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Prepare for the future, nurture a maker culture

A generation that is ready to thrive in a world of change will create solutions.

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Scientists at Nanyang Technological University printing human skin that looks like the real thing, and can be used for testing cosmetics and drugs. The education shift that cultivated innovative thinking has resulted in an eagerness to adopt new technologies.

ROBOTICS. Artificial intelligence. The Internet of Things. 3D printing. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway, challenging various industries with its melding of the physical and the digital space.

Many sectors are ripe for disruption as smartphone and smart device hyper-connectivity inject breakthroughs in production, management and governance. The mainstream adoption of emerging technologies heralds an era of endless opportunities that exceed what we achieved through information technology and automation.

Budding entrepreneurs and small businesses can use these tools to fill market gaps and capture market share left behind by both old and new firms, such as the recent vacuum left behind by Uber as it exited the South-east Asian market. The region's appetite for ride-hailing reopens market opportunities for traditional taxi companies with app-based platforms for their users.

However, these traditional firms face stiff competition from newer rival app-based ride-hailing businesses such as Ryde and Go-Jek as they refined their products to better cater to their growing customer base - users who rely on the convenience of newer technologies.

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The democratisation of emerging technologies and a growing list of startup-unicorn success stories spurred a new wave of DIY hobbyists and inventors to create better products through readily-accessible professional tools and knowledge. Gone are the days when multi-million-dollar conglomerates solely owned the innovation journey.

These new-age inventors - collectively referred to as "makers" - experiment and create exciting prototypes before launching them commercially. They are part of a "maker movement" where they test their creations in publicly-available collaborative DIY workspaces to come up with The Next Big Thing.

It was innovation and the maker movement that brought us products such as the Creative Sound Blaster sound cards and the high-speed Razer gaming mice from the 1990s, which resulted in other bigger technology players coming in to compete in those markets in recent years.

Shenzhen, China, has doled out US$145 million in grants to lure thousands of entrepreneurs to grow their maker culture, with several millions more poured into activities and "makerspaces" for these startups to gather. The city is a cultural hotpot of engineers, computer programmers, artists, designers and youths who collaborate and follow through on fresh designs, with due credit given to all makers regardless of professional experience.

The education shift that cultivated innovative thinking and learning-by-doing resulted in an abundance of youth eager to adopt new technologies that defy conventional industrial endeavours. For instance, 3D-printing providers bring makers and end-consumers closer to prototyping their work through manufacturing hubs and raw-material access.

Such agents of transformation empower and foster communities around the globe while promoting a sense of entrepreneurship. Today, users can realise their inventions through early monetisation models with crowdfunding sites such as KickStarter, and use resource centres such as Hardware Studio to become first adopters of new technologies in their self-made devices.

While some of these maker resources are well established, technology firms can still do more to encourage and guide the startups. Typically, a maker's passion can often get stalled when their creative ideas meet the hard realities of volume production. This friction is particularly prevalent with Internet of Things (IoT) innovations.

It is not uncommon for innovators to start with tools like a Raspberry Pi board to develop proof-of-concepts strong enough to attract financing or investors. Converting that idea into a mass-producible product that people will buy is a whole other matter.

Beyond community outreach and workshops, technology companies can close the maker's production gap by fostering the maker culture. Firms can offer assistance to budding entrepreneurs, helping them overcome technical challenges throughout the maker's journey. For instance, technology firms can nourish existing maker communities with a "one-stop centre" for makers to congregate and receive real-time feedback on their process.

Makers can seek support for ideation and design, while technology companies use their experience in the hardware space to help them go from prototypes to production models. Such outlets can also exemplify maker creativity itself with the use of encrypted video feeds for the entrepreneurs to communicate directly with industry players.

Giving makers a goal to strive towards would also require the big players to set a competitive standard that is visible and attainable for the firms. In Hong Kong, makers can tap into exciting events such as the Elevator Pitch Competition, where 100 startups have 60 seconds in the ICC skyscraper's elevator to pitch IoT solutions to business for a shot at an investment prize of US$120,000.

Technology partners with critical operations in the IoT market would benefit immensely from a mature maker culture. We can expect 11 billion IoT products to be in use by the end of the year, reaching 20.4 billion products by 2020 with a global economic impact of up to US$6.2 trillion until 2025. Smart cities around the world expedite IoT spending across several industries, with manufacturing and transportation taking the lead.

India is primed to capture 20 per cent of the global IoT market share by 2020 with a guiding hand on establishing its smart cities, supporting its IoT-specific facilities for skill development, along with other several government-led initiatives. In China, network operators have already launched commercially-ready narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) networks since the start of the year, as they bide time until 2020 when nationwide NB-IoT coverage becomes a norm.

In the meantime, a full-value support ecosystem will kickstart makers in making their mark on this changing landscape. With the help of partner resources, makers can turn theoretical innovations into enterprise-ready solutions on a global scale. Technology firms, with their supply connections and in-house support, enable makers to build meaningful products sooner.

They shorten the time that makers need to create a company, develop pilot builds, manufacture prototypes and engineer mass-scale solutions. By energising makers with the right tools and resources, we can prepare a generation to thrive in a world of change and create solutions to overcome the biggest issues that are facing our world today.

For example, the evolving retail sector sorely needs real-world applications of embedded vision devices. A machine-learning AI system complemented by vision-embedded components can help purchasers stay alert to inventory changes and predict shopping habits.

Unmanned brick-and-motor shops in the offline world can prevent shop theft with the help of a vision-enabled electronic vendor that reads shopper behaviours through facial recognition and gait analysis. These inventions and more can certainly come about, with the support of the broader maker ecosystem.

Successful solutions can revolutionise each industry, and the circle of innovation linking makers and larger tech firms continues. Augmented with these resources and networks, makers help steer their societies towards resilience and sustainability. Right now, the possibilities are endless.

  • The writer is senior vice-president of Global Design Solutions at Avnet Asia.