Maker culture is critical to innovation, for more reasons than you think

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When my maker brain kicked in and my imagination sparked, I realized endless possibilities, writes the global chief technology officer of Mirum.

I care about maker culture. Not just because it’s important for our world today, but also so that future generations have an appreciation for the collision of the physical and digital.

I worry that only last week I saw our amazing IT team—some of the brightest people I know—staring blankly at the heater cupboard. When questioned, they said they were cold and couldn’t figure out what was going on with the "heating wheel."  Of course, it turned out to be a bit of a retro-looking clockwork timer.

We already have many negative examples of the modern disconnect: we don’t know where our food comes from, it’s unclear as to what’s healthy or not, we can’t go into the woods without GPS, and if our cars break down, our fate is at the mercy of a man in a van.

Granted, not everyone is like this. Fortunately, we’re not doomed, mainly due to the interesting moment of time we’re in with consumer technology.

There’s an interesting shift going the other way: a huge influx in connected technology and not just one company trying to connect everything or trying to sell you a complete package, which would be very close to impossible.

The new shift is the personal digital ecosystem. It arguably started with being able to integrate a single payment method across multiple brands and channels; then your music was available across brands and channels; then you could turn on your lights, your car, etc. Suddenly, you don’t need several different apps open to get things to talk to each other. You use your voice; one command performs many actions across many services.

So, how does this relate to maker culture?

The essence of maker culture is to use available tech to solve a problem, with a willingness to just get on with it and learn. It’s much the same approach as you need now to get a smart home up and running, or to connect your car. I know some hardcore makers who will argue that this isn’t true maker culture, and perhaps they’re correct. But, this approach does provide the foundations.

For example, a while ago I used my maker brain to get my smart home up and running, using Alexa for some basic voice control, a Samsung SmartThings Hub, and some additional bits like Hue lights and Harmony AV control. I used IFTTT to get it all going nicely.

Then, as my maker brain kicked in and my imagination sparked, I realized endless possibilities. A good friend pointed me in the direction of a "Shield" for the popular prototyping micro-controller Arduino that would allow my very geeky electronics projects to talk to my smart home. The result? I can make sure that even on my travels around the globe, I can monitor and water my gecko from wherever I am. Can you buy the kit off the shelf? No, I made it myself. That said, maker culture is so much more than Arduinos and soldering irons.

Skills-wise, it’s a blend of creative, technical and practical, but that doesn’t mean we need artists who can rebuild engines and program rockets; it means these wonderful brains have a respect for each of these areas.

The true value exists within people with empathy for those skills. They are not necessarily true experts in each, but people who have an understanding of where to apply their skills. Zero knowledge-starters and confidence-zone breachers will also prosper, not those who only work with things they know, but self-starters who get going knowing they’ll have to learn from scratch and are excited about it.  And, obviously, the relentlessly curious will flourish. If you’re not continually wondering how you can make something work, maybe you’re a non-starter.

These amazing people can be found all over the place, and not just in innovation labs. Next time you get the chance, ask people around you and at your workplace to send you examples of things they’ve made, not bought. I think you’ll be surprised.

—Matt Webb is chief technology officer at Mirum.