What to Know About the Maker Movement and Why You Should Care

June 20, 2014

6:00 pm

This entire week, events around Washington, DC have been centered on spotlighting the Maker Movement – a group comprised of craftspeople, tinkerers, hobbyists, inventors, and overall enthusiasts, all of whom engage in the act of creating. Rather than the mere inventors of the past, these do-it-yourself “makers” have access to modern technologies, robust resources, and an easily accessible network of support that enables them to take part in the global economy.

“[There is a] do-it-yourself (DIY) producer society, driven by grassroots movements in tinkering, entrepreneurship, and small-scale manufacturing, [that] has the potential to transform how we think and talk about American manufacturing – as well as its role in the U.S. economy,” said Kauffman Foundation Director of Research and Policy Dane Stangler and Research Analyst Kate Maxwell, in a 2012 paper titled “DIY Producer Society” published in Innovations.

First popularized in 2006 at the founding of the first Maker Faire event organized by Make magazine, participation and involvement in the the so-called “Maker Movement” has grown rapidly. Looking at attendees at the NY Maker Faire alone, there has been a steady increase from 74,000 people in 2009 to 120,000 in 2013. With increased access to specialized knowledge and tools previously unavailable to the masses, makers in every space – from textiles to robotics – are innovating new ways to solve problems and creating new products that are changing the national landscape – in terms of both American innovation and economy.

Through the tools and resources offered at maker spaces like TechShop and sites like Etsy and Kickstarter, modern technology has democratized the means of production and enabled connections between resources and markets. Nowadays, literally anyone can learn to utilize these resources and take advantage of these tools, and create something entirely new and even eventually make a business out of it – to become a part of a new kind of production economy rather than acting as mere consumers.

One of the attendees at Tuesday’s Maker Summit at TechShop DC-Arlington was Joe Ryan, a 20-year-retired Army aviation mechanic. After retiring from the Army, Ryan got involved with TechShop Detroit through their Veterans Training Program, giving him a year’s worth of membership for free. Through TechShop he was able to discover an interest in and passion for repurposing bicycle parts into more useful things – whether that be a new tool or even just a simple bowl. Eventually, though, this hobby turned into The KickStand, a full-time business that repurposes essentially anything you can find in a scrap yard.

“It’s kind of like going to a library for books; being able to absorb the knowledge in each page is like being able to take a tool and turn it into the next step of what you can create,” says Ryan on what TechShop has been able to offer him. “You can always start small, and when you’re ready, you have access to the right tools to take whatever you’re doing to the next level.”

And, for many who first get involved in maker spaces, the experience is similar: they come in, learn to use the tools that are available and work on a project that interests them, constantly finding newer and better ways to make it better. In another 2012 essay published in Innovations titled “The Maker Movement”, founder of Make magazine Dale Dougherty compares the makers of today to the trailblazers in Silicon Valley:

“Makers at their core are enthusiasts, such as those engaged in the early days of the computer industry in Silicon Valley…Those makers in the early days of the computer industry were essentially playing with technology. They didn’t know what they wanted computers to do and they didn’t have particular goals in mind. They learned by making things and taking them apart and putting them back together again, and by trying many different things.”

But, while we’ve seen an overall increase in access and capability for people to enter this production economy, much more can be done to further the development of makers. Specifically, more could be done to support the creation of more maker spaces, where a bulk of new products and innovations are discovered and developed. Taking TechShop as an example, COO Dan Woods cites that the total valuation of products that have been launched out of TechShop facilities is estimated at $10 billion. While certainly not a huge figure when compared to the greater U.S. economy, it’s not a number to simply scoff at. For Woods, the combination of the tools, resources, and – most importantly – connections found at maker spaces is what will enable further innovation.

“It starts with having appropriate maker spaces that provide people with the community…the connection…that critical mass of creative and innovative ideas,” said Woods in our interview at Tuesday’s Maker Summit. “That’s the value of coming to [maker spaces]: your product gets better; it gets shaped. That’s the result of getting ideas from people from different walks of life. That rich diversity of people, of ideas all coming together – that’s the spirit of open source development. And that applies to both hardware as it does to software. The more people you have informing your product and helping you shape your product, the better.”

By increasing these maker spaces, we can enable further developments in American manufacturing. Through the tools offered at spaces like TechShop, people are provided with the know-how to engage in micromanufacturing and prototyping, which enables them to further that into larger-scale manufacturing for if/when they decide to take their product to market. Indeed, for President Obama, it’s this potential to turn today’s DIYers into tomorrow’s manufactured American goods. The hope being to encourage growth in the American economy through the creation of new jobs and industries.

Lead image courtesy cyLEDGE.

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Ronald Barba was the previous managing editor of Tech.Co. His primary story interests include industry trends, consumer-facing apps/products, the startup lifestyle, business ethics, diversity in tech, and what-is-this-bullsh*t things. Aside from writing about startups and entrepreneurship, Ronald is interested in 'Doctor Who', Murakami, 'The Mindy Project', and fried chicken. He is currently based in New York because he mistakenly studied philosophy in college and is now a "writer". Tweet @RonaldPBarba.

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