Cities Can Help to Shape an Equal Opportunity Maker Movement

Etsy’s headquarters in Brooklyn, right (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

Imagine you’re opening a restaurant, let’s say 20 years from now. You’ve got the financing, you’ve got the location. You’ll also need a lot of stuff: stoves, ovens, fridges, pots and pans, cooking utensils, tables, chairs, silverware, and glassware. To buy some of that, maybe not all of it, you pull up an app on your phone, where you can share a little bit about you and your restaurant concept. Then, in the same way you can call up an Uber ride in 2016, you issue a request for bespoke items that local small-scale manufacturers can fill within days (and hopefully receive fair compensation).

That’s the promise hinted at in a report coming out today from National League of Cities (NLC), on how cities around the country are supporting the emergence and growth of the so-called maker movement.

“The maker movement has such great potential to alter the fabric of business and manufacturing in cities,” says Brooks Rainwater, co-author of the report. “The city itself is the place where the maker movement lives, breathes and succeeds. What you have here is the ability to localize the manufacturing of goods for people in that local area.”

An estimated 135 million adults in the U.S. are makers, according to sources cited in the report. But that figure is based on a broad definition of the maker movement, encompassing everyone from hobbyists, who are interested in the maker movement only for personal enjoyment, to technical entrepreneurs who seek to prototype products that can be brought to market for commercial production.

“I would imagine the number of commercially oriented makers would be quite a bit smaller,” Rainwater says.

How much smaller? In a survey of 4,000 Etsy sellers conducted in 2014 by Etsy itself, 76 percent of Etsy sellers considered their Etsy work to be a business; 30 percent focused on Etsy sales as their sole occupation. Etsy sellers aren’t necessarily representative of the entire maker movement, but Etsy’s founding in 1998 is the first cited in the NLC report’s timeline of key moments for the modern maker movement.

Cities are taking notice of the economic development potential of the maker movement.

“Over the years, we’ve seen city governments across the country support the Etsy sellers in their local economies in a myriad of ways,” an Etsy spokesperson writes via email. Last week, Etsy announced its first-ever Maker Cities Summit, slated for May 12-13 this year in Brooklyn. The summit aims to provide a space for the Etsy community to come together with representatives from their local governments and open the door for conversation and collaboration around local, sustainable economic development.

“What we’re seeing from cities is that there’s a lot more focus on the business-building aspect of maker spaces and how that can impact cities,” Rainwater says.

Rainwater highlights several examples of production-focused maker space settings, such as TechShop Detroit’s partnership with Ford, which rewards employees whose work has led to new Ford patented-technologies with a free membership to the national chain of small-scale co-manufacturing spaces. The Detroit location is a 33,000-square-foot facility next door to the Ford product development campus.

At TechShop’s Arlington, Virginia, location, another partnership exists with DARPA, the Department of Defense research and development arm.

“Those kinds of partnerships are where we’re starting to see some real movement happen from an economic development standpoint,” Rainwater adds.

Some have called Mayor Bill Peduto the first Maker Mayor, and Pittsburgh is the first city mentioned in the NLC report. The once iconic city of Rust Belt decay and industrial decline found its way back by leaning on the combination of engineering prowess at Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh with its manufacturing history. Google and Uber have both opened up shop in Pittsburgh as part of their battle to be the first to bring a self-driving car into mass production. Google’s Pittsburgh office shares a former Nabisco factory lot with TechShop Pittsburgh, in the city’s rapidly changing East Liberty neighborhood.

“We definitely see Pittsburgh as a great model. We’re actually having our annual conference there in the fall, so we’re thinking about how that can showcase some of the great work they’re doing in the maker movement and broader innovation space,” Rainwater says.

Of course, maker spaces like TechShop locations or the fourth floor of the Chattanooga Public Library, are just one component of the ecosystem for maker movement growth.

“A lot of cities we looked at for the report were looking at this from a systemic standpoint,” Rainwater says. “They weren’t looking at just having a maker space in their city and that would be the solution. They’re looking at the full suite, from STEM education to financing and how it all comes together.”

In Pittsburgh, maker-oriented incubator AlphaLab Gear (also located in East Liberty) is a microcosm of the maker movement. Its parent organization, InnovationWorks, is a state-sponsored seed-stage investor organization that has supported more than 175 companies since 1999, directly investing $62 million and counting, catalyzing over $1.5 billion in investment overall. Eighty venture capital firms from around the country have invested in InnovationWorks-seeded businesses. More than 85 percent of AlphaLab Gear alumni so far have received follow-on investments within eight weeks of completing the 40-week incubator program. AlphaLab Gear also runs a free eight-week summer program for students ages 16 to 18 on entrepreneurship and maker skills.

It’s hard to say how big the maker movement could get in terms of how many jobs or local businesses it may eventually encompass. But that also means those who are supporting it now have the ability to shape it in a way that could be much more equitable than other sectors of the economy that have become entrenched in the past few decades (looking at you, tech).

What the maker economy looks like now could indicate how its growth could shape the future overall economy. In Etsy’s 2014 survey, 86 percent of sellers were women, and 17 percent had a household income below $25,000. Forty-four percent reported using Etsy income for necessary household expenses. Sixty-one percent of Etsy sellers reported living in urban areas.

“We’re hopeful that more and more cities will focus on equitable economic development, and to think about the equity factor as they’re going in the maker movement direction,” Rainwater says.

Location is key, according to Rainwater. Putting maker spaces in public libraries could help shape maker spaces in a way that is broadly accessible, he says. Making sure such spaces are also easy to get to by public transportation is also essential to the equity part of the equation.

“Now is the time for policymakers to take charge and make sure there’s a focus on the equity side of the coin, that it has to be a critical part of this movement,” Rainwater says.