Frugal Innovation and the Maker Movement

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Charles Leadbeater has a new book out. Leadbeater, writer, political adviser and all round big thinker, has turned his attention to the forces of innovation outside of Silicon Valley. Those inventors, activists and entrepreneurs who operate in a world of constraints as opposed to bountiful capital and light touch regulation. What he calls ‘frugal innovation’. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book yet, but as usual the RSA podcast is a good start.

The idea of frugal innovation seems particularly relevant having spent the weekend exhibiting at Maker Faire. As regular readers will know, I like making stuff and most recently have been building a home automation systemusing open source hardware. This is partly for fun, partly because I’ve always wanted a smart home (Tony Stark envy), and partly as an experiment to show what’s really difficult about these things (the user experience design, in case you’re curious).

When I found out Maker Faire was running again this year at the Museum of Science and Industry, I decided to take a stall and show off my work. If you haven’t been to a Maker Faire, think of it as show & tell for grown-ups. There are some stalls there where people sell things, but mostly it’s about sharing what you’ve made (and learned) with other people, both fellow makers and members of the public — lots of them young, which was great. The kids loved playing with Jock the RoboRaspbian, my Raspberry Pi-powered, web-controlled toy robot. And the adults generally liked the idea of keeping an eye on their homes remotely, and being able to cut their energy bills by turning off all the lights their kids leave on.

Maker Faire Manchester

The question I was asked most often was whether I planned to commercialise the system. The answer is always ‘no’. For a start I’m sworn off more start-ups for now — at least ones that aren’t connected to my core business. I don’t think there’s a lot of money to be made from the system I’ve built: Samsung, Apple etc have the manufacturing capability and supply chain to do things more efficiently and at greater scale than I ever could. But most importantly what I have built depends hugely on the work of others — something that was true for all the makers I spoke to at the Faire.

The software that sits in each of my home automation nodes is heavily based on ‘RESTduino’, a project with multiple contributors, who have given their work to the community at no charge. The web platform uses libraries for various functions like talking to the nodes, graphing the data, and communicating with the energy monitoring system — all written by others and given to the community at no cost (‘open source’). Even the hardware I’m using — the Arduino — is open: anyone can replicate its design without licence fees.

All of this means it would be a complex affair to try and scale what I have built up into a profitable business. But without it I wouldn’t have been able to build anything at all — or if I could, doing so would have taken ten times as long and cost ten times as much.

In Leadbeater’s last book, We Think, he looked at mass creativity as exposed on YouTube and other social channels. The Maker Faire showcases a more physical level of mass creativity, enabled by the open sharing of different hardware and software components. Every Maker takes those components and builds something uniquely their own, to fulfil their particular needs (or wants). Generally they then share the new components they have built to bridge the gaps back to the community, and the process continues.

As access to these components, and the ability to replicate them, is increasingly commoditised, it will be interesting to see what effect this has on the concentrated innovation of the Apples and Samsungs of this world. Imagine you can search a database of products and systems for a solution to a problem/challenge you are facing. You find a design — of software or hardware — that appeals, and then render it out, either as an installable application or a physical product through a 3D printer and some purchased components.

This exists (to some extent) today in Thingiverse, it’s just not widely used by the average consumer yet. But in just a few years we might all be sharing, or consuming, each other’s frugal innovations.

This post forms part of my Future of Business series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Business page.

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Tom Cheesewright