Is it the end of the industry we know it?
San Francisco Airport welcomes us in bright sunshine. This time we decide against a hire car in favor of an Uber driver, who takes us to San Mateo just half an hour away. San Mateo is one of the hotspots for start-ups in Silicon Valley, but our destination is neither one of the up-and-coming hightech forges nor one of the innumerable venture capital companies that have offices in the city. Instead, we alight on Saratoga Drive, where the annual “Maker Faire” is being held in the San Mateo Event Center.
Although the roots of today’s maker movement can be traced back to the early 1990s, the phenomenon has really only gained broad public attention in the past ten years. On the one hand, makers are a legacy of DIY culture. On the other hand, they are very much influenced by the self-sufficiency movement, which grew up from a critical stance towards mass consumption and the increasing formation of an oligopoly in the West.
This is exactly the right place to understand the significance of the maker movement for the present and, in particular, for the future. While there are now also maker spaces and maker fairs in Germany and other European countries, they have about as much in common with the event in San Mateo as a Boeing with a Cessna.
In the USA the belief has now taken hold that makers, open innovation and smart products can trigger a revolution – or have already triggered one. One look at the list of sponsors of the Maker Faire shows how seriously it is taken – from Google and Microsoft to Ford and NASA – the “who’s who” of the American economy is represented.
With their exuberant creativity, their huge number of unconventional, wacky and ingenious ideas (that you can witness on maker portals like etsy.com), makers have a lot in common with classical after-work handicraft enthusiasts and programmers. But they differ from them in one essential point. Desktop technologies that are available today such as 3D printing, CNC milling or CAD software, together with the possibility of using the Internet to aggregate ideas on a global scale to develop products, to produce in very high quality and to distribute them around the world, are challenging the certainties of the established economic order. New, web-based forms of organization and coordination are making it possible to bypass the advantages of scale and size as barriers to market entry and to transpose “garage start-ups” of the digital economy into conventional industry. Companies like Local Motors and 3D Robotics are demonstrating that such an approach is even possible in car manufacturing and machinery production.
The question as to whether the maker movement will actually be able to shatter established structures or merely replace individual industries is totally secondary.
The crucial point is that the smart product economy will run in dramatically faster cycles than the traditional economy, will be open and reach out across sectors, and it will be possible to put crazy ideas into practice and make money from them successfully. No company can cope with this speed and diversity on its own. “I’ll never again work for a different organization that employs so many intelligent people like the Federal Government of the United States – just think of DARPA. But I can guarantee you that even the US Government will lose out in a comparison with planet earth,” says Todd Park, former CTO and current advisor to the White House.
The creativity and originality, unconventional solutions and passion that can be felt all over the Maker Faire should be reason enough to question protective walls at the boundaries of conventional companies. Smart products can only develop their full effect – and be further developed fast enough – in networks. Key to this are global communities that are willing to share their own technologies and assets with their members to a much greater degree than is today the case. Visionary and courageous companies know that they will in future need makers.
We leave San Mateo with the thought that excessive self-certitude, fear and blinkers have never been particularly good counselors for change.