The more technology rules our lives, the more our worlds blur. Thanks to smartphones, tablets, cloud services, 3D printing, etc. the walls between the workplace and our personal lives are melting. While at work, we address personal email and buy holiday gifts. At home on a Saturday, we respond to work email and research a new software purchase for work. Somewhere in between we find the time to tenaciously tinker in our garages and remember what it’s like to explore science and technology for the pure fun of it. Why not bring our garage creations and maker mindsets to the workplace?
When I’m not working as a business and technology consultant, I’m in my garage toiling away on anything from a Halloween prop popping out of garbage can to delight my sons to a backyard catapult to launch tennis balls and now, thanks to MAKE 36, putting my refrigerator on the web. I know I’m just one of millions out there intrigued with problem solving using tinkering and technology. Connecting this at-home creativity with the desperate need for innovative ideas and innovators at work, however, is a major-league opportunity.
Ever since I read the first issue of MAKE magazine, I’ve thought about the intriguing roles makers can play in the workplace. In that edition, one author wrote about taking aerial photos using a hacked kite. If you’re a retail executive, what could you learn from aerial photos of the patterns of cars in a shopping center parking lot? What about an insurance company studying areas hit by a natural disaster? Yes, aerial photos exist but they are expensive and take time to mobilize. Makers know how to make big things happen with little risk and low cost.
What about all the energy buzzing in the maker and emerging technology communities around microprocessor prototyping – Arduino and Raspberry Pi are two – and the vast number of sensors you can connect to them? Why not add some sensors to a product you sell or a device you use everyday at work and see what you can learn about how, when, where and for how long it’s used? I think the makers could be the ones to bring the Internet of Things into the spotlight.
Capitalizing on the Maker Mindset
I know from personal experience that most of the time corporations don’t realize all they can do with the technology that is available in the marketplace and how easily they can make things happen. Makers have their ears to the ground and their eyes in the skies and have a sense for what is coming next. They are ideal candidates to infuse the workplace with make-it-happen enthusiasm. What makes makers magical is their ability to make connections between disparate technologies to fully exploit the range of possibilities. In other words, makers don’t have to invent from scratch. Inherent in the maker mindset is the ability to cobble together various technologies to solve real world problems.
As an example of combining existing technologies in new ways, consider auto engineer Mike Lemp, who in 1995 decided to do something about the complexity surrounding stargazing. He set out to solve two problems. First, he wanted to pinpoint specific stars. He also wanted to get answers to questions such as “Where is Saturn right now?”
Mike invented an amazing gadget called SkyScout using his knowledge of sensors gained from working on airbags. It uses GPS technology to determine your location and an accelerometer and compass to determine the device’s orientation in three dimensions. Once it locks in its location, you center it on a star, hit a button and the display will tell you what it is and present background information on it. If you want to identify a particular planet or galaxy, find it in the display and red LED arrows in the viewfinder will light the way.
Mike has a maker mindset. First, he was inspired to solve a real-world, every-night problem. Second, he mashed up a handful of off-the-shelf sensors – an accelerometer, compass and GPS – a small CPU, display, some basic software and publicly available astronomical information. His genius was combining and transforming available components to change how we see the world. Stargazing apps are now common on smartphones and tablets, which happen to contain these sensors out of the box. But, this invention was way ahead of its time.
I wonder if the automotive manufacturer that he worked for knew that he was a maker in his spare time. How can we figure out who these people are and get them in the “right” roles to tap into this?
As a maker, do you feel like you get the opportunity to express your creativity in the workplace? Do your co-workers know you’re a maker? Do they realize the skills, inventiveness and information you could bring from the garage to the glass office? Have you longed for the opportunity to apply your imagination and inspiration in the workplace? Or, are you a senior executive who could tap the makers among you to solve vexing business problems and to seize opportunities?
As our work and personal lives merge and technology is embedded into every aspect of our lives, now is an ideal time for corporations and makers to come together. Business executives could benefit from identifying the makers in their midst and inviting those employees with a passion for creative problem solving to apply their mad genius to business opportunities.
If you’re a maker by night and an employee by day, I suggest you find the other makers in the workplace around you and start to internally market your maker talents. Maybe organize a brown bag lunch where you share your designs and discuss how they might be applied in your workplace.
Please share your experiences in the comments below. How do your merge making with your “real” job?
Chris Curran is Chief Technologist for PwC and a maker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.