Photo Credit: EmbraceGlobal.org

I have never considered myself a DIY, use my hands to fix stuff sort of guy. I have always assumed that inclination was part of a different personality type. I am more naturally drawn to ideas, language, music, abstract science concepts and other things you can’t hammer a nail into. But in coming home this week from an interesting event called #wemakehealth I was forced to challenge some of my assumptions. #wemakehealth is an example of the “maker movement” a growing group of people from professions as diverse as medicine, business, design, and technology united by a common purpose, to make everyone into a maker.

So, what is a maker?

I understand it to be anyone who decides that she will not wait for a solution to handed down, but will get her hands dirty and build one now. And that is physically build it.  One speaker referred to it as “democratizing engineering”; an example would be the people who helped develop a warming blanket (known as Embrace) for premature babies in developing countries; this simple device is saving multiple lives where incubators are not available. The idea for this blanket emerged from a graduate school class assignment . . .

So what assumptions does this movement challenge?

That most of us can only be consumers of something someone else has made.

That if you’re not naturally “crafty”, building things is not really for you.

That you need tremendous background in design and engineering to build something from scratch with your hands.

I think we can agree that most things are more interesting to do than to watch. Yet, we somehow accept that other people who are more talented, educated etc must do all our building for us. This doesn’t mean that we suddenly have to try building complex computers. In fact, many incredibly useful objects are quite simple in their design (that warming blanket). I feel like the perfect messenger for this message precisely because I didn’t grow up trying to fix things and build stuff. And yet, in medicine, I was strongly drawn to surgery. There is something undeniably fulfilling about physically fixing a problem and being able to look upon your work. When I was given the chance to close incisions on the babies we were operating on in Kenya, I would look over my work the next day on rounds and if the wound was “clean, dry and intact” it was a tremendous source of pride. I often side with those who argue that we are born creative but have creativity educated out of us, and conclude falsely that it is the reserve of a select few. Now, I also wonder whether if there is something fundamentally human about building, making physical creations. The creation may be a meal, a painting, a creative blood pressure monitor, but it’s something. Perhaps, we were not made only to consume or roam the halls of the abstract, however enticing. Making is also key to progress in healthcare where so many structures, devices, procedures and processes remain opaque. Can we make something better ourselves? Can we stop waiting? Incidentally, #wearenotwaiting is the hashtag for the NightScout project, comprising a group of parents who came up with a creative way to remotely monitor their diabetic childrens’ blood glucose levels on cellphones . . .

So, to explore these ideas further, I am starting a brief blog series on making. I’ll bring in voices from the maker movement as well as practical ways to explore your own potential as a maker. If can I do this, trust me, anyone can!

  1. Malaika says:

    Fantastic post JB! I like the fact that this makes creativity and innovation more inclusive…not just to those who have a natural knack for it. I was reading an art book for teaching children and adults how to draw and the basic premise was that anyone can learn how to draw well, not just the gifted. Thanks for this post…I look forward to reading more on this topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kalu! Yes, that book you found sounds very much in the spirit of this work. I look forward to sharing more including some specific applications for kids . . . the inclusivity is a big par of the appeal for me too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kenel says:


    The WSJ’s ‘Saturday Essay’ a couple weeks ago challenged my view that scientific thinking is not an indispensable tool for pioneering innovations. As expounded in The Myth of Basic Science: “basic science isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think.”

    Your latest “DIY” post suddenly puts it all in perspective and seems to validate the WSJ article, especially with the warming blanket (Embrace) example. However, I also note that Embrace was the result of a graduate school project, thus, invalidating to a certain extent the aforementioned Op-Ed. As introduced in the latter, the steam engine led to the laws of thermodynamics, not the other way around; and that, X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of DNA merely borrowed from technology in the wool industry. Basically, the author, himself a science writer, seems to turn a blind eye to the science that developed these tools. Science is as much serendipity as it is accruing of hard data through designed experiments.

    One only has to look at the history to understand that societal needs drive basic science which drives inventions. Perhaps, when Boyle’s law was introduced the steam engine was not the driving force for such a work. However, the steam engine ushered in new technology by James Watt which itself led to more focused thermodynamics research. Indeed, your post (unintentionally) shows this clearly. Democratizing engineering is an excellent verbiage delineating what we, as curious people, ought to do more: perhaps, take even an unconventional approach to creating something useful. Although, I would argue, some form of training (not necessarily long or at a university) is beneficial.

    I love physiology and calculus/physics and yet, I’ve never tinkered with my toy cars growing up. I never took apart my Nintendo to determine various parts that made it work (I was always more interested in ‘beating’ Super Contra). I love abstract thinking, especially when theories spawn ideas. However, taking things apart, that rudimentary approach to innovate cannot be underestimated.

    Your post has encouraged me to revisit my intro to computer programming books. Because, it is by imagining, seeing, and getting knee-deep into a project can engineering truly be democratic.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Kenel, once again, you have enriched my post with your thoughtful comments. I think you offer a balanced view regarding the importance of both knowledge/training and innovation/making. It is said that Kekule figured out the ring structure of the benzene ring when imagining a snake chasing its tail. But he needed knowledge of chemistry to even be pondering that question. I applaud your decision to revisit some of your old books and look for opportunities to make. I will be posting further on this topic soon and hope to share more tools and perspectives on the possibilities of “making”. Thank you for taking the time to offer such in-depth insight. Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kenel says:

    Mornin’ Jonathan!

    Thank you for your vote of confidence to partake in meaningful discourse.

    Thought-provoking ideas—penned, spoken, sung or acted—zoom in on such topics that are surprisingly not so esoteric. Many of us might find that we have more to say on a topic than we realize. And here, democratized engineering aptly apply, for in joining the discussion can we make informed decision which imparts meaning into our lives. Perhaps, even promote a more inclusive society.

    And I think your blog provides that platform from which one can find intellectual refuge so as to elicit a genuine interest in the written topic. And admittedly, astronomy/astrophysics piques my interest the most (career-wise), but the few blogs with substance I peruse (or come across) tend to be of future physicians. I find this to be an interesting observation.

    I look forward to reading more on the DIY movement in your future posts on this topic. And lastly, I enjoyed the Kekulé biographical tidbit on the structure of benzene—an important contributor in mind-bending organic chemistry.


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