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How to Create 7 Billion Educated and Empowered Innovators

Colin Powell has an inspiring list of management tips, and one of my favorites is: "hire people who can see around corners". While trying to "look around the corner" myself a while back, something interesting occurred to me... But first some background.

About ten years ago, four phenomena came together to empower people like never before. These are:

  • Free Information - if you have access to the web and a device with which to browse it, you can now learn nearly anything, for free (YouTube, Konoz, MOOCs, Wikis)

  • Free design tools - thanks to the open-source and free software movements, you can download powerful, useful, legally free software design tools (need to create 2D vectors for graphic art, or for laser cutting? Try Inkscape. Need 3D designs for 3D printing, CNC machining? Try Sketchup or Sculptris. Video animation: Blender. Circuit design: 123D Circuits. Desktop publishing: Open Office. And much more...)

  • Digital Prototyping Machines - now you don't need to apprentice for years before you can make something that someone else will value (a retailer, a lender, an investor), thanks to affordable and approachable 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC machines. You simply need to craft the digital input file to feed to those machines, which you can create with free design tools (see above) that you can learn to use for free from YouTube and the like (see how this is tying together?) And the nice thing about "digital" sculpting, is that if you screw up, you just "undo" and try again!

  • Crowdfunding - innovations in financing like crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and others) mean that you don't need to sell a large chunk of your business to investors, or get in bed with a bank, or mortgage your house, or beg, borrow, and steal, in order to fund your project or your business. Now, if you have a good idea and a camera on your phone, you can create a short, inspiring, educational video, push it to the web, and if the world finds value in it, they'll fund you. Billions have been raised this way in the last few years. It's also a great way to fund projects that are more socially entrepreneurial than classically market-driven. I have been heartened to learn that the world does in fact seem to reward good ideas in this regard. :-)

Definition of Maker Movement

I define the Maker Movement as the intersection of these four phenomena

​So, after I learned that if you have access to the web, you can learn nearly anything, design nearly anything, and fund nearly anything, it occurred to me that the biggest remaining bottlenecks to taking an idea out of your head and holding it in your hand were access to tools and a supportive community of friendly and talented people to help you through the process at least once. That's what gave me the confidence to start a community workshop; that's the heart of the Idea Foundry.

And almost immediately after opening in 2008 (see Origin Story, here), we were introduced to one of our favorite examples of people's lives being improved by access to shared tools. One of our very first members at the Idea Foundry was the "OneLab Initiative", - a collaborative of socially responsible design engineers who wanted to use their talents to help people. (For a blast-from-the-past, check out their blog post about discovering the Idea Foundry, and making it their new home). The OneLab folks found a group of farmers in Mali who were using an ancient mortar-and-pestle technique to process pearl millet. This technique crushes (damages) most of their grain, and they only get about a 30% yield on their crop. Reade Harpham of OneLab presented a TEDxColumbus talk on the prototype "thresher" they designed, which doubled and even tripled the crop yield of the Malawi farmers... So here you have an example of people in one part of the world communicating their need; socially compassionate technologists/designers in another part of the world designing a solution; a community workshop providing the tools to build it; the US Department of Agriculture offering a grant to One Lab to trial their prototype in Mali; and people's lives significantly changed for the better. Fascinating and gratifying.

OneLab trialing their prototype thresher

OneLab trialing their prototype thresher (built at the Idea Foundry) in Mali, to great effect

Reade Harpham's TEDxColumbus 2009 talk on the game-changing

thresher they built for Malawi farmers

Jump forward a few years to 2014, when Columbus, OH was in the running once again for the most Intelligent City of the Year. The judging committee for the Intelligent Cities Forum (which grants the award) came to Columbus and visited the Idea Foundry. Afterwards, the city invited me to go to Manhattan to present the "Cultural Heritage Presentation" on Columbus' behalf. (Incidentally, when the Intelligent Cities Forum - ICF - saw the sign for the Columbus Idea Foundry - CIF - hanging in our shop, and explained how much they liked it, the city of Columbus commissioned us to build them one. That will be a different blog post. :-) A few images below nonetheless...

Pics of our CIF sign, and the sign we made for the Intelligent Cities Forum

At any rate - when I was in NYC, I had the chance to meet Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of DataWind and the keynote speaker for the ICF forum. A few years ago, it occurred to him that "developed" nations were creating smart phones with more and more power, but at the same ~$900 pricepoint. Mr. Tuli pointed out that in India, the average disposable income for a family in a month was $35. Thus, it was highly unlikely that a family would ever afford a smart phone, which would otherwise be a great way to access the information and resources of the internet (which, as pointed out above, can be empowering in a game-changing way). Thus, he set about designing a smart phone that cost $35, so the average Indian family could afford one.

Mr. Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of DataWind, that created a $35 tablet computer

Mr. Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of DataWind, that created a $35 tablet computer

Mr. Tuli got close, at a pricepoint of $70 per phone. However, the state of India was so impressed with his efforts, his product, and its potential, that they decided to subsidize half the cost of each phone for every student in India over the next 5 years (many millions of people!) thereby getting to that $35/smartphone goal. The product was originally called the Aakash, and is now commercially available as the Ubislate. They're tablets intended for the millions of students who can't even afford textbooks, and I think it's a harbinger of new tech that will empower a generation of people who may otherwise never have had access to the internet and everything that entails. I'm extremely excited by the fact that nations, communities, and now even single individuals have the ability to create products that fit their need, even if there is no real market drive for it. This means that people will be creating and buying products because they serve a socially forward purpose, not just because a middleperson is making a margin on its way to the shelves at retailers. (Not that there's anything wrong with that - just that there is little incentive given that paradigm to create products that help people yet which don't make a lot of money).

Students displaying their Aakash Tablets

Students displaying their Aakash Tablets

So now a cheap device exists that allows people to browse the web and to run simple apps (such as open-source design software). But many places around the world still don't have access to convenient electricity. Here's where a few other socially forward crowdfunded projects can play a role. The Soccket - a soccer ball which, when kicked around, generates electricity you can use to charge a mobile device; and the Gravity Light, a high gear ratio electric motor which, when a sack full of dirt, rocks, water or sand is suspended from it, generates light and electricity as it descends.

The Soccket

The Soccket

The Gravity Light

The Gravity Light

Generators like these can power devices like the Aakash or the Ubislate. And these products were crowd-funded projects, designed by the people with the need, and hence circumventing the paradigm mentioned earlier (wherein most products make their way to the market through conventional profit-driven retail). Indeed the Gravity Light proudly states "Made in Africa" on their kickstarter page. As this culture spreads, we're going to see more people designing, funding, and manufacturing products that serve social needs in the geographic regions they're required.

So now we have cheap devices that can browse the web and run simple design software, even compose and promote crowdfunding campaigns. And we have cheap generators that can provide power to those devices in low-infrastructure areas. But what about internet access? If a region of the world doesn't have electricity, chances are they probably don't have internet access, either. And it's that access to free information, free design tools, crowdfunding, and more, that is the paradigm-shifter. Enter Google's moon-shot program called Project Loon. Project Loon's goal is to provide wireless internet to the world via a fleet of hot air balloons. Sounds sci-fi (even loony!) but it's already trialing in New Zealand.

Project Loon planetary wifi system in theory

Project Loon planetary wifi system in practice in New Zealand

Project Loon planetary wifi system (in theory, top, and in practice in New Zealand, above)

So now you can imagine a world where everyone can have access to a practical, internet-browsing, software-running device. They will have access to electricity and internet, even in low infrastructure regions. This will open them up to a cornucopia of knowledge, design tools, funding opportunities, and general engagement with the world. Prototyping service bureaus like Shapeways for 3D printing or Ponoko for laser cutting mean that you can simply email your digital files and have the physical product shipped back to you. The spread of makerspaces in schools, libraries, universities, community centers, etc means that these tools are increasingly local, and communities are increasingly empowered to engineer their own solutions.

I'm not sure that each of these products or systems will be the ultimate solution to filling the technical gaps necessary to bring maker culture to the world. Indeed, they're probably not going to be the final products (there are problems with nearly all first-generation tech, and the Aakash, for example, isn't without it's hiccups, and neither was the Soccket). However, something like the Aakash or Ubislate will become ubiquitous. Something like the Soccket or Gravity Light will provide low voltage electricity for electronic devices. (Manoj Bhargava's Electric Bike is pretty amazing). Something like Project Loon will provide cheap/free internet access to all. And that brings me back to the beginning of this post, and "looking around corners". Currently, we live in a world where the vast majority of our retail products, art projects, software apps, and inventions, are made by a tiny pie slice of the total global talent. However, as this culture spreads: as free information, free software, cheap computing devices, cheap electricity, cheap internet access, and cheap, local prototyping/micromanufacturing resources become widely available (say twenty-five years from now) - we'll be a planet of 7 billion educated and empowered problem solvers. And that's a world I want to live in.

Potential pool of 7 billion educated and empowered innovators

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