Makerspace: Towards a New Civic Infrastructure

Makerspaces are at once an emerging architectural and institutional typology and a manifestation of the so-called sharing economy. But will they last?

Billboard, Silicon Valley, August 2011. [Dave Jenson]

Travel on Amtrak, on the Northeast Corridor route, and you pass through the heart of the mid-Atlantic post-industrial landscape. Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark: these cities once made everything from rope to steel to transistors, taking raw materials from the heartland and transforming them into products for export. Now the train rumbles by abandoned brick factories with broken windows and scattered new glass-walled bank towers — a region in the midst of economic transition.

Last year, in late summer, I took the train from Baltimore to New York; I was traveling as a research fellow for the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, studying the rise of maker culture. My first stop was the Museum of Art and Design, to meet with Lowery Stokes Sims, curator of the very first Makers Biennial. The exhibition wound through several floors of the building, even occupying the stairwells, which had been surfaced with scratch-and-sniff wallpaper. In the catalogue, MAD director Glenn Adamson underscored the changing concept of craft and the museum’s own evolving mission. “We use the term ‘making’ — as opposed to other such closely related terms as craft, workmanship, and artistry — because it emphasizes the active and open nature of our subject. To capture this fascinating range of production,” he wrote, “only a very broad term like ‘making’ will do.” 1

The Biennial was the first time in recent years that a major American museum had conceptualized maker culture as more than a hobbyist pursuit: MAD was positioning it as a new amalgam of art, craft, and technology. Objects in the exhibition ranged from straightforward artifacts — axes, benches, chandeliers, et al. — to conceptual works including terrariums, reactive sculptures, and digital installations. Up on the sixth floor, artist-in-residence Andrew Salomone was using the museum’s proto-makerspace to create ski masks knitted with images of faces. Very little of popular maker culture, like drones or 3D printers, was represented.

Installation, Makers Biennial, Museum of Art and Design, New York City, 2014. [MAD]

Left: Maker Faire, New York City. [Will Holman] Right: Maker Faire, New York City. [Scott Beale]

The next day I took the subway to Queens, to visit the Maker Faire being held on the grounds of the New York Hall of Science. Developed in 1964 for the World’s Fair, the Flushing Meadow site was packed with over 100,000 attendees, paying $40 each to see 3D-printed cars and fighting drones, and all manner of beeping, blinking, and barking mechanical creations. Organized by Maker Media, the Faires are held annually in New York and San Francisco, along with dozens of franchised mini-events in other cities. All the big players in the nascent maker economy were represented: Instructables, Autodesk, Kickstarter, Inventables, ShopBot, 3D Systems, MakerBot Industries. NASA engineers and 3D printing pioneers gave presentations, but the most popular exhibit seemed to be a twice-daily choreographed fountain of Coke Zero and Mentos.

Together the museum and the fair staked out the limits of the modern maker spectrum, which oscillates between bleeding-edge application and grown-up play, between small businesses and corporate giants, between promising technology and unfulfilled potential. Lately all these tensions are being brought to bear in the growing makerspace movement. Today there are more than 300 makerspaces in the United States, ranging in size from a few dozen members to several hundred, and offering, usually for a monthly membership fee, access to tools, technology, and classes. Makerspaces are at once an emerging architectural and institutional typology and a manifestation of so-called sharing economy business models, pooling resources to time-share expensive equipment. Many of the companies exhibiting at the Maker Faire, including MakerBot Industries, got their start in makerspaces.

The maker spectrum oscillates between bleeding-edge application and grown-up play, between small businesses and corporate giants, between promising technology and unfulfilled potential.

But despite huge attendance at the Maker Faire and a stream of upbeat articles in Make Magazine, the makerspace concept is experiencing growing pains. TechShop, a commercial chain, recently announced plans to seed 1,000 locations nationwide, even as it struggles to raise the funding to support such ambitions. And observers acknowledge, “it’s difficult to figure out how the individual craftspeople … will ever have decent pensions or other forms of security associated with more traditional employment.” A popular makerspace in Brooklyn, 3rd Ward, closed abruptly in 2013 after an ill-fated expansion into Philadelphia; no matter that some had already paid several thousand dollars for “unlimited lifetime memberships.” 2 And the movement is struggling with lack of diversity; according to Maker Media’s own surveys, the movement is overwhelmingly male, well-educated, and affluent. 3 With the maker economy projected to hit $8.41 billion by 2020, it is worth asking whether we are witnessing the birth of a durable movement or another trendy notion about civic innovation. 4

To some extent, the tensions are explained by William Gibson’s oft-repeated truism: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” As physical infrastructure, makerspaces can only draw members from a certain geographic radius, and they require serious up-front investment in real estate, equipment, and staff; thus they are difficult to scale. So far their distribution has followed population density, with makerspaces taking root in cities with a large enough middle-class to create a user base that can afford fairly expensive memberships. Almost half of all makerspaces are member-driven clubs, suggesting that committed early adopters are driving the movement. Barely more than ten percent of makerspaces are for-profit businesses, which further underscores the challenge of convincing customers that membership merits high fees. And while the case for makerspaces has centered on educational and economic impact, there is little proof to date that the organizations help their members earn a real living or learn anything beyond a smattering of D.I.Y. skills.

Yet the potential for makerspaces is high. In America there are almost 120,000 libraries, 2,600 YMCAs, and 1,100 community colleges, most of which provide education and access to shared resources. 5 For makerspaces to become similarly ubiquitous and sustainable platforms, they need to offer the kind of institutional stability that will support meaningful community programming, educational opportunity, and grassroots economic growth. A glance at the history of makerspaces illustrates both the challenges and opportunities of building communities, and businesses, around the ethos of shared making.

Thomas Edison’s laboratory, Menlo Park, New Jersey, 1878. [Rutgers University]

“The diffusion of knowledge at the least expense to the seeker”

San Francisco is currently the epicenter of innovation in the United States; it’s also a city with a history of maker movements. In March 1855, the Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco was organized for “the diffusion of knowledge at the least expense to the seeker.” 6 Part of a global movement that began in Scotland in the early 19th century, Mechanics’ Institutes combined libraries, lecture halls, laboratories and, in an era before widespread artificial lighting, illuminated reading rooms. The Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore’s oldest college, was founded in 1826 by Benjamin Latrobe as the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts. The Institutes were supported by subscription fees, and meant to educate working-class “mechanics” — today’s engineers, tradesmen, and builders. The San Francisco branch also organized industrial arts fairs, where “manufacturers, inventors, and merchants came in touch with the public.” 7 An early fair, in 1857, hosted over 900 exhibits, highlighting new Californian industries like paper mills as well as the first beetroot sugar plant on the West Coast. Not exactly schools or libraries, Mechanics’ Institutes were ur-makerspaces: member-based public workshops where people could learn, collaborate, and build things for a reasonable price.

Despite the popular myth of the lone genius-inventor, Edison and Bell both recognized the value of collaboration and invested in well-equipped lab spaces.

In that same era, another kind of early maker space was forming around the activities of major inventors. In 1876, after he sold the rights to the quadraplex telegraph to Western Union, Thomas Edison used the proceeds to establish a research lab — what he would soon call his “invention factory” — in Menlo Park, New Jersey. A year later, in Washington, D.C., after winning the Volta Prize for the invention of the telephone, Alexander Bell started the Volta Laboratory, which would later inspire the creation of the storied Bell Labs. Despite the popular myth of the lone genius-inventor, Edison and Bell both recognized the value of collaboration and invested in well-equipped lab spaces. Other enterprising businesses and inventors took up the idea, and from 1900 to 1940 approximately 350 research labs were founded in the United States.

These labs pioneered inventions that would shape the 20th-century, from broadcast media to electric refrigeration, and they played no small role in the development of technologies — from microwave radar to uranium enrichment — that proved crucial to the Allied victory in World War II. In the postwar decades, the research-and-development activity not only continued but even intensified; consumer demand, the space race, and the cold war kept both laboratories and factories humming. Bell Labs, by then benefiting from a near-monopoly of the U.S. telephone market, was especially productive, boasting inventions from the transistor to the laser and eventually holding an astounding 29,000 patents.

Early computer workstations created at Xerox PARC. [Jonathan Assink]

Across the country, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, founded in 1960, was becoming a hub for collaborative innovation in digital technology, creating such game-changers as the computer mouse and the graphical user interface. (The story of Steve Jobs’s visit to Xerox PARC, in 1979, as he and Steve Wozniak were creating the early Apple computers, is now Silicon Valley legend.) Some postwar inventions would bear directly on today’s maker movement, thought it would take decades for the technology to trickle down to consumer-grade applications. In 1948, airplane manufacturer John Parsons and one of his engineers, Frank Stulen, invented Numerical Control, a system for operating metal-milling machines with punch cards. NC controls grew into Computer Numerical Control, or CNC, which abandoned punch cards in favor of software, and this in turn led to the invention of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, in 1984. Over the next generation, driven by the expiration of key patents, CNC and 3D printing technologies evolved into consumer-facing machines that fit on a desktop and cost less than $1,000.

Dedicated to developing sophisticated technologies and bringing the results to market, the R&D labs had little public presence. Most were located within the closed confines of a university or corporation, and their cultures were competitive and secretive. To some extent this was due to intellectual property concerns — the labs were funded by profits from patented inventions. But the isolationist mentality arose as well from strong ties to the military — many labs depended upon defense department contracts — and also from the elitism of leading-edge scientific culture. And on a practical level, the facilities were costly. Demand for highly educated researchers was high, and computing power was expensive, requiring trained mathematicians to program equations and skilled technicians to replace vacuum tubes. In 1959, the U.S. Air Force was renting computing time at $200 an hour, or $1,600 in today’s dollars. 8

Tech Model Railroad Club, MIT, ca. 1960. [MIT]

“An odd subculture”

Scattered evidence points to early attempts at creating shared, public D.I.Y. facilities. In 1940 Popular Mechanics informed readers about a “build-it-yourself” craftsmen workshop in San Francisco that was renting space and tools to “enable anyone to build a wide variety of things from toys and tiny plane models to full-size boats and automobile trailers.” 9 In 1946, the Tech Model Railroad Club was founded at MIT and soon shared space in the building that housed the school’s famous radiation lab. Journalist Steven Levy, in his 1984 Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, credits the club as the first group of computer geeks intent on bending new digital technology to creative ends. “An odd subculture was pulling itself up by its bootstraps,” he wrote, “and growing to underground prominence — to become a culture that would be the impolite, unsanctioned soul of computerdom.” 10 Though small, the Tech Model Railroad Club, which still exists, was highly influential, with several members who would later create foundational computer programming languages and the architecture of the World Wide Web.

Some early maker spaces were created by the public sector. In London, during the deep recession of the early ’80s, voters elected a leftist city council to protest the austerity policies of the Thatcher government. Labour politicians quickly set up the Greater London Enterprise Board, which in turn established five Technology Networks with a budget of £4 million. These facilities, direct antecedents to modern makerspaces, were shared machine shops that aimed to democratize the means of production and access to education for unemployed manufacturing workers. According to technology scholar Adrian Smith, participants “developed various prototypes and initiatives; including electric bicycles, small-scale wind turbines, energy conservation services, disability devices, re-manufactured products, children’s play equipment, community computer networks, and a women’s IT co-operative.” 11 The long-term plan was to create an “open access product bank” of innovations created within the network, with profits from the inventions distributed to members. Connected with labor unions, socialist politics, and community centers, the network operated for only three years before falling victim to political headwinds. But the idea was prescient, anticipating open-source hardware development for consumer-facing applications years before it became common practice.

ADX, Portland, Oregon. [Tony Webster]

In the past twenty years, the hacker-maker ethos has gained so much ground that it’s moved from geekdom to the mainstream (much like geekdom itself). In 1995, C-Base, one of the first hackerspaces, was started in Germany as an open electronics laboratory dedicated to providing free internet access to local communities. In 2001, the Center for Bits and Atoms started at MIT as a “unique digital fabrication facility that gathers tools across disciplines and length scales for making and measuring things.” Four years later, the Center launched the first Fab Lab — a “technical prototyping platform for innovation and invention, providing stimulus for local entrepreneurship” — which since has grown from one location in South Boston to a network of fifty-nine labs throughout the United States and 579 internationally. In 2006, the first TechShop opened in Menlo Park, California, as a for-profit public-access workshop; there are now eight active locations. Dozens of large-scale, independent makerspaces have appeared in cities across the country, including Artisan’s Asylum, in Boston; ADX, in Portland, Oregon; the Crucible, in Oakland, California; Dallas Makerspace; and the Columbus [Ohio] Idea Foundry. So have hundreds of smaller makerspace clubs — garages crammed with 3D printers, laser cutters, and secondhand tools. According to the community Wiki, over 500 hackerspaces are now open or in the planning stages in the U.S. alone.

Today makerspaces (along with much else in our culture) are dividing along the familiar organizational lines that separate the for-profit and non-profit worlds. TechShop is the most successful for-profit; Fab Lab is the leader of the non-profit network model. Meanwhile the most significant growth is happening at the smaller scale of the member-driven clubs. Each model has seen successes and failures, and no single set of best practices has yet emerged from all the churn.

TechShop has taken a straightforward, franchise approach to expanding its operations. Usually located in relatively upscale areas, the various branches feature workshops with a retail space where customers can buy drone kits, welding rods, t-shirts, and maker books. TechShops offer access to high-profile technologies like water-jet and plasma cutters; according to its website, each location contains “over $1 million” worth of equipment. User access is controlled via keycard swipe points. 12 Memberships range from $150 to $200 per month, depending on location (and required “safety and basic usage” classes for equipment often add several hundred dollars in fees to the cost of a basic membership.) 13 The operations are lean and tightly managed from the Menlo Park headquarters: class curricula are standardized, staff members wear uniforms, and hourly pay starts low. To break even, each branch needs to sign up at least 330 members every year. 14

TechShop, San Francisco. [Kevin Krejci]

TechShop, San Francisco. [Kevin Krejci]

Though TechShop has declared bold plans to extend the franchise around the U.S., lately the company seems to be running up against the limits of scalability. Anecdotal evidence on Yelp and Google suggests that users consider the monthly membership rates too steep and resent the extra costs of the safety and usage classes. As a result, enrollments have remained flat, and some branches — notably Portland, Oregon, and Raleigh, North Carolina — have failed outright. In response, new locations now operate in partnership with local institutions: Arizona State University, in Chandler; Ford Motor Company and AutoDesk, in Detroit; the Veteran’s Administration, in Arlington; and DARPA, in Pittsburgh. The partners contribute to the build-out of the facilities, and subsidize daily operations by buying a tranche of memberships for distribution to employees, students, or veterans.

The Fab Foundation, which oversees the growing community of Fab Labs, has taken a different approach. In the past few years, it has built not a consumer business but rather a loose and decentralized network. Fab Labs typically focus on five core digital fabrication technologies: CNC routing, laser cutting, vinyl cutting, 3D printing, and circuit board fabrication. (The emphasis on purely digital fabrication can lead to occasional absurdities, like using a CNC router to cut plywood sheets in half for want of a circular saw. 15) To become a Fab Lab, an organization must sign onto the Fab Charter, which requires each facility to acquire the core technologies, operate in a safe and transparent manner, and function as a “community resource, offering open access for individuals.” The Fab Labs have proven very popular; low start-up costs and limited barriers to organizational entry have produced a hockey-stick growth curve.

Yet broad-based appeal isn’t translating easily into economic sustainability. In 2005, the National Science Foundation awarded the Fab Labs $14 million in grants to seed the network. But NSF funding didn’t extend beyond the first year, and lack of ongoing support has driven the majority of U.S. labs into the arms of sponsoring institutions — universities, community colleges, even high schools — that can provide staff or operational support by folding the Fab Lab into existing educational programming. (This process has been facilitated by several Massive Open Online Courses available through the Fab Academy, which offer MIT-level instruction on project ideation, design, and digital fabrication. 16)

TechShops and Fab Labs have each, in their different ways, brought sophisticated technologies to thousands of aspiring makers, and each has midwifed some impressive citizen innovations, from the foldable Oru kayak (TechShop) to a sheep-tracking device for rural Norwegian herders (Fab Lab). They’ve democratized access to costly equipment, expanded educational programs, and served as platforms for prototyping and invention. The next challenge is plain: to build a deeper maker economy that can sustain makerspaces, and makers themselves, on a broader scale.

3-D printer at FabLab, Brussels. [Marc Wathieu]

MTM Multifab, the multi-material 3-D printer developed at the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms. [Flickr / Commons]

“Regular people with extraordinary tools”

Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, published in 1948, remains the most comprehensive survey of industrialization. Giedion offers a detailed chronicle of the history of making things since medieval times, describing how manual production in small workshops gave way to mechanized production in large factories that “mold the manufactory into a single great tool wherein all the phases of production, all the machines, become one great unit.” 17 That “single great tool” of the modern factory was inherently inflexible but maniacally efficient: typically it was designed to spit out tremendous quantities of one self-same thing. And for a long time the system functioned smoothly. Mass production created mass employment which in turn encouraged mass consumption — an industrial economic cycle now threatened by intensifying globalization and splintering demand.

In Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Chris Anderson argues that the future of manufacturing lies in distributed design and production — a resurgence of the workshop system, powered by digital fabrication and a decentralized workforce. “The beauty of the Web is that it democratized the tools both of invention and of production,” writes Anderson. The digital revolution is thus enabling a whole new generation of makers:

The digital has now reached the workshop, the lair of Real Stuff, and there it may have its greatest impact yet. Not just the workshops themselves (although they’re getting pretty cool these days), but more what can be done in the physical world by regular people with extraordinary tools. 18

Anderson uses his own company, 3D Robotics, as his primary example of what can happen when regular people get hold of extraordinary tools. Hatched in 2009 in an online forum called DIY Drones, 3DR was enabled by the contributed (a.k.a., free) expertise of network participants around the world; it also didn’t hurt that Anderson, a best-selling author and former editor-in-chief of Wired, was already wealthy and well-connected in Silicon Valley. Facilitated by low-cost global marketplaces like Alibaba, the Berkeley-based company manufactures both drones and drone kits for the consumer market; it employs several hundred people and is lately benefiting from the optimism of investors: earlier this year the company attracted $50 million in venture capital.

I myself am a participant in this hazy new economy: a year and a half ago, I designed a chair for a London-based startup called OpenDesk that hosts source files for CNC-fabricated furniture. My chair has accumulated 2,700 (and counting) downloads on six continents, though apparently it has been constructed only a few times. 19 The young company — OpenDesk was founded in 2013 — is ambitious; it’s aiming squarely at the IKEA market, figuring that flat-pack furniture can be designed anywhere and fabricated efficiently near the point of consumption. Downloads are largely free, so all the buyer needs are the materials and tools. TechCrunch has even called it “IKEA for open source zealots.” Chris Anderson has described this arrangement as the “service bureau”: a combination of digital source files and physical output devices, coupled into a flexible factory. In other words, a kind of virtual makerspace.

No matter the overheated rhetoric of ‘personalized fabrication,’ conventional manufacturing is really good at making high-quality and mass-customized products.

In recent years the online marketplace for makers — including such prominent players as OpenDesk, Etsy, Shapeways, Ponoko, Quirky, Kickstarter, and The Grommet — has grown phenomenally. For geeks and techies, craftspeople and artisans, the appeal is strong: the contemporary cottage industrialist has access to consumers worldwide for very low startup costs. But the exciting new model has hit a stubborn old obstacle: the market. As it turns out, the economics of making real stuff in a makerspace and selling it through web-based platforms are tough. Again, my own experience is illustrative. Royalties from my OpenDesk experiment have totaled $18 to date. In seven years as an Etsy seller, I made $4,826, or $57 a month. According to an internal report accessible online, although thirty percent of Etsy sellers “identify as business owners” and claim that the online marketplace generates full-time work, they earn less than the U.S. median wage and fewer than ten percent are able to employ someone else. (The report also reveals that eighty-eight percent are women.) While laying claim to the rise of the “maker millionaire,” TechShop has seen only a few truly successful businesses spin out of their spaces. Kickstarter has a thirty-seven percent failure rate, and the Internet is littered with tales of blown deadlines and undelivered rewards. 20 Look past the hype and it’s clear that the business of making is still remarkably unchanged by the digital age; success still relies on an unpredictable mix of hard work, good luck, and the exploitation of new market niches.

There is also the inconvenient fact that, despite the overheated rhetoric of “personalized fabrication,” conventional manufacturing is still really good at making high-quality and mass-customized products. You can order a car in countless colors, buy jeans in any style and size, and choose from a dizzying variety of mobile phones at every possible price point. The service-bureau, open-source model is poorly adapted to producing complex consumer machines like automobiles or kitchen appliances (though companies like Local Motors are trying). Makerspaces are not poised to overtake legacy factories anytime soon, and they still fare poorly in comparison with the older and more sophisticated system.

Makerspaces are not simply startup boot camps or the factories of the future.

Not surprisingly, given its tech lineage, the makerspace community continues to judge itself on the basis of startup metrics: fast expansion, impressive investment, and the appearance of so-called “unicorns” — ideas that blossom into companies worth billions. Yet so far, from the thousands of makerspaces worldwide, there has emerged exactly one unicorn: the payment system Square, which was prototyped in a Bay Area TechShop. But even here the tale quickly becomes cautionary: once valued at several billion dollars, the San Francisco-based company, started in 2009 by Jack Dorsey (who also co-founded Twitter), had a disappointing IPO that devalued the company from its pre-offering high by several hundred million dollars. 21 Despite the sheen of high technology and “disruptive” ideas, makerspaces haven’t come anywhere close to matching the volume and power of the inventions produced in the more traditional spaces of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC.

Which is not to say that makerspaces are failing; I’d argue that we aren’t using the right measurements to gauge their progress. Makerspaces are not simply startup boot camps or factories of the future. To argue that they can succeed merely by existing — build it and innovation will bloom! — is to ignore the multi-faceted nature of making and also the basic value proposition of the spaces themselves. To realize their potential and become the centers of a new cottage industrial revolution, makerspaces will need to adopt a more holistic approach. The movement will need to embrace spaces that feature both traditional and advanced fabrication tools at affordable prices; that provide not only for tooling but also for assembly; that offer wrap-around business services for maker enterprises; that develop maker education into a rigorous pedagogy; and that help build a sustainable market for maker-made goods and services.

Some makerspaces are already attempting to take on this more expansive economic, educational, and cultural role. More than a decade ago, Blair Evans, an MIT alumnus, engineer, and serial entrepreneur, founded a community work center in Detroit that has since evolved into Incite Focus. Today Incite Focus is a network of six charter schools that share two Fab Labs. From these have emerged various enterprises based upon digital fabrication: Fab Lab graduates are now working on net-zero homes built from CNC-routed components (one prototype is up, and a micro-development is planned for summer 2016) and on an urban farm based on permaculture principles (which is working to secure contracts to supply local hospitals and universities with organic food grown year-round in greenhouses). Evans is also piloting programs that aim to produce neighborhood-scale electric vehicles, biofuels, and commercial drones. 22 To put it another way: Incite Focus is exploring how makerspaces can focus not simply on the making of stuff and services but more broadly on the kind of community-based production that can support a sustainable local economy. The group is using proven old technologies (like permaculture) and updating them with agile new technologies (like digital fabrication). They are aiming to create a local market for local products — the ideas for which are generated in the Fab Labs — which in turn will drive local demand for skilled employees — alumni of the Fab Labs. In this way the Fab Labs would underpin a virtuous, albeit incredibly ambitious, economic cycle. 23

Some makerspaces are attempting to take on a more expansive economic, educational, and cultural role.

Evans’s approach recalls the activities of philosopher-builder Karl Hess, who in the late 1970s undertook an experiment in shared production in the (then) struggling Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington D.C. In Community Technology, Hess envisioned a local economy based on greenhouses, solar panels, basement fish tanks, and small-scale craft production that would happen in a network of “shared machine shops.” 24 Today Adams-Morgan is a gentrified neighborhood of trendy bars and upscale condos, with nary a shared machine shop in sight — which suggests the challenges that Incite Focus might yet face in an evolving Detroit. Certainly it would be a remarkable historical irony if a city once built upon heavy industry — one of the fabled “arsenals of democracy” that powered the military during World War II — were to be revived via community workshops focusing on aquaponics and renewables.

Made Right Here started in Pittsburgh in 2012.

In 2012, Pittsburgh entrepreneur and business strategist Bernie Lynch started a maker incubator called Made Right Here. Embedded within a local TechShop and launched with a U.S. Department of Labor grant, Made Right Here has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University, local foundations, and a loose coalition of startups in order to identify the skills needed in emerging sectors like robotics and networked devices. The result is an educational program focused on both hard and soft skills that gives out-of-work adults broad training in project management, product development, and digital fabrication. A couple hundred people have completed the program, which is now certified by the Department of Labor — right along with more traditional trade-school programs that train electricians, carpenters, and masons. Made Right Here is applying for further federal funding to franchise the model to cities around the country.

While Incite Focus is positioning itself along the radical end of the makerspace spectrum, Made Right Here is working to integrate the freewheeling principles of maker culture into the labor, industry, and government establishment. Its early success is beginning to open doors into public school curricula and union apprenticeship programs, and even onto factory floors. The larger potential is to create a sturdy employment pipeline in a city that has struggled greatly to recover from the decline of the domestic steel industry, and is tentatively charting a new path based partly on hardware and robotics. Made Right Here, with its emphasis on linking up diverse local entities, suggests how the makerspace movement might participate in the economic revival of at least one Rust Belt city.

Author's Note

My research into makerspaces has been supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and the Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation. I am also indebted to the following for sharing their insights and experiences: Fab Foundation and the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms; Bert Crenca, of AS220; Jess Muise and Derek Seabury, of Artisan’s Asylum; Kelly Zona, Mollye Bendell, and Hayley Evans, of Baltimore Fab Lab; and Piper Watson, John Shea, and Chris LaVoie, of the Station North Tool Library.

  1. Glenn Adamson, “Introduction,” in Jake Yuzna, NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial (New York: Museum of Art and Design, 2014).
  2. See Vivian Yee, “At Once-Promising Brooklyn Arts Center, Creative Hopes Are Dashed,” New York Times, December 2, 2013.
  3. See Karlin Associates, Attendee Study World Maker Faire 2014, November 2014, 9.
  4. See Tim Bajarin, “Why the Maker Movement is Important to America’s Future,” Time, May 19, 2014.
  5. See my makerspace survey, conducted from January to June 2015.
  6. See Joseph M. Cumming, “Theory and Practice: The Story of the Undertaking and Development of Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco,” Sunset Magazine, May 1907, 50.
  7. Ibid.
  8. See See David E. Weisberg, The Engineering Design Revolution, 2008, 3-10.
  9. Community Workshop Rents to Craftsmen,” Popular Mechanics, January 1940.
  10. Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984), Chapter 1, “The Tech Model Railroad Club,” accessed via Project Gutenberg.
  11. Adrian Smith, “Technology Networks for Socially Useful Production,” Journal of Peer Production, October 2014.
  12. Author visit to TechShop Arlington, August 8, 2014.
  13. Safety and Basic Usage certifications at the TechShop in Arlington, Virginia, range from $45 (silkscreening) to $185 (water-jet cutter) and average $90. Assuming certification on the basic tools of digital fabrication (CNC router, laser cutter, vinyl cutter) and hand fabrication (wood shop and metal shop), that’s five classes at $90/each, or $450 plus materials fees.
  14. TechShop’s website lists starting hourly pay for “Dream Consultants” and “Front Desk Inceptionists” at $11 to $13, depending on experience.
  15. I have visited over a dozen makerspaces in the past two years and repeatedly witnessed this sort of high-tech mismatch. While Fab Labs have no explicit ban on hand tools, many labs prefer to use the router for every woodworking operation because of perceived user safety.
  16. The Fab Academy MOOC program is built around MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld’s popular course, “How To Make Almost Anything.” Gershenfeld is director of the Center for Bits and Atoms.
  17. Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), 77.
  18. Chris Anderson, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (New York: Crown Business, 2012), 7, 13.
  19. See the “Zip Tie Lounge Chair,” by Object Guerilla Studio (Will Holman), hosted on OpenDesk.
  20. See, for instance, Casey Johnson, “Between Kickstarter’s Frauds and Phenoms Live Long-Delayed Projects,” Ars Technica, June 26, 2015
  21. See Boonsri Dickinson, “This is Where Jack Dorsey’s Vision for A New Payment System Came to Life” by Boonsri Dickinson, Business Insider, February 21, 2012. See also “Billion Dollar Unicorns: Can Square Sustain Its Valuation?,” February 2015, on One Million Blog; and Telis Demos’ “Square IPO May Prove to Be Turning Point for Technology Shares,” Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2015.
  22. Incite Focus is identified as a project partner for Food Plus Detroit, a sustainable food incubator program run through the Michigan State University Extension Partnership. For information about the zero-net-energy home project, see “Fab Lab: The DIY Factory That Can Make Anyone a Maker,” by Susan Berfield, Bloomberg Business, June 16, 2014. A neighborhood electric vehicle produced by Incite Focus students was featured at the 2014 White House Maker Faire
  23. I attended lectures by Blair Evans at DigiFabCon, November 17, 2014, in Baltimore, and at Fab11, August 2-9, 2015, in Boston, MA, where he spoke about these projects in detail.
  24. Karl Hess, Community Technology (Loompanics Unlimited, 1995), 96.
Will Holman, “Makerspace: Towards a New Civic Infrastructure,” Places Journal, November 2015. Accessed 28 Oct 2016. <>

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