George Osborne should be pleased with himself for coining the phrase ‘the march of the makers’. He has certainly rolled it off his tongue plenty of times, and it has usefully reminded us all that we shouldn’t forget about manufacturing, which has for so long been cast into the policy wilderness. But the government’s support for the ‘makers’ has been more about attracting investment in the automotive industry, rather than bolstering an army of craftspeople tinkering in sheds. For the creative industries, the term ‘makers’ signifies something quite different from what the Treasury might think. Not steel magnates, chemical suppliers or factory owners, but artisans and inventors.
Although statistics around this amorphous movement are hard to come by, there are clear indicators that something important is happening. The phenomenon of the communal workshop is taking off under various names: there are now thousands of ‘hackspaces’, ‘maker spaces’, or ‘fab labs’ globally. Prominent UK maker spaces include Makerversity, bunkered under Somerset House, the Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow, and Fab Labs in Manchester and Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Internationally, we have seen the rise of Etsy, the online marketplace for makers that by the end of last year had 30 million users and US$1 billion of transactions.
Although the inhabitants of such spaces are often described as technology businesses, they are actually a more complicated, and more interesting, blend of design-digital-craft-tech-fabrication. Over the last couple of years I’ve met digital start-ups who quaintly describe themselves as ‘foundries’ (based in ‘Tech City’) and who work across what we would traditionally think of as manufacturing, crafts and the arts. These embody the spirit of experiment that characterised the first industrial revolution far more than those established manufacturing businesses that are the descendants of it. The ethos of the movement, with its emphasis on open source and collaboration is congruent with a wider rebellion against traditional business organisations. And it is a timely reminder in a period of increasing privatisation of city space that cities work best when they are about sharing resources.
So how can this resurgence of making be nurtured? Well, for once, it’s probably not worth demanding that we ‘put it on the curriculum’. Not only because that’s what every business group in the country is trying to do, but also because an assessment-driven environment would be lethal to the culture of tinkering. However, the following would all help:
- Above all else, the maker movement needs space. Creative makers are increasingly being priced out of city centres even though the ideas and inventiveness they bring are what make cities exciting, successful places. Planning regulations need to resist the rush to residential and generic commercial development, and local authorities should be prepared to do more to provide and protect the kind of light industrial workspaces that are needed.
- Many of the best publicly provided facilities, from kilns to soldering irons, are found in school and FE college design and technology labs, and these should be made more widely available at out-of-hours times. Other community facilities could also be put to use – might libraries’ mandate to provide public access to knowledge extend to ‘knowledge of making’?
- More broadly, industrial policy needs to be hauled into the 21st century. We need to update our language, our thinking and our departmental structures, to shake off the false dichotomy between ‘the creative industries’ and other parts of the economy. If innovation policy only focuses on the narrow measure of economic growth via the unhelpfully termed ‘high-tech’, it will miss much of the innovation that promises to revitalize not just the creative economy, but so much of the country.