Innovation is no longer just for laboratories. Many revolutionary products are emerging from the proverbial garage, developed by young inventors whose enthusiasm far exceeds their budgets.
This phenomenon has taken corporate giants by surprise, often leaving them with no solution other than to buy up these competitors who have emerged from nowhere. Last March, for example, Facebook paid $2 billion for Oculus Rift, a manufacturer of virtual-reality glasses.
This shake-up is part and parcel of the “makers” movement, which has redefined the idea of do-it-yourself. Once just a hobby, DIY is now a community activity on a global scale.
Cooperation is the strength of this trend. Creative plans are published in “copyleft” (the opposite of copyright) to encourage improvements, while crowdfunding finances products that are ready for the market. Most important is how the tools and parts for these inventions are being democratised, notably via 3D printers and electronic boards like Arduino and Raspberry Pi.
To be sure, the resulting creations are often just simple gadgets. But one should not underestimate the importance of this community, which brings to the physical world the upheavals brought to the digital realm by Web 2.0, open sourcing and smartphone apps. With this trio, the web user has been upgraded from a passive spectator to a player creating content that can rival the output of the largest companies.
As a result, consumers are becoming “prosumers” who can manufacture the objects they feel they need. Without going through a bank, without waiting for a multinational to be inspired, 21st- century citizens have the tools they need to create the products and services of their dreams. As Europe struggles to emerge from its malaise, this new decentralised economic landscape opens perspectives for the creation of riches that cannot be ignored. Universities have a crucial role to play here – not only through education, but also as drivers of innovation.