Author: David Langley

Trajectories to reconcile sharing and commercialization in the Maker movement

Which is more important for makers? Having a sharing, open attitude aimed at achieving social impact, or a commercial mindset aimed at profit? In fact, many Maker initiatives try to balance these two ways of working because making money can offer the financial stability needed to be able to scale-up and really make a difference.

In this paper for the Business Horizons journal, based on case studies from the MAKE-IT project, we describe the trajectories that maker initiatives go through in order to reconcile the two apparently conflicting objectives of sharing and commercialization.


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How disruptive is the Maker movement?

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?

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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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MAKE-IT presentation at the 8th European Innovation Summit (European Parliament)

14-16 November 2016 was the 8th European Innovation Summit, held at the European Parliament. The MAKE-IT project was involved in the session on ‘The effect of Digitisation on Society’. I joined a panel including MEP Michal Boni: I discussed the Maker movement and how grassroots initiatives can offer a viable alternative to the corporate economic model for our digital society, based on social innovation and the circular economy. Here is my presentation:

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Thousands of independent inventors, with one blind spot

Recently, I was lucky enough to visit the Maker Faire Rome. With over 110,000 participants, Europe’s largest meeting for citizens who want to make innovative new things. Thousands of independent inventors showed their ideas to thousands more wannabe inventors. On one of the days access was exclusively for children, to inspire the next generation of inventors. Altogether, very fascinating!

It occurred to me that there was a lot of undiscovered talent there in the huge hangars, just outside the Italian capital city. There was no shortage of scintillating ideas. Many of them made use of the newest technologies for making prototypes, to which large organisations no long have sole access: 3D printers, lasers that melt powder in highly accurate forms, or that cut out shapes from all sorts of materials. And mini-computers, such as Arduino, that control many inventions and instil them with smart characteristics.

Whilst walking around, I chatted to a couple who had developed a smart city solution for car sharing. The system registers who uses which car and the costs are automatically settled. A pilot in Cagliari is well on its way. I ate “food of the future”, where algae and insects were incorporated into a range of surprisingly edible foods. There was a design for a computer with unlimited computational power, a hyper-efficient electromotor, drones to measure air quality, an enormous printer to squeeze mud and straw into the shape of houses, all sorts of robots and much, much more.

Maker Faire Rome 2016

Professor Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and one of the creators of the Fab Lab concept, awarded the main prize to a couple of students. Francesco Pezzuoli and Dario Corona had invented a smart glove that registers sign language movements and translates them, via a smartphone, into speech. This can reduce the gap between those with hearing impairments and the rest of the population.

So why did I have the feeling that all this talent was, as yet, undiscovered? To begin with: it seems that the makers themselves do not fully realize that – besides having a brilliant idea – a lot more is needed to bring a desirable and successful product to market. They seem to be preoccupied with their own technical solution. But I found many of their answers to my questions regarding their business plans to be weak. Because of this, I fear that many encouraging projects will fail unnecessarily.

Most makers subscribe to the ideas behind the open source movement and most ideas are directly related to creating a better world, for disadvantaged people, for the environment or in other ways. They have an allergy to being “commercial”. Commendable perhaps? But, at the same time it is somewhat strange: Because makers also crave financial stability and a healthy future perspective for their brainchildren.

Maker Faire Rome 2016

The thing that occurred to me above all, was that the visitors to the stands were hardly encouraged to contribute at all. Those guests walked around full of interest, with their own opinions, judgments and additional ideas. I saw them being quite impressed with the various projects and they enjoyed discussing things with the makers. But, the other way around, the technically oriented makers seemed to have a blind spot for the potential contribution of the visitors. After seeing what a project was all about, the visitors generally just walked away without there being any lasting connection. Unless they remember to go online once they get home and search out the maker projects they liked the best.

I believe that the interested public can do much more than just listen: they can sign up to take part as guinea pigs for prototypes and pilot tests. They can share their ideas for application areas and user situations. They can offer their experience and knowledge of, for example, marketing and commercialization.

Apart from some notable exceptions, most maker projects do not achieve large scale penetration in practice. For some, that is not the intention. Other ideas may just not be good enough. But I believe that too often this is because the makers try and do everything themselves. Whilst their strength often lies in the technology and not in other equally important areas. Why do they not endeavour to build a community around their project from the well-intentioned visitors to their stands? Why do they not see the benefit of increasing the reservoir of available knowledge and talent which they could make use of in making their project sustainably successful?

Maker Faire Rome 2016

All in all, the vibrant Maker Faire Rome showed me something highly encouraging: Through access to advanced production technologies an enormous potential for innovation is being awakened within the citizen population. Should large-scale production firms, such as those making consumer electronics, consumables and chemical products, fear a new wave of competition? Well, I actually see the makers as representing a new opportunity for these firms. New forms of collaboration between incumbents and these hobbyists and free spirits have not been well explored. By understanding the makers’ motivations and by offering them resources, new win-win situations could regularly be achieved.

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