While the industrial revolution encouraged efficiency, it led to the decline of hand-made creations. We stopped tinkering altogether and started simply operating machines, becoming inherently less ingenious.
Over the past century, new product development hinged on access to expensive machines that were generally out of reach for the individual. Thus, only companies with the cutting edge equipment could achieve new production development and innovation.
In our travels, we meet with many mid-market manufacturers – the backbone of the American economy – who have little to no innovation initiative. Worse, they accept commoditization as a core attribute of their industry. The Fortune 500 companies cannot be counted on to bear the American imperative to innovate, either. Every day, media reports of slashed R&D budgets rein in innovation efforts and corporations lumber under their own bureaucratic heft, struggling to impact the marketplace and to bring meaningful improvements to humankind. This deeply troubles us as ardent capitalists and proud Americans.
So what will become of American innovation? Our entrepreneurs press forward, evidence of the ever-resilient human spirit. But there is also a band of innovation corporate renegades at work. A fascinating and unofficial practice of innovation, not yet found in the buzzword-laden books of business pop culture, has put down grass roots.
“The Makers,” a relatively new movement, are Benjamin Franklin’s modern day protégés. Technologists, craftsman and artisans unite in a common spirit of creation and form a subculture that occupies a space somewhere between shop class and the computer lab. Think of it as a technology-based extension of DIY culture, a social club where like-minded individuals gather to build and create. The Maker Culture fosters collaboration and cross-pollination in electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and traditional arts and crafts.
Their objective is simple: Learn practical skills from one another and apply them creatively. Much of what they create is for sheer entertainment, built simply for the joy of building. However, they do subscribe to a few core principles: Begin with the end in mind, make things that combine form with function, and the art of making should be appreciated and celebrated.
Frustrated corporate tinkerers gather at night and on weekends in a self-funded space, as an outlet for their insuppressible drives to create. We wonder what would happen if American companies fostered this creative energy instead of suffocating it. Too few companies have a true skunk works without heavy corporate surveillance. Why not invite members of the community at large to collaborate and co-create, as well? Today, it’s the companies that are the ones left out.
Don’t ask them how they intend to monetize these creations, let them freely create and bring in the strategists to determine market viability later. Take it out of the human resources budget, if you have to justify it. Think of it as the new break room – your humans need some resources. Skip the hip Ping-Pong tables and bring in the machines. See to it that the role of HR is to procure resources for humans, not just source humans as resources to the company.
The ancient words of Archimedes serve as a modern day Makers’ battle cry: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”
Michael Graber and Jocelyn Atkinson run the Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, TN-based innovation and growth firm.