop, you don’t just get to glean from experience and expertise; together with mentoring and advice from engineers that like to help out, you get access to any of the machines you might need to create your bright idea.
Applying an open source mentality to anything–from biotech to helicopters–creates the opportunity for anyone, whatever her background or credentials, to learn and become proficient in any technology. The willingness to share and to learn are what have fuelled this movement, and it’s clear from sites like www.maker.com or www.mkshft.org that it’s liberating an immense amount of individual creativity around the world.
Hackers, makers, tweakers, hobbyists: the growing band of people prepared to wade into technologies while they learn about them grows bigger by the day. Should you ignore them because they’re unprofessional, deride them because they’re hobbyists, or fear them because they’re potential competitors? I think we’d all do better to embrace them on the grounds that people who understand how products work appreciate them when they’re great. That sets the bar higher for all of us. It means that new products that are just okay now face the challenge of being improved or reinvented by customers you’ve never met–or may never meet.
So here’s my question: If people are so creative in their own time with their own money, why is it so hard to build and sustain such levels of creativity at work? If the maker moment represents a challenge to do better–more fun, innovative, imaginative, and open–work, how can we embrace that, instead of trying to suppress it? If you viewed every employee as a potential maker, how might you treat them differently?
About Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2011, she published her third book, Willful Blindness. @M_Heffernan