Does the Maker Movement Hold the Key to Economic Growth?

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The power of this movement is its ability to draw production back into cities. This can have profound economic and social benefits.

MakerspaceA man builds a 3D printer at a makerspace. (Getty)

This is an excerpt from NLC’s upcoming report, The Maker Movement. The report was created in partnership with the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University.

If you’ve visited Pittsburgh lately, you might have noticed companies like Google and TechShop have setup outposts in the city’s developing urban core. Drawing on the prowess of the robotics engineering programs at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Melon, the city has found a new calling, becoming one of the most encouraging spots for innovation in the country, and the so-called maker movement.

These economic investments in startups, makerspaces and the technology sector are resulting in real dividends for the city. Revenue from economic growth has translated into protected bike lanes, open spaces and parks, and events – projects aimed at making the city a place people want to stay and lead active lives.

From Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh to rugged outdoors towns like Burlington, Vermont, the maker movement is providing localities a framework for unlocking growth and engaging citizens. With the growth of the movement, which views the producer as the consumer, co-location of manufacturing, engineering and design is common – a process that is transforming our city landscapes.

And that’s the power of the movement: its ability to draw production back into the cities where consumption occurs. This can have profound economic and social benefits. In addition to added jobs, proximity means more innovative potential for workers. The untapped skills and knowledge of out-of-work producers become part of the creative economy of the city.

But, what is the maker movement, exactly?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States’ technology and manufacturing industries experienced a significant transition. With the advent of the Internet, computers began shrinking in size and price, while global connections grew exponentially and economies became inextricably linked.

During this time, the U.S. began outsourcing much of its technological needs. However, the introduction of new technologies such as 3D printers and non-commercial droids spurred an interest in Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Do-It-With-Others (DIWO) hobbies. Faster prototyping and the availability of fabrication tools as well as easier sourcing of parts and direct distribution of physical products online further contributed to the desire to grow community workspaces.

In this sense, the maker movement gained momentum from the increasing participation of all kinds of people in interconnected communities, defined by interests and skills. The increased predominance of makerspaces offers individuals a compelling social experience that is built around interpersonal relationships.

According to Atmel Corporation, the leading manufacturer of microcontrollers and touch technology semiconductors, and a major backer of the maker movement, there are an estimated 135 million U.S. adults who are makers. In 2013, Wired magazine reported that the overall market for 3D printing products and similar maker services reached $2.2 billion in 2012, a compounded annual growth rate of almost 29 percent when compared to the $1.7 billion the industry recorded in 2011. Projections are expected to reach $6 billion by 2017 and reach $8.4 billion by 2020.

Each region of the U.S. and each local community has a slightly varied understanding of what the actual maker movement is, and its definition is often affected by the unique economic environment of each locality. In many cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the maker movement has emerged organically as former manufacturing cities look to diversify by incorporating innovative new technologies into their existing factories.

The transition away from generic, mass-produced, made-in-China merchandise and back to local industry seems to encourage entrepreneurs who are looking to share their ideas and innovations with other like-minded people, and build broad-based support for the maker movement.

Brooks Rainwater bio photoAbout the Author: Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.