By Josh Middleman
A colleague recently passed along this article from slate.com that highlights the main theme of Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book about the Maker movement. As America’s tech laureate (my distinction, you’re welcome, Chris) Anderson’s opinions on the future of tech get a lot of attention. Once again, he’s proven why. Anderson argues that the Maker movement is similar to the “Homebrew” geeks who built the first personal computers in their garages. Like the founding fathers of the PC, the rise of the maker culture is far more than a resurgence of ham radio operators and remote-controlled plane builders. This new breed of maker is challenging the very nature of manufacturing, agriculture and the fabric of economics.
Technological advancements – especially the advent of the 3D printer, Arduino’s open source hardware and software, and blueprint sharing like R&DIY – are enabling Makers to produce on demand all by themselves. However, the Maker movement isn’t defined by tech geeks alone, there are those who manufacture the good old fashioned way – by hand. One of these Makers is Marcin Jakubowski founder of Open Source Ecology, a community of people working together to build a group of “the 50 Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts.”
Talk about disruptive, if communities could afford to grow their own food with the efficiency of industrial agriculture, build their own wind turbines and even solar panels (See the amazing work of Alex Hornstein’s Solar Pocket Factory), and print their own manufactured goods, markets would be turned on their ear. For a start, this spate of new producers would flood the local market with specialized goods and reduce the demand for the same items produced by large multinationals. This would simultaneously lower prices – due to increased supply – and create an entrepreneurial and employment boom in the manufacturing sector. Just imagine how Detroit – a city that now leads the country in urban farming as much as it does car manufacturing – would be transformed by such innovations.
Enter the naysayers.
Obviously there is room for a fair amount of skepticism that such a model will deliver. While I cannot fault anyone for being skeptical (I mean weren’t we supposed to have flying cars by now?), I do have a beef with the rationale for the skepticism I have come across. The criticism surrounding the Maker movement’s potential – and this is true of the article in Slate – is based on the belief that the movement and DIY manufacturing will integrate into our current economic system. However, innovation like this doesn’t prop up old systems, it creates new ones. Just look at the internet. Before it existed, no one could imagine conducting business via computer, especially processing payments, but today e-commerce contributes $684 billion to the U.S. economy – more than the entire federal government.
The internet provides us with the best analog for how a disruptive innovation creates entirely new forms of value. Take Facebook. From the beginning, the primary complaints about the site have been that it has no revenue model. That criticism is now playing itself out on the stock market in dramatic fashion where investors show Mark Zuckerberg their “Unlike” feature. And yet has the public unfriended Facebook? Nope. We all still continue to find immense value in it, spending hours a day liking, sharing and posting.
The trouble isn’t that no one values Facebook, it’s that our current economic system has no way of expressing that value. This neither means the death of Facebook, nor the still-birth of DIY Manufacturing (Wow. That’s grim). What it could mean is that we’ve outgrown our old economic model and are ready for a new one. One built on the principles of open-source and in which innovative Makers, and communities, take the reigns and do-it-themselves.
Josh Middleman is a social entrepreneur, agitator, and co-founder of DIY Economy a start-up committed to spreading innovation that creates community prosperity and resilience. Follow Josh on Twitter @JRmiddleman.