The Fab New Geography of Innovation

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This article by GOSH! 2016 attendees Ivana Gadjanski and Andrew Pelling was originally published in the Global Young Academy Connections Magazine and is reproduced here with permission of the authors.
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We are now witnessing the rise of a truly global and completely decentralized movement in low cost innovation, which has no centre, no head, no formal structure and driven through community-based, citizen-led efforts [1, 2]. Remarkably, though technological and pedagogical innovations are occurring in health care, education, science and technology, this movement has been largely ignored by established organisations, universities and governments. The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Maker Movement has grown dramatically in the recent decade, leading to the development of new technology companies, educational strategies, democratisation of science and technology [3] and advances in sustainable development [4].

At the same time, we are also witnessing the spread of risk-averse organizational cultures in corporate, government and academic structures. Although the causes of this phenomenon are numerous and complicated, it is clear that “innovation” tends to suffer dramatically in such risk-averse environments. Therefore, we are facing the serious challenge of creating organisational cultures that support and promote innovation and risk-taking in an effective and efficient manner. Understanding where innovation comes from, how to harness it, how to support risky ideas, and how to rapidly translate risky yet worthy ideas into action are key questions that desperately need to be addressed.

Surprisingly, the largely citizen-led DIY movement stands in stark contrast to this backdrop of decreasing innovation and risk-averse cultures in academic, government and corporate spaces. The rising popularity of open source software/hardware, low cost fabrication tools (3d printing, PCB manufacturing, CNC machining, etc) and citizen science labs has dramatically decreased the barriers for the development of innovative projects led by a diversity of people in emerging, developing and developed nations [5]. It is clear that innovation can occur anywhere on the globe and be driven by anyone who has the potential to be creative. This has led to the rapid spread of open community labs, fabrication labs (fab labs) and maker spaces that are already having a remarkable and immediate impact on science and technology.

For example, in Serbia there are several maker initiatives taking place. The country’s first educational Fab Lab Petnica is being formed as a joint project by the Fab Initiative non-profit organization, Petnica Science Center and Belgrade Metropolitan University financed by the Royal Norweigan Embassy in Serbia with the aim to provide high school students and teachers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field in Serbia with knowledge, tools, inspiration and connections to start implementing the FabLab@School concept and STEM entrepreneurship principles in practice. Two other fab labs are planned in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Fab Lab Belgrade and Polyhedra fab lab that are already organizing KidsPatch events and workshops in the Creative Hub – a coworking space Nova Iskra in Belgrade.

Another initiative is the formation of the Scientific Fab lab at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Mechanical Engineering (UB FME) with the main goal to enable students to use the FabLab equipment for making their own prototypes of the theoretical models from the university courses as well as to provide skills and knowledge to both the students and professors to produce scale models to be implemented in further STEM education, both at the high school and university level. Another aim is to establish a facility for manufacturing of the DIY instructions for research-grade tools built from low-cost hardware and open-source software. In a nutshell, the main focus is to establish a place where the good ideas of the students and researchers can be realized.

The massive intellectual capital that is proliferating in the ‘garage’ is being left untapped because it is happening independently of, and without acknowledgment by, established organisational structures.

Many major technology companies that exist today are well known to have started in dorm rooms, garages and basements rand have ultimately been responsible for the so called “IT revolution”. Therefore, it is imperative that we understand what is happening in the garage today, as it is likely to lead to tomorrow’s innovations. This is important for many reasons, including the fact that the Maker Movement is now having a profound positive impact on the engagement of girls and women in science, technology, engineering and medicine [6] as well as a recognition that new technologies must be affordable, sustainable to all and environmentally responsible.

At the 2015 Annual General Meeting of the Global Young Academy (GYA) [7], we dedicated a major portion of the event to examine the Maker Movement and directly engage with the community who are involved in this phenomenon. On the afternoon of 26 May 2015, the Canadian National Research Council (NRC) hosted the GYA and a Science Fair Hack event at its main Ottawa location. The NRC is the major federal research and technology organisation in Canada and is a significant landmark in the history of Canadian science. At the Science Fair Hack, Maker and DIY community groups, school groups, the University of Ottawa Makerspace, university research labs and individuals demonstrated their inventions for the GYA membership and invited guests from major organizations, companies and universities in Canada. The afternoon was a resounding success as GYA members had the chance to closely interact with children of all ages who have been developing new devices, wearable technologies, videos games, and clothing while learning about modern state of the art fabrication tools and computer languages. The importance of these citizen-led efforts clearly made a mark on the GYA membership and gave the young innovators and opportunity to interact closely with a global group of leading academics.

Following the Science Fair Hack, the GYA was honoured to an address from the Governor General of Canada, his Excellency David Johnston. Poignantly, the Governor General began his address by recounting the story of a six-year old boy living in Ottawa, who recently received a new prosthetic hand [8]. As a young and growing child, such prosthetic limbs would need to be replaced once a year at a cost of thousands of Canadian dollars. However, his new prosthetic was not purchased from a biomedical company, but 3d printed by students at the University of Ottawa Makerspace [8]. The Governor General went on to note how important the 3D printing is in the growing DIY movement. Moreover, the DIY hand would not have been possible without the sharing of knowledge and design plans of other 3d printed prosthetics that are freely available online [9]. This is a concrete example of how non-specialists made a health-care technology at home that will dramatically improve the quality of life of this child. Importantly this innovation lowers the cost of health care and removes the financial burdens that come with such medical devices.

On 27 May 2015, the GYA resumed the AGM at the main conference site in nearby Montebello Quebec. The GYA capitalized on the experience of the Science Fair Hack by hosting a panel discussion with the diverse communities from the DIY movement and the leadership from industry and government bodies. Panellists included Hanan Anis (Founder and director of the University of Ottawa Makerspace), Connor Dickie (CEO of Synbiota), Jessie MacAlpine (Student at the University of Toronto), David Pantalony (Canada Science and Technology Museum), Remco Volmer (Managing Director, Artengine) and Katherine Yambao (Public Health Agency of Canada). Moderated by Luc Lalande (Director of the Entrepreneurship hub, University of Ottawa), the panel discussed several questions being poised by the activities of the Maker Movement. In addition to the panel discussion, the GYA and invited guests spent the morning developing ideas and strategies for moving forward and capitalizing on the untapped innovation potential that is growing worldwide in these spaces. Specifically, attendees at the panel event broke out into five working groups to address issues about the regulation of DIY science, the role MakerDIY culture can play in education, how open access can impact the sharing of knowledge, how citizenscience can change public attitudes about science and the potential of the global maker movement to impact humanitarian innovations. Summaries of the panel discussion and the breakout groups are now online and continue to be available for continued discussion and commentary [10, 11].

These types of close interactions between communities, academic, industry and government are key to answering many of the pressing questions that the Maker movement inspires, including: How can universities, industry and government more effectively engage with groups in emerging, developing and developed nations? How can we facilitate knowledge sharing between the DIY community and established bodies and organisations? Are DIY practices a viable route to enabling and advancing research in emerging, developing and developed nations at a time when many governments are cutting funding to basic research?

The combination of digital and analog that is achieved by digital fabrication through the fab labs and maker spaces is at the base of the third industrial revolution as the maker movement has been also described, namely by Chris Anderson, curator of TED, in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution [12]. In this revolution, the physical goods are created with the web’s digital innovation model.

At the World Economic Forum – Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2015 special attention has been brought to the importance of new technologies in the coming 4th industrial revolution that comprises many of the 3rd revolution hallmarks, such as 3D printing and the concept of the sharing economy [13].

Leading young scientists are exquisitely poised to mobilise and work with citizens and community groups to advance the goals of the Maker movement and take part in the coming 4th industrial revolution [14]. A wealth of opportunities exist for such collaborations to develop innovative new strategies for engaging youth in education, developing open/ DIY technologies to generate economic wealth and contributing to the advancement of new knowledge with widespread applications in healthcare, sustainable development, science and technology. The Global Young Academy with its wide network of member young scientists and collaborating institutions holds an ideal position to influence further development of the Maker movement, possibly through organising a new working group dedicated to digital fabrication and Do-It-Yourself approach.

2. what-is-the-maker-movemen_b_3201977.html
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4. Gadjanski, I. Fabrication Laboratories – Fab Labs – Tools For Sustainable Development. United Nations, 2015. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. UN Global Sustainable Development Report 2015: documents/640994-Gadjanski-Fablabs.pdf

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