Maker Spaces are fascinating on several counts, but the most important one is something you might not have thought of: the secret sauce of Maker Space innovation isn’t something inside the building, but rather what’s around it. The Maker Spaces themselves only need to be large, open, cheap, and wired... and you can find places like this almost anywhere. It’s what they’re connected to around them that determine how innovative their work is likely to be.
What Makers Do
Makers do two basic things: They recover old crafts, and they figure out how to do new stuff. So a Maker Space is part school and part laboratory. Makers are both learning and doing, and they must learn skills in order to make stuff. Often, they’re working with supplies or components that are old and cheap, but it is specifically this low entry threshold that makes what they’re doing so accessible and empowering, as they hack and crack their way under the hoods of disciplines as diverse as cooking, computers, sewing, and rocketry.
Why They Do It
Actually, you should ask one of them why they do it, as you’ll get some interesting answers. But at their core, Makers are a lot like the free bird above. While the rest of us might be more like the birds caged inside, comfortable and out of the elements because we’re supported by all our complex systems from air conditioning to the industrial food chain, makers relish getting outdoors. And in the process of learning the skills they learn and figuring out the things they’re discovering, they become much more robust and resilient as they become acclimated to the inner workings of things the rest of us take for granted.
Ask a random person on the street about innovation and how it is produced, and chances are, they’ll begin to tell you about companies like Apple that work with big budgets, the latest technology, strong corporate infrastructure, and maybe piles of cash. This corporate sort of innovation depends on large power structures and massive infrastructure. Maker innovation is almost completely opposite. Budgets can be small or non-existent, often using found or donated materials. Technologies might be decades (or sometimes centuries) old. And while it’s completely impossible for one person to create a product like an iPhone on their own, almost all Maker innovation occurs in small groups that are often as tiny as a single person. Maker innovation removes the necessity of as many outside power structures as possible, depending often on little more than a roof overhead and electrical power.
Things That Spark the Mind
Entire books are written on innovation-rich environments… far too many to reference here, although Richard Florida’s Creative Class series of books are some of my favorites. But in any case, it’s clear that some settings foster going through the same motions repeatedly, while others are seedbeds of innovative thought. Innovative settings tend to be those where many things are possible… places where there are many ways to turn, and where on a whim you might turn another way and end up at a different place. There, you might see someone you didn’t expect, or maybe even meet someone new. And if that person doesn’t do what you do but wants to hear about your work, then you just might be entering that most insight-rich zone of looking at your work through the lens of another discipline.
Corporations with a highly innovative culture and track record are often insanely focused on a narrow product line, as Steve Jobs famously characterized when he said "I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things we have done.” It should be no surprise that getting thousands of corporate creatives focused on those few products seems to call for an inward-looking setting. Makers, again, are almost exactly opposite. There aren’t normally enough of them to just happen into very many unplanned meetings with other disciplines inside the Maker Spaces… at least not every day. Sometimes it works, but you’re dealing at most with a few dozen people on any give day, not thousands. So it’s essential for Makers to look outward, connecting broadly with who's around.
Three Maker Innovation Essentials
The workplace is obviously essential, as this is where the work is done, but there are no absolute essentials for the workplace beyond being big, open, cheap, and wired. The second essential is the walkspace around the workplace, which is the collection of paths leading to the third essential category, which is where connections with others can occur.
Beyond the essentials of being big, open, cheap, and wired, there are a few other attributes that are helpful: First, unless you’ve found a really cheap warehouse, an old building in a soon-to-be-recovering neighborhood is important because nothing else is likely to be cheap enough, as Jane Jacobs pointed out years ago. You need the space wired with electricity, but also equipped with wireless Internet. There should be places to work alone and places to work together, places to meet and present, and places to post stuff to read. There should probably be a paint booth, and definitely a place to clean up.
Here’s where it gets fun. The innovative potential of the paths that make up the walkspace is directly proportional to the Walk Appeal of those paths because you’ll walk much further (and therefore reach far more connection points) on paths with great Walk Appeal. But it’s not just about self-propelled transportation. "Thinking on your feet” is no longer just a euphemism for the ability to think quickly; we now understand that walking (and other physical activity) may actually stimulate the brain. So just as fostering better Walk Appeal builds a stronger customer base for businesses, that same better Walk Appeal builds a more innovative walkspace around a Maker Space. So Maker Spaces should be doing everything they can to enhance the Walk Appeal of their walkspaces, both the measurable things and the immeasurable, knowing that those things directly build their chances of innovation.
What should Maker spaces hope to connect to? Makers are disproportionately young, and the young tend to be less wealthy than the old. And because Gen Xers and Millennials are less likely to own cars, it’s important to be close to housing most of them can afford. Affordable housing can be smaller units like one- or two-bedroom cottages, or it can be accessory units like carriage houses, rear-of-lot cottages, upstairs or lower level apartments, rear lane cottages or even mews, all located on lots with larger houses that are normally occupied by the landlords. Maker spaces should be located near civic space such as a park, green, square, or plaza because that’s a destination where you don’t have to spend money. Walkable places to eat are a must; the two essentials are third places where you can set up shop and work. Coffee shops are a type of third place that arguably spawned the Enlightenment a couple centuries ago, and they are the adopted homes of today’s Creative Class. There are more connection places that are also good Sprawl Recovery tools, but these are the first essentials.
The Tactical Urbanists (a group populated by quite a few Makers) are great at starting things on shoestrings… their own well-worn shoestrings, in fact. Build your Maker Space walkspace and foster connections along the way as tactically as you can. And pay particular attention to the new Lean Urbanism initiative… Makers are fundamentally Lean, so many ideas should be cross-pollinated between these groups. And by all means, recognize that Makers are arguably creating the most vibrant living tradition in our culture today… so use the tools of living traditions to build the walkspace and its connections. The opposite to a living tradition is the command & control operating system, which is perfect for building armies and factories. It’s the operating system best suited for most corporations. Living traditions, on the other hand, are the best operating systems for building buildings and towns… and the thriving Maker movement. Command & control thrives on large numbers, global trade, and petroleum. Living traditions thrive at scales too small for the factory and with local trade, and are fueled by ingenuity. Command & control depends on us taking orders. Living traditions depend on us talking to each other. They are the highest form of ideas that spread, and are characterized by “plant small, harvest large."
PS: If you want more on this, I’m doing three-hour presentations on these ideas at the Traditional Building Conferences in Boston in July and St. Paul in September. If you’re around, please come!