The other clash of the civilizations

Summary of an expert discussion about the future of the Maker movement. Specifically one scenario: The Maker movement is absorbed into established industry.


Three Fablab managers, two Maker Faire organizers, social innovation researchers, technology developers, business strategy experts, and others.

There is a significant difference between two ‘civilizations’ that relate to making and using things in our daily lives. One ‘civilization’ is the Maker movement with a focus on broad participation in digital fabrication. And on sharing, playfulness and improving society or the environmental. The other is the capitalist ‘civilization’ that focuses on market competition, and innovation as a means to maximize profit or shareholder value.

In this expert discussion, carried out in three rounds at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain, around 15 experts discussed the possible scenario that the Maker movement is absorbed into existing industry:

  • The Maker movement functions as research and development departments of industry parties
  • Industry benefits from the spirit and grass-roots community elements of the Maker movement
  • Management and design approaches follow maker culture, whereby some elements of the Maker movement become part of business life, like the slogan ‘just make it’
  • Although some hardcore makers may resist the corporate dominance, in this scenario most maker activity is carried out in makerspaces controlled by for-profit enterprises

What are the experts’ thoughts on this scenario? Can they suggest refinements to it, or suggest likely ways this could develop?

How likely is this scenario? Does it align with other social or economic developments?

If this scenario does come about, what do they think the impact will be? Can they develop recommendations for stakeholders?

Here is a selection of some highlights of the discussion.

Changing production landscape

Well, there are various ways that firms might organize their maker initiatives. Either bringing makerspaces in house, using external makerspaces as their crowdsourcing platforms, or investing in maker start-ups, harvesting the best ideas that emerge. Actually, there are already many initiatives that are making steps in this direction, including the Industry4makers project in Vienna, and, already in 2011, Google’s involvement in the “Silicon Roundabout” area in London. Indeed, this scenario can easily be supported by governmental policy measures.

It is important to realize that makers are not only helped by financial support, but just as much by access to a network of useful contacts, to knowledge, and to new technologies and machines. So, the way that firms engage with makers in this scenario could be based on a variety of incentive mechanisms. Drawing parallels with the open source software movement, and the strong bonds that that now has with the largest software firms, the experts indicated that a complete internalization of the Maker movement by firms is unlikely. Nevertheless, the experts indicated that the potential for large scale disruption across many industries is possible, with a real possibility of completely new industries emerging and the production landscape changing for good.

One discussion centred on the combination of makers with small and medium sized businesses (SMEs), as opposed to large corporate firms. The SMEs could offer a highly beneficial way of working to makers. They may be able to develop a more personal relationship with makers and give the makers more the feeling that they can be self-determining and in charge of their own creative process – at least to some degree. Added to this, SMEs, more than larger firms, may have trouble developing an appropriate strategic reaction to digital fabrication innovations. They may therefore be more open to advice that makers give, and this could lead to a new role for makerspaces and maker communities as they can function as matchmakers linking SMEs to relevant makers.

Another discussion looked at a societal shift becoming apparent in some areas, away from the traditional left-wing versus right-wing divide, and moving more towards a ‘we prefer local’ versus ‘we prefer global’ economy.

Impact for makers and for firms

More focus in maker projects is likely to result, with less makers simply playing around. So, the maker ‘spirit’ will most likely die out. One of the key drivers of maker initiatives is the community-building aspects of makers, both makers together and by building a close-knit community of various interested parties. But communities, built on mutual trust and understanding, are notoriously fragile. A serious danger for makers in the scenario being discussed is that this community element will be damaged. Thus removing an important motive for makers to participate, and a major source of their knowledge development. Probably the most well-known example of this was the move of MakerBot, that began as a community project before being acquired by Stratasys in June 2013. At that point, many of the community members retracted their support.

There can be a positive effect on the creativity of the makers, as they gain from the drive and focus stimulated by the firms. Added to this, it will be much easier for firms to put together different multi-disciplinary teams to address new problems and challenges. An optimal level of variety in the team has been shown to be very important in leading to creativity and high performance.

Without the resources provided by firms, makers are currently often reliant on public funding and subsidy. In this business-first scenario, the future makers may benefit from the financial sustainability that this offers them.

Dominant economic model

Probably the main consensus that emerged in the discussions between the experts was that there are two main futures of this scenario in terms of which economic model will become dominant. Many expect that the profit and shareholder value focus of existing firms will remain the dominant force even when makers become involved. Thus the financially-driven ‘civilization’ would take onboard professional makers, and force a hardcore Maker movement underground, leaving them underfunded and marginalized. The other future is when the maker ‘civilization’ actually has a major influence on the culture and working of commercial firms. In this future, more firms will adopt social and environmental goals, besides their financial goals, and they will compete for expertise by promoting their sharing culture and the importance of their corporate social responsibility aims.

What will determine which of these civilizations wins out? The experts found this difficult to say as they thought that it would depend on a range of factors, including regulation, such as that promoting smart city initiatives, as well as market forces. A Pew Research study and Harvard University survey in the US show a possible market shift, according to one expert. That study shows that a large number of young people no longer believe in the capitalist model, so in ten years’ time there may be a fertile ground for corporations that develop a relationship with these consumers on their terms. But, similar to so-called “greenwashing” practices by some unscrupulous firms, future caring corporations that say they embody the Maker movement’s principles may simply be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

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