Many commentators highlight the Maker movement’s great promise of bringing about a new and fairer economy. They contend that the dominant neo-liberal economic model is reliant on the over-exploitation of natural resources and low wage regions. It leads to the centralization of industrial power, the marginalization of the majority into the role of consumer, and a reduction in the true quality of life for most.
The Maker movement offers a genuine alternative whereby grassroots initiatives gain access to high quality digital fabrication facilities, can share knowledge through online platforms and open source technologies, and they can finance their innovations through mutual crowdfunding campaigns. Futurologist, Jeremy Rifkin, in his 2014 book “The zero marginal cost society”, goes so far as to say that once maker infrastructure is fully developed, it will bring the price of products and services close to zero thereby completely destroying the capitalist stranglehold on the economy.
However, other commentators are less impressed by the Maker movement. The critical analyst, Evgeny Morozov, in his Jan 2014 New Yorker column, draws a parallel with the arts and crafts movement during the industrial revolution. That too held great promise to democratize production technologies at a time when workers suffered exploitation in new textile factories. But access to tools on its own is not enough to bring about political and social change; makers need to change corporate laws and governmental policies too. Otherwise they are doomed to be side-lined as irrelevant hobbyists, like their industrial age counterparts.
So, is there now evidence of the disruptive nature of the Maker movement? Are we about to enter the collaborative commons era, as Rifkin suggests, where everyone is a maker and the peer-to-peer economy becomes dominant? Or, as Morozov implies, are makers too busy with their cool gadgets to realize that they are simply pawns stuck in a corporation-controlled game?
My answer to these questions is built by looking at a number of indicators that provide an indication of future change. Through participating in the MAKE-IT project, I have had the opportunity to learn about many Maker initiatives and understand the makers’ experiences and challenges. Clearly, at the present time most makers remain small-time hobbyists, and there is no major disruptive effect being exerted on the economy. Indeed, a major driving force of many makers is their moral compass guiding them in the direction of the sharing economy, open source principles and a rejection of financial value in favour of social value. This focus in itself is not conducive to developing a competitive drive to scale-up and disrupt existing markets.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that all makers remain economically insignificant or, importantly, that the effect of the whole movement will not be felt on a wider scale. Disruption may take time. The question we can ask ourselves now is: Can we see the first signs of change?
Signs of disruption 1: The Maker movement is still growing, both in terms of numbers and the breadth and depth of people getting involved, as well as the platforms and tools being used. On the one hand, repair cafés and makerspaces are reaching out to a wide cross-section of local communities. On the other hand, increasingly advanced digital design and fabrication technologies, like 3D scanners and sensor technologies, are becoming accessible to ordinary people. Additionally, as stated by Daniel Charney in his book “Power of Making”, more important than a discrete Maker movement is a broad and integrative ‘making culture’, whereby people get involved in making without considering themselves part of a movement. So the growth of making may be stronger than makerspace member statistics would indicate. Having said that, the growth still needs a long acceleration if the general population is to truly consider making instead of buying. If I am to estimate the likelihood that current growth signals a future large-scale disruption, I would give it a grade of 5 out of 10.
Signs of disruption 2: Some makers are showing their business maturity to get their creative idea to scale-up. For example, in Denmark, Create It Real, one of the MAKE-IT project’s partners, is developing hardware solutions to allow those wanting to sell their designs for 3D printed objects to limit the number of copies made. However, only a tiny proportion of makers have made significant steps in this direction and for many business maturity is not a goal at all. My assessment that current business maturity signals a future large-scale disruption: 3/10.
Signs of disruption 3: Some makers and moving towards connecting to existing firms and making use of knowledge and resources beyond what is available via the makers’ own network. Major opportunities for mutual benefit could be exploited if makers connect with firms investing in smart industry / industry 4.0 solutions. An example is the RDM Makerspace collaboration with smart industry partners in the RAMLAB at the port of Rotterdam, to manufacture large metal parts for the maritime sector. Makers can share their creativity and gain knowledge and support in return. Nevertheless, we have not seen widespread examples of this happening and many incumbent firms are themselves adopting distributed manufacturing technologies without including makers at all. So my assessment of this signal of disruption is currently only 2/10.
Signs of disruption 4: The Maker movement has a strong connection to other societal trends. Makers reflect the millennial zeitgeist, as they are digitally savvy, engage in peer-to-peer collaboration and work via many-to-many platforms. Makers also prefer real sharing above the Uber-style platform monopoly, whereby the trend towards having access to functionality instead of ownership of products is particularly salient. Besides this, makers follow open source principles, design products which are environmentally responsible, and generally align with a significant number of societal trends that can help to reinforce the makers’ relevance to the broader population. These include the move towards repair and recycling, producer-consumers, distributed manufacturing, open and social innovation, and others. My assessment of this signal of disruptive potential: 7/10.
Signs of disruption 5: Engaging the next generation. There are various programs aimed at giving children hands-on experience of making. The BBC schools program put a maker toolkit and a programmable microcontroller kit into the hands of all 11 year olds in the UK. The Fixperts program stimulates children and others to resourcefully improve the daily lives of people in their locality. If programs like these become a standard part of our education systems, which unfortunately in most areas they are not, they will help children to learn in a practical, self-determining way, and contribute to the growth of competent, autonomous and locally-connected makers. My assessment of this signal of disruptive potential: 6/10.
Signs of disruption 6: Alternative sources of funding are providing makers with independence from corporate banks and allowing their projects to grow. Via crowdfunding platforms, makers are able to scale-up without selling-out. An interesting, if highly unusual, example is the Superbook. Developed by two independent makers, this innovation is an inexpensive laptop shell that enables people to use the computer power of a smartphone like a normal laptop. They started a Kickstarter campaign in July 2016 and received backing of almost $3 million from more than 16,000 individuals. These makers had extensive business experience and unfortunately most makers struggle to access funding. My assessment of this signal of disruption: 4/10.
Signs of disruption 7: The first niches are switching to maker-first rather than buying ready-made products. Some types of things lend themselves to being customized and produced by makers and many mass markets have started as niches. One well-documented example is the kitesurfing community which has led the way in innovations that were later picked up by commercial manufacturers. There are also many ‘obsolete’ technologies, like old-timer cars and analogue photo camera’s that are spawning maker markets. Nevertheless, most products remain centrally produced, and it is an open question if we will see kettles, TV screens and office chairs becoming predominantly maker-made. My assessment of disruptive potential: 4/10.
Signs of disruption 8: There are some law and policy changes that are in line with maker values that are influencing mainstream commerce. In corporate law, the advent of the B-Corp allows a firm’s board of directors to make choices that reduce profit and shareholder value in order to create social or environmental benefit. This means that some firms are acting more like the responsible citizens that makers also strive to be. In copyright law, open source and creative commons licences are becoming widespread. Giants like Microsoft are increasingly working together with open source communities as they realize that by openly sharing their ideas with others, they too can benefit from the community’s input. However, many more such changes would need to occur if the maker mindset is to become the dominant economic logic. My assessment of this signal of disruptive potential: 5/10.
To conclude, I would currently grade the disruptive potential of the Maker movement with a 4.5 out of 10; that is not very disruptive at all. The strongest indicators of disruption appear to relate to societal trends that align with the Maker movement’s guiding principles. So many people are starting to support the notion that citizens must reclaim ownership of natural resources and intellectual property, and develop local, inclusive economies. But some of the other indicators show that we are still a long way from experiencing the kind of disruption envisioned by Rifkin.
Perhaps because the Maker movement is predominantly populated by tech-savvy counter-culturalists who reject dominant commercial and legal conventions, they condemn themselves to a role as opponents trying to develop an alternative approach outside of our cultural institutions, rather than effecting change from within. I think we can say that, allied with similar trends like the open source movement that hold the same values dear, the Maker movement is making some progress towards a participative, “collaborative commons” economic model. But it is a long way from bringing about the kind of real economic disruption that will significantly impact upon capitalism. Will that ever happen? The jury is still out. I fear it may be out for some time yet.