Fab Labs and Maker Spaces in the New Economy
Season 1, Episode 6
In Episode 6: Fab Labs and Maker Spaces in the New Economy, Liam Grace Flood, MBA candidate at the Yale School of Management speaks with two guests on the origins and potential of the Fab Lab and Maker Space movement: Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, Professor from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and Jerry Davis, Associate Dean for Business and Impact at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Topics covered include: the third digital revolution, the potential for Fab Labs and Maker Spaces to create opportunities for self-sufficient production, the future of fabrication technologies and local versus corporate control of them, fabrication and implications for the future of work, and emerging practices for local governance and stakeholder control of Fab Lab networks. Before coming to Yale, Liam Grace-Flood, the podcast host for episode 6, spent a year exploring makerspaces and their broader context across Europe, South Asia, and South and East Africa as a Watson Fellow. Many of his learnings were published in a often-weekly column for Make: Magazine called Open World. Tune in to learn more!
Kate Cooney (00:00):
This is CitySCOPE.
Camilo Monge (00:01):
A new podcast from the Inclusive Economic Development Lab at the Yale School of Management.
Lauren Harper (00:05):
Where we learn about what might be possible in our city by talking with others about what is happening in theirs.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:11):
Are we ready?
Makerspaces are a big buzzword these days, but dig a little deeper and it’s a pretty diffused concept. Broadly speaking, they’re places where people make things, but they’ve come to be associated with new digital fabrication technologies, 3D printers, CNC machines, laser cutters, etc. The model has been heralded by some as revolutionary, offering high tech prototyping and fabrication facilities to people at a low cost and enabling replication and iteration on open source projects.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:00:56):
For some, this promises to disrupt corporate technology monopolies by allowing anyone anywhere to develop new technologies. For others, it seems like just a new way for established companies to source innovations. And there are persistent questions as to whether or not the model is innovative at all. We’ll dive a little deeper into these questions in this episode with inclusive economic development as our main lens.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:01:20):
I’m Liam Grace-Flood, an MBA candidate at the Yale School of Management and Inclusive Economic Development Lab student. Before coming to Yale, I spent a year exploring makerspaces and their broader context across Europe, South Asia and South and East Africa as a Watson Fellow. Many of my learnings were published in an often weekly column for Make Magazine called Open World. Today Professor Kate Cooney and I are talking to two experts.
Kate Cooney (00:01:45):
Jerry Davis is Associate Dean for Business and Impact at the Ross School of Business, holding a dual appointment as Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan, and Whitaker Professor of Business Administration at Ross. Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld is a professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, and previously served as a Professor and Dean in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois. Let’s begin with our conversation with Joel.
Kate Cooney (00:02:13):
Joel, you and your two brothers have written a book titled Designing Reality. Can you tell us about the collaboration and the different perspectives you and your brothers bring to this book?
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:02:28):
Certainly. The lead in the book is our middle brother, Neil Gershenfeld, who runs the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, and helped to launch the first Fab Lab in the South End of Boston in partnership with a community leader, Mel King. That was quickly followed by a replicated lab in India. And since then, the number of Fab Labs have been doubling every year and a half or two years to the point where there are 1,600 Labs in the world today and it’s become something of a movement.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:03:12):
Myself and my oldest son actually volunteered for a number of years in the early 2000s in the South End Technology Center, the first Fab Lab. And years later, when I became Dean of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, we persuaded the University of Illinois to build a Community Fab Lab. And so I was involved in the launch of that Lab.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:03:37):
So I wasn’t unfamiliar with the territory, but most of my work was in the area of facilitating high performance work systems, labor management partnerships, and multi-stakeholder collaboration and consortia, sort of macro social science. Our youngest brother Alan is a leader in social impact video games. And in a sense, works in the humanities in the arts, and in culture.
Kate Cooney (00:04:11):
It sounds like your careers are distinct, but in many ways also related. How did the three of you come to collaborate on this book?
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:04:19):
The evolution of the book really emerged as, sadly, my mother’s Alzheimer’s was advancing. She enjoyed having the three of us with her. And so we would literally sit at the table and talk about what we were each doing. And in those conversations, Neil, was what we would call a techno-optimist. He is a powerful leader driving the technology at the frontiers of digital fabrication. And Alan and I would say, “What about the social meaning of the work? What about the role in communities? What about governance?” We were sympathetic to what he was doing, but had a number of issues around the footprint of the technology in society. And the book really started from that point.
Kate Cooney (00:05:14):
I want to get into all of that. But first, let’s just talk a little bit about a big claim you make at the beginning of the book that fabrication can be viewed as the third digital revolution. Can you talk about why you conceive of it that way? And what are the first two digital revolutions? And what are the lessons that you’re drawing on in the face of this third digital revolution?
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:05:41):
The first digital revolution was digital communication. And it didn’t happen easily. My middle brother, Neil Gershenfeld, was at Bell Labs years ago and there were still people around who recalled the shift from analog to digital telephony. They said that the change happened not because digital was better, although it was, but because the advocates for analog either retired or died, which is of course, a long tradition in science of people being attached to the existing paradigm. But the shift from analog communications to digital not just made it possible for long distance calls to not have deteriorating quality, but to send data across various media in big bits and bytes, or bytes, in that case or packets.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:06:45):
And that was a revolutionary change, and it’s made really the whole internet possible. The second digital revolution is in computation. It’s the same digital logic of modular assembly and disassembly of bits, bytes and packets with error correction and other properties. But in this case, it’s for computation, not for communication. The third digital revolution is in fabrication. And the reason in the book we call it the third digital revolution is that the underlying science of digital technology is the same. That is, instead of running a machine, tool press or other way of manufacturing or fabricating items by hand, you’re actually converting a design to a digital message through a computer that you send to the machine toos to guide it.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:07:50):
Now today, we’re still using analog materials and later on, we can talk about the shift to digital materials which will be revolutionary in a further way. But the key thing is that once designs are made digital, all sorts of interesting things are possible. First of all, they can be shared and duplicated. Secondly, they can be modified and customized. In the case of mass production, of course, it allows for high volume precise manufacturing but what’s interesting about a Fab Lab is that it has all of the additive, subtractive and other properties that go into a manufacturing or production operation, but on a smaller scale so that it can sit in a library or in a neighborhood center or a school, but you still have, in a sense, the ability to make almost anything.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:08:51):
This is where Jerry Davis comes in. Jerry’s research is broadly concerned with corporate governance, finance and society and new forms of organizations. Recent writings examine whether shareholder capitalism is still a viable model for economic development, how income inequality in an economy is related to corporate size and structure, why stock markets spread to some countries and not others, and whether there exist viable organizational alternatives to shareholder owned corporations in the United States.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:09:21):
His latest book is The Vanishing American Corporation: Navigating the Hazards of a New Economy. I’ve heard it’s really good. We began by asking him what got him interested in makerspaces and he quickly brings us into a vision of the potential for new kinds of organization of work and production.
Jerry Davis (00:09:38):
So I grew up in the Detroit area and all of my grandparents moved to Detroit to make their fortune building Model T’s. That was kind of why people came to Detroit in the first place, and it’s this sort of iconic site of second industrial revolution, mass production. And so Detroit has always held this really important spot as sort of the birthplace of the 20th century way of making things. And having seen sort of the decline that the city fell into economically, and then the resilience of the people left behind. I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of alternative ways of making stuff.
Jerry Davis (00:10:19):
The maker movement and maker fairs all seemed like well, there might be some really interesting raw materials here. So I started going to the Detroit-based maker fairs and got to know sort of what some of the possibilities of the tools are; it’s kind of the opposite of mass production. It seems to allow potentially greater local control, and I was intrigued by listening to some of the enthusiasts like Ted Hall who’s the founder of ShopBot, who really thinks this could be an intriguing turning point in how we organize production.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:10:54):
A lot of what you write about in terms of makerspaces is around digital fabrication technology specifically and the future of work. What in your view are the promises of these technologies?
Jerry Davis (00:11:08):
The thing that I think is interesting about digital technologies, and particular various forms of CNC or computer numerically controlled tools is that they’re easy to use and they get cheaper and cheaper. So when I was your age, back 150 years ago, a laser printer cost about $10,000 and they would keep it locked away in a special room and you’d need a code to be able to use the thing. And it was a very sort of arcane piece of technology. And now you can go to any office supply store and buy a laser printer for about 50 bucks. And if you’ve got a ratchet computer, you can design some beautiful piece of work and print it out on this laser printer, something that would have taken crazy amounts of technology 30 or 40 years ago.
Jerry Davis (00:12:02):
That same cost curve is happening to CNC tools, they keep getting cheaper and better. And so what seemed promising was at some point, every home has a laser printer in it, you could imagine every neighborhood having a really nice ShopBot router and Tormach 4 Axis milling machine and basically a universal fabrication facility, that the cost would be low enough that every neighborhood could essentially have the tools to make many or even most of the things that they need locally.
Jerry Davis (00:12:37):
So that just seemed intriguing that if the cost is low enough, then access becomes really available to people. And if the skills to use this stuff become easily trainable, in two hours if you can you learn to use a water drill or a laser cutter, that seems to open up some really intriguing possibilities.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:12:58):
You also talk a lot about that kind of localization in line with talking about the proliferation of these spaces. What does this mean for global supply chains and locavorism?
Jerry Davis (00:13:12):
In the ideal world, you could imagine makerspaces being these sort of tools of local self-provisioning, so that a neighborhood that didn’t have a lot of resources could nonetheless sort of provide for itself by having the ability to create the things that it needs. And I tend to head straight for what’s the Black Mirror episode of this going to look like? So you can imagine, nation states collapsing but city states managing to sort of come back in their place by having access to the tools to provision for themselves.
Jerry Davis (00:13:50):
That’s a bit apocalyptic sounding. But the promise of that is in a city like Detroit, where average incomes are very low, it’s been kind of abandoned by the traditional industrial economy. Yet for $2 million, you could outfit a makerspace that could provide an awful lot of the things that people need, some basics like furniture and bookshelves and beds and things like that; and that seemed like a really interesting promise that, that local neighborhoods could have sort of access to global designs, but the tools to implement them locally.
Jerry Davis (00:14:28):
So I think local makerspaces feel like the realization of that think globally, act locally idea and you can find designs for furniture all over the world, customize it locally, make it from locally available materials. And that seems really attractive. I guess an analogy would be something like cookbooks. Here’s a really interesting food from Bhutan and you can figure out what the recipes are and adapt it to what are locally available materials. And this kind of imagines that at the level of physical production.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:15:02):
It’s interesting to use the analogy of cookbooks and that kind of necessity of adapting the recipes to locally available ingredients. I think a lot about Will Holman’s Medium post called “The Toaster Paradox,” which explores this kind of paradox of DIY that Thomas Thwaites toaster project explores. So Thomas Thwaites tried to make a toaster totally from scratch, mining the ore, the whole thing and it almost worked but not really. It looked vaguely like a toaster and was able to warm up a few degrees, but Holman took that to make an argument that DIY is based on the prefabrication of standardized parts. So even though we’re getting kind of more customizable at the production level, it relies on a much more standardized kind of back end.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:15:56):
So I wonder… I mean, you can’t see-unsee a piece of furniture unless you have that kind of standardized piece of plywood that fits on your CNC machine, which has often been produced and shipped from far away. I wonder what the localization not just of kind of that final stage of production looks like but also on the rest of the value chain too. Do you see movement on those parts of the process too?
Jerry Davis (00:16:21):
Not as much as I would like. So it’s a great question. And I think… I love “The Toaster Paradox” because it does ring true. The ability to make furniture out of plywood imagines that you can go to Home Depot and get the plywood. I think some of the interesting experiments in Detroit start with, while we might not be using plywood from Home Depot, we might be using wood that’s been adapted from houses that were taken down. And there’s an awful lot of raw material lying around Detroit that could be repurposed and reused in interesting ways that turn out to be more interesting, more attractive.
Jerry Davis (00:17:02):
So plywood is one option, but there are a lot of other materials available locally. And setting up a sawmill isn’t so difficult if you’ve got trees around. The toaster though, or electronic products, takes us into another domain. I mean, if you’re going to have tantalum in your electronics, it’s probably going to come from the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the moment that dream of sort of the complete self-sufficiency Fab Lab is not necessarily attainable. We can get close to parts of it, but I think that it’s fair to say at the moment, we really rely on global supply chains.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:17:44):
We put this question about local inputs to Professor Cutcher-Gershenfeld as well. I keep wondering, even if you’re self-producing, you rely on global supply chains for inputs, how much can Fab Labs really move communities towards self-sufficiency in an alternative economy?
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:18:01):
It’s a great question. If you go into a makerspace, or a Fab Lab today, most of what people are making is with cardboard or wood or plastic, there is some use of powdered metal and other materials, but it’s all things that are imported. Now, your footprint is still much lighter if you’re just starting with raw materials because you don’t have the shipping costs, the packaging and all of the rest. But there’s two things that are on the horizon on the materials or input side that I think are quite exciting.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:18:40):
The first is in the more immediate future, many companies view the materials they use and the properties of those materials as a competitive secret. But there’s a Professor of the Circular Economy at the University of Santiago, Alysia Garmulewicz, who is developing a website that has publicly available data on the properties of local materials. And her concept is that if you live near a desert, you should know how to use sand; if you live near a forest, you should know how to use tree sap or other materials that are locally available. And the question that most people have is, “If I put this in a laser cutter or a 3D milling machine, what’s going to happen? What are the tolerances? What are the properties? Will it give off fumes?” etc.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:19:36):
And so in the short term, the movement to make increasing use of local materials helps to break that dependence on materials that have to be imported, so to speak. In the long run, there are advances. If you go into my brother Neil’s lab at the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, you’ll see that they are assembling products with both digital programmable materials and small modular materials that allow for an airplane wing that can flex rather than having to have built-in flaps and things like that. And other materials that you can literally tell it to adjust or change in various ways. So that’s already in the lab. It’s probably more than a decade away, although if you look at the NASA Moon-Mars mission, there’s talk about mining materials on the moon, on asteroids and ultimately in Mars, that are modular and programmable in ways that you can assemble and disassemble things rather than having to take raw materials, which is enormously expensive in liftoff and through space.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:21:07):
Those same ideas will have currency here back on planet Earth. And so you could imagine that at the mine head, you convert raw materials into what would be sort of the equivalent of amino acids. You are the product of 21 amino acids that get assembled and disassembled in various ways. That’s the genius of nature. And in a sense, you can imagine raw materials made with different properties of conductivity and so on that can be assembled and disassembled in a way that literally things don’t have to be thrown out. They just have to be reassembled.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:21:51):
That’s amazing to think about. Here, it feels like we’re talking about a faraway future. Staying closer to our current state, we asked Joel what can localized production look like for communities right now.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:22:03):
Today, there’s a great deal of attention to how new technologies are impacting jobs. And the debates are all about what jobs will be replaced by technology, what jobs will be enhanced by technology, and what jobs will be untouched by technology. Those are all important issues and important debates. But what’s not in the debate is a fourth category, which is the ability of people to make what they need without necessarily having to be employed by somebody else. That’s where the term self-sufficient production comes in.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:22:46):
Now, there are three versions that I would say of this idea, of self-sufficient production. The first is started in Barcelona and has now extended to about two dozen cities and two small countries that have adopted what they call the Fab Cities Pledge, which is by the middle 2040s, they want to become self-sufficient as a city. And so they’re building out large central Fab Labs, remote satellite labs across neighborhoods and trying to build productive capacity so that the city doesn’t have to be as the mayors and city planner of Barcelona put it, a conveyor belt in which products and packaging come in from the global economy and waste goes out and very little remains in the community.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:23:43):
That’s an incremental change model over decades in which cities are looking to reinvent themselves. There’s a more radical model in Detroit. Blair Evans has been working with a series of neighborhoods that had sort of been passed by by the advanced economies of the world. And instead, he’s sort of hitting a restart button to say how can we use these technologies to rethink the quality of life in a total kind of way, where people rethink what are their needs, and in a sense, make a sudden break from their dependence on the global economy and build complete local self-sufficiency.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:24:29):
So call that a reengineering approach rather than an incremental change approach. And then we also see as a model, folks who are not trying to completely replace things, but instead looking for targeted opportunities. So a student in college who embarks on his or her first job might still buy many things through the global economy, but when it comes to furniture, maybe even some customized clothing and certain other things, they really want to have their own stamp on it. And so they will substitute some parts of the typical basket of goods in a household with things that they’ve been able to design and make or designs that they’ve adapted to meet their needs.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:25:26):
Politics has so far been implicit to our conversation, but we haven’t talked about it explicitly yet. We’ve already talked about a few potentially divergent outcomes. Can we look to the history of other technological transformations and how they were politicized?
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:25:41):
Deeply embedded in the conversation is the question of who controls the technology. How much voice or choice is there with respect to the technology. And so if you’re setting up an opportunity zone, and it only has in it people investing in public access for housing but the decision making is still in the hands of a small number of wealthy individuals, that’s very different from building a digital fabrication facility with a network of communities where people are actually making choices about the technology in their neighborhoods and in the process are building sort of self-governing capability. And I see adding the governance capability to the technology part of the story as a crucial ingredient in the context of opportunity zones.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:26:42):
The interesting thing about the second digital revolution is that it originally started with pure optimism. If you go back to the 1980s and even the early 1990s people said do no harm, people said this is all fantastic as an open sharing environment that would make the world a better place and in one sense, there was cause for optimism. The second digital revolution has brought all sorts of affordances to society, but it also has had all sorts of unintended consequences such as weaponized social media, threats to personal privacy, issues with face and screen time and any number of other complications arising from the first and second digital revolutions.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:27:42):
What motivated us to write the book in large part is that it’s still early in the third digital revolution. In some ways, it’s about equivalent to where we were in the late 1980s when computing was shifting from large mainframes to small personal computers. You can think of a Fab Lab as kind of a large mainframe, a room filling lab just like a room filling computer. And they both were in the same price range around $100-150,000. What’s on the horizon is personal computing and more ultimately ubiquitous forms of fabrication that will be roughly parallel to the ubiquitous computing devices that we now have.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:28:40):
Now is the time with the third digital revolution to be asking, “What could go wrong? What are the risks? What are the mechanisms to mitigate risk?” rather than waiting 10 or 20 years to discover those things, because it’s much harder to fix after the fact as we’ve learned from the first and second digital revolutions.
Kate Cooney (00:29:03):
What kind of precautions are you thinking at this point might be important?
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:29:09):
There’s just basic risks of safe practices, prevention of fumes coming off of machines and so on. So there’s the regular health and safety kinds of issues that are under the radar because this is not a workplace, it’s a community center. So it’s not subject to OSHA regulation necessarily. But the risks that are in some ways more profound are A) unintended negative consequences such as people engaged in bio-fabrication and inadvertently producing viruses or things that are hard to control or contain. Social or economic risks, such as the whole ethos of open sharing and community self-sufficient production being undermined by a very successful economic model that in a sense, crowds out that local control and reproduces the issues that we now face with the first two digital revolutions.
Kate Cooney (00:30:16):
Jerry Davis also talked about this possibility.
Jerry Davis (00:30:19):
It’s not too difficult to imagine that an alternative use of this technology is that all of those Amazon fulfillment centers, add on universal fabrication facilities so that if you need Nike sneakers, you go to Amazon, you order a design for Nike sneakers, which is in the form of a single use executable file that then gets produced using the latest version of a fancy 3D printer at the Amazon warehouse and then it gets delivered to your house.
Jerry Davis (00:30:52):
So that would be an alternative version. A fully global supply chain enabled organization would be Amazon warehouses and fab facilities near every major population center where they produce and distribute stuff and then the design takes place globally by firms like Nike or by sort of small no brand vendors. And the technology enables both of these possibilities, it seems to me, these sort of fully locavore log cabin version and the fully globavore sort of more concentrated version.
Kate Cooney (00:31:31):
Let’s get back to Joel and his discussion about how local governance can be set up to scale community control.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:31:37):
When you ask what can be done, the real question is, what are the mechanisms for governance and decision making? Today, most Fab Labs are self-governing at the local level. There are some regional consortia but there could be more and there are some global initiatives such as the Fab Foundation and the various education mechanisms that are available across the ecosystem.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:32:12):
But those really need to be strengthened to not just help good things to happen to create value, but also to have mechanisms to discuss risk and how to mitigate risk. As the digital fabrication becomes more ubiquitous, it will leave the community center and be available to people who aren’t subject to those community norms. So, the real question is, what kind of ecosystem for governance exists as digital fabrication becomes broadly available and less subject to community norms through a community center?
Liam Grace-Flood (00:32:53):
Jerry, what’s your take?
Jerry Davis (00:32:55):
I would say that if you look back at the history of software and the development of the software and IT industries, I think Richard Stallman is an underappreciated visionary. During the early ’80s, he essentially helped create the free software movement by creating exemplars of here’s what it would look like to have software that’s open source, open access, and by the rights written into this software, you can’t sell it to other people. And it seemed like a potentially small thing at the time, but the world we live in today would not look at all like it does if we didn’t have Linux and Apache and MySQL and PHP, basically free opensource software that runs the world of servers.
Jerry Davis (00:33:41):
So he really did change the world. Software did point in this very different direction that looks more like… I think Yochai Benkler would call it a working anarchy where we really do have free software that everyone has access to that looks like sort of this anarchist vision. So what would it look like to do that in the physical world? I guess it would be opensource designs that are globally available. And there are instances of that out there like at F.A.B. Furniture, which is one of my favorites, Local Motors, which is kind of an interesting experiment out there. But, go to Thingiverse, you can find printable designs for all kinds of crazy stuff that people just post for the joy of posting their designs.
Jerry Davis (00:34:26):
So you could imagine the world bifurcating into if you need fancy Nike sneakers, then you have to pay the premium to get the branded version of the software that gets executed at the local sort of Amazon facility. But if you’re willing to put up with sneakers that don’t have that label on them, you can find a perfectly serviceable opensource design that’s created at your municipally owned fabrication facility. So that’s kind of starkly imagining two pretty different ways of doing things. But in some sense, those old experiments in sort of democracy and access, we’re still living in them. It’s not like Microsoft bought up Linux. I mean, everyone uses Linux server software and no one uses Microsoft server software. So there are precedents for creating more accessible, not profit-driven sort of versions of these designs. Does that make sense?
Liam Grace-Flood (00:35:24):
I think that does make sense and it’s a little concerning that this issue is still playing out even in technologies that have been around for a long time. When we look at the internet, we do have examples like Richard Stallman, but you could also see that the internet, despite its kind of democratic aspirations, has given rise to the biggest corporate monopolies and centralized government agencies parsing all our data. So I guess that this is very much still an open question, how to actually create technology with kind of a political aim. I wonder what will happen with that.
Jerry Davis (00:36:05):
Definitely, both tendencies are happening. I would hate to think that sort of all of history is this tendency toward centralization and concentration. And I don’t really think that that’s true. I think that the way that the technology gets implemented is intrinsically political. So we look around at the way technology gets implemented in the US and say, “Yikes! Uber is this invasive species that’s going to control our entire transportation system in the not too distant future.” And then you look at Germany and say, “Oh, well… There really isn’t Uber there because they couldn’t meet the insurance requirements.” And I don’t know, maybe because they don’t have an umlaut over the U, they sort of kicked it out.
Jerry Davis (00:36:49):
In France, cab drivers are throwing pavés Uber drivers. And Uber feels like an invasive species in the US, but not in the rest of the world. So the way that the technology gets implemented depends a lot on politics and what is the response to this. I really see this as being in some ways, a replay of what happened at the turn of the 20th century. In 1890, you didn’t have giant concentrated industries in steel or electricity or what have you and 20 years later you did. And that gave rise to the progressive movement exemplified by Teddy Roosevelt or Louis Brandeis saying, “Well, these corporations are really efficient. They’re providing good stuff cheap, but they really can’t be involved in politics. We have to create some kind of political counterweight to make sure that these forces are sort of pointed towards human betterment.”
Jerry Davis (00:37:47):
And we’re facing sort of similar political issues today. But these sort of seemingly concentrated corporations, they don’t take the same form as they did a century ago. One of my worries is that we’re not really understanding the nature of what is Facebook’s power or what is Google’s power. Concentration and size don’t really convey properly what the nature of those threats to democracy are. So I think we kind of need to be thoughtful in how we consider this. Crazy example would be how many people work at Netflix? So Netflix put Blockbuster out of business, they operate in 150 countries around the world. You can’t avoid their products. Netflix and chill, your generation’s rallying cry. So how big is Netflix?
Liam Grace-Flood (00:38:39):
I don’t even know.
Jerry Davis (00:38:42):
They have 5500 employees globally, and 600 of them are temps and they rent server space from Amazon Web Services. So that’s kind of crazy. I mean, hardly anybody works there. Their assets are entirely intangible. And so concentration is the wrong metaphor for thinking about these. This has been much on my mind, like how do we better understand the nature of corporate power today? Because it isn’t… What it used to be is, companies get really big, they dominate the end user, they have a 50% market share in X and therefore we need to sort of prevent consumer harm by reining in these corporate forces. And that’s not really the issue today. Facebook does not make its money by the free services they provide, but by selling advertising. It’s targeted us. So the nature of sort of the concentration and control are pretty different.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:39:38):
Jerry has a term for this. You’ve probably heard it before.
Jerry Davis (00:39:42):
If you Google the term “Nikefication” it turns out that I get eight of the top 10 hits. I think that means that under common law, I own the term Nikefication trademark. But Nikefication referring to the idea of subcontracting most of the actual work of the organization and just focusing on sort of what we in business school would refer to as the higher value added parts of production. So Nike is famous for design and branding and marketing but they contract out almost all of the production and distribution to other organizations.
Jerry Davis (00:40:19):
So that’s what I mean by Nikefication. And it’s always happened in the garment industry and certainly in the shoe industry. And then it spread to all of electronics. It’s like very hard to buy an electronic product actually assembled by the company whose name is on the label. And now it’s spread all over the economy. Like almost all the tomato sauce in America is made by this company called LiDestri. I think they’re headquartered in Rochester, New York, in the old Eastman Kodak facility. The pet food in America is almost all made by Menu Foods in Ontario.
Jerry Davis (00:40:55):
So we’ve reached this point where so much of the US economy looks just like Nike, where you’ve got a pretty small headquarters staff that’s doing the design and marketing or maybe contracting out the design and marketing. And then you’ve got these sort of anonymous vendors that are actually doing the production. That is a different map of the way the economy works and the one that we have in mind as a sort of very dispersed supply chain. And to me that demands some thoughtful political response to figure out how do we create guardrails and how do we create democratic accountability in an economy that is so dispersed, where the typical organization might have very few employees, and a lot of intellectual property and it might be incorporated in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands?
Jerry Davis (00:41:51):
We don’t really have a great map for a world that looks like that. And so I think that when we think about the economic development potential of technology or the liberatory potential of new technologies, we really ought to start from where we are now. Not what the economy looked like in 1970 but the way the economy looks today, which is very highly dispersed. Getting a good understanding of how the economy is organized seems like a pretty important prerequisite to figuring out so how do we reorganize things to better meet human needs to be more democratically accountable.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:42:30):
This is CitySCOPE and the Inclusive Economic Development Lab. We’re already talking a lot about these technologies and spaces potential for inclusive economic development. Let’s address it head on. What kinds of jobs might makerspaces and Fab Labs create? Here’s Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:42:48):
It is certainly the case that people who have learned how to do computer aided design and various forms of digital fabrication in a Fab Lab are highly employable. And so in community colleges that have Fab Labs, the graduates who have learned those skills find that there’s plenty of jobs in local manufacturing and production operations, where they are hungry for this kind of talent.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:43:22):
So in one sense, back in the early 2000s, when my son and I were helping out on Saturday mornings at the South End Technology Center, the boys and girls would show up for the classes. They were 8, 9, 10 years old. And behind the scenes was this network of moms that wanted to make sure that their kids were showing up every Saturday so that they would learn skills and indeed many of them have gone on to study in STEM fields and what they imagined might be possible actually happened.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:44:03):
So at one level, I would say that having people designing and making what they need, not only helps them become more self-sufficient, but if they want to enter the job market as many will want to do, this is literacy that’s useful. There are Fab Labs that have spun off entrepreneurial businesses. But to be honest, even in the best of circumstances, entrepreneurial businesses have a high failure rate. And so there is no better track record coming off of Fab Labs than there is in society in general. It’s hard to launch a new business.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:44:49):
Nonetheless, there are a lot of incubators that have attached Fab Labs because they allow you to do rapid prototyping of products and ideas. And so people who are entrepreneurial welcome access to this kind of digital fabrication space just because you can make rapid prototypes of your ideas. I would say that those are the two or three main things. Learning skills that make you employable, being more self-sufficient so that you may not be as dependent on a job and being directly connected to entrepreneurial initiatives. But that requires someone to have that kind of entrepreneurial capability.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:45:44):
I also wonder what has to happen to ensure that this is inclusive. We might not be the best people to talk about it. We look like the average makerspace user. According to Make Magazine’s own statistics, the median salary for those involved in the maker movement is 103,000 with 97% of those who go to maker fairs having college degrees and 70% having graduate degrees. Only 11% of the contributions to Make Magazine are female. This goes on. The movement looks pretty white, male, affluent and educated, even though we’re talking about much more democratic aspirations. How do we move toward a broader inclusivity. Professor Davis?
Jerry Davis (00:46:25):
That’s a lovely question. I think it’s exactly the right question. Certainly feels very consistent with my experience of many makerspaces and maker fairs is demographically… yeah, it’s folks that look like Yale School of Management male students but with more tattoos and piercings than the average. Yeah. So how do you use makerspaces as a tool of economic development? At some level, the idea that the cost gets lower and lower and more accessible and that the ability to use these tools becomes more available to people, that feels like it’s definitely lowering the onramp for folks.
Jerry Davis (00:47:07):
When I took my 14 year old daughter at the time to a tech shop to take a class on laser cutters and etchers, it was hilarious. There was three of us who are sort of in our 50s and 60s, and then the 14-year-old and we’re all taking notes and befuddled by the machinery. And for her one time through, here’s the way you set this thing up, here’s the way you download and toy with the designs on the software and here’s a way to print things. She had it immediately and sort of took to it completely naturally.
Jerry Davis (00:47:39):
So in some sense that ready accessibility, particularly for younger people, suggests an interesting option that with a little bit of education, that digitally literate sort of young folks say under 30, are going to be much more likely to take to this sort of technology. And so we could be thinking of what are educational programs or forms of access that could make these things available more to lower income communities. And I had two thoughts about this.
Jerry Davis (00:48:12):
One is my personal favorite Fab Lab or makerspace is called Incite Focus in Detroit that’s run by a guy named Blair Evans. He’s a graduate of the sort of the Gershenfeld world at MIT. And he’s the Detroit representative of Fab Cities. And he’s got this makerspace in a decommissioned hospital called the Samaritan Center. He’s in the former intensive care unit. So it’s kind of hilarious. You’ve got the old patient rooms, and one will have a router and one will have a 3D printer, and one will have a Tormach 4 Axis milling machine. And all of these tools are sitting there in, in these old patient rooms and he’s training kids that are from the neighborhood, essentially, how to use these tools, how to use CAD CAM software, how to use SketchUp and how to create things using these tools.
Jerry Davis (00:49:08):
And his model is, you could learn this stuff and that will make you really employable in the outside world. So that’s one possibility, is you get trained on this equipment and you’ve got what is paradoxically rare and valuable skills for using machines that are not all that hard to learn to use. It’s just not that widely spread yet. The alternative model is you use these tools and go back to your neighborhood to help reconstruct things. And one of the things that he’s training the kids that hang out there to do is to create tiny houses to deal with the problem of housing access in Detroit.
Jerry Davis (00:49:43):
The basic model is a self-sufficient house that’s got a cistern that captures water and solar panels for electrical access. The idea is these things will be a little costlier than a normal, tiny house, but it’ll allow you to live more or less off the grid. So that’s kind of a wild idea that’s saying, how do we train sort of young people in communities with the tools to allow for self-sufficiency for community development? And that’s the kind of thing that feels like it could be very attentive to local conditions.
Jerry Davis (00:50:20):
I mean, it’s very much… It’s the Detroit terroir. It’s kind of a flavor of what are distinctive issues facing Detroit around water access and housing access. So the tools themselves are going to be implemented the way that people in communities use them. If they’re cheap enough, look at the many ways that that phones are being used around the world. I mean, in some country’s phones become a source of an alternative currency system in phone minutes. So I’m optimistic that the tools don’t for-ordain their own use, that it’s sort of politics and local conditions that could give it this liberatory potential. I know that sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but that’s how I roll.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:51:09):
These are hard questions. But that’s a start. The Fab Foundation, an offshoot of MIT Center for Bits and Atoms provides some great resources for communities starting or running a Fab Lab.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:51:21):
When it comes to replicating Fab Labs, there’s two primary ways that the system replicates itself. The first is the simplest, which is you can go to fablab.io. and find the bill of goods that you need to set up a lab. And it’ll cost around 100,000 US dollars, maybe 150, depending on which kind of equipment you want to get. Many communities find that that’s well within the scope to purchase things and set them up.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:51:58):
The second thing is that we’re increasingly finding that you can use the equipment in a Fab Lab to make a Fab Lab and with a combination of a laser cutter and a 3D printer, and a 3D milling machine and a 3D Scanner and various other kinds of equipment, you can make 3D printers, scanners and so on. And so people are using Fab Labs to make Fab Labs and that’s still in its early stages but it’s a fascinating multiplier that is at play.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:52:31):
Let’s move from the hardware to the social and governance side, what has to happen there?
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:52:36):
Some makerspaces have tried to go on a very exclusive membership model and they found that hard to scale and hard to sustain. As compared to an open community model where people will pay for raw materials and volunteers will help run it. There might be some professional staff, but it’s run more as a community library rather than as a business. So the business side of this has not been as successful. What is though emerging and it’s different than a Fab Lab, is that businesses are setting up rapid prototyping facilities on the commercial side. So just as book publishing has become economical to make one of a book and to literally print on demand, some of the fulfillment centers for Amazon and UPS and others will now have rapid prototyping setups to produce certain products on demand. That’s a third model that does seem to be emerging on the commercial side. We don’t know how far that will go. But that’s out there as well.
Kate Cooney (00:53:51):
Right. So for the first example you gave with the community library model, can these be self-sustaining? Are there revenues associated? I mean, you’re saying the membership model hasn’t been successful. If a city like New Haven were to explore this, would they need to be prepared to have a line item that supports this community fab lab or are there revenues associated with it that can pay for its general upkeep?
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:54:23):
So if we go back to the 1920s, Andrew Carnegie devoted… He was a controversial steel magnate. What he did on the employment side was not great; in fact, it was deeply troubling. But as a donor and philanthropist, he dedicated what in today’s dollars would be about $6 billion to the establishment of community libraries.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:54:49):
Jerry Davis likes this idea as well.
Jerry Davis (00:54:52):
The idea that I’ve been pushing gently on various foundations is, couldn’t we have a Carnegie Library for makerspaces or Fab Labs? A century ago after Andrew Carnegie sold his company Carnegie Steel to JP Morgan to create US Steel, he had a half billion dollars. At that time, contemporary dollars, he is like the richest guy in the world and one of the uses that he put his money to was funding libraries and municipalities all over the US. So all over the US are these century old Carnegie Libraries. The idea was, let’s bring literacy and access to knowledge to cities all over America so that even people with no money can still become educated.
Jerry Davis (00:55:47):
So I love the idea that Carnegie Library… I mean, maybe the best way to fund it is not a steel magnate, but you could imagine some similar forward thinking foundation saying what if we created a Carnegie Library for makerspaces? Just funded something that would be municipally owned and operated, where kids could come in and learn how to use CAD CAM software and learn to use CNC routers and gain job skills or maybe create an interesting business. To me, that seems like one of the great, interesting opportunities in the coming years is if the technology is cheap enough, then $2 million is not all that much money for a Bill Gates. Why not fund at large scale these standardized makerspaces that would be distributed across communities and give people access and understanding.
Liam Grace-Flood (00:56:42):
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:56:44):
What most people don’t know is that 5 or 10 years into that initiative, all the libraries were struggling. And they had the epiphany that libraries needed librarians. So most of the state colleges and flagship universities around the country in the 1920s and early ’30s, launched library science degree programs and a whole cadre of librarians left these campuses and started populating the libraries and today, a community library is a taken for granted part of our social infrastructure and it’s understood that you need to have a certain payroll to cover some librarians staffing the library even if some of the other work is done by community volunteers.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:57:42):
In fact, many libraries are now setting up fab labs because they see design literacy as important along with reading literacy. And my prediction is that in most cases, some paid staff just like paid staff for a librarian is a social cost that will be born. When we set up the lab at the University of Illinois, the argument initially was that it would be run by volunteers and indeed, a whole cadre of about 20 volunteers came forward through a half dozen committees to run this but since more than 100 out of the 200 people or 300 people each year that use the lab or kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs on Saturday mornings and other community groups coming in or retirees coming in, the university realized that this was an important part of its community outreach.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:58:45):
And so it did justify dedicating some money to support staff, along with volunteers. And I think that’s going to be the model rather than a revenue model per se. Now, as the technology becomes more ubiquitous and becomes more personal, we might see that these community centers still play a crucial educational role but just like personal computers are now widely available, people may have access to local fabrication facilities in their home or in their neighborhood.
Kate Cooney (00:59:29):
Let’s talk about stakeholder engagement. You spearheaded a stakeholder engagement process for Fab Labs. Can you share with us some best practices that you’ve developed on that end? It sounds like a big one is in setting up a Fab Lab, identifying a community-based organization like a library, or university or college, to really host that Fab Lab.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (00:59:59):
When people talk about stakeholders, generally they use the phrase stakeholder management or stakeholder engagement. And I’m going to introduce a third phrase, which is stakeholder alignment. What do I mean by that? When people say they need to do stakeholder management, usually what they really mean is there are stakeholders who might get in the way of what we want to do and we need to manage them.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (01:00:27):
When people talk about stakeholder engagement, they mean typically there are folks who are with us and how do we engage them more fully. Both are important processes. And certainly, there’s a lot of stakeholder engagement that goes with the launch of a Fab Lab. But there’s a third activity, which involves not necessarily one party reaching out and engaging others or managing others, but rather a diverse mix of stakeholders achieving sufficient alignment for action. It’s not so much that any one group is in charge and trying to engage or manage the others. It’s more that collectively, they’re trying to get sufficient alignment around what will this be, how will it happen? And the alignment process has some pretty straightforward steps.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (01:01:27):
It usually begins with people having a shared vision of success. If we did this, what would success look like in 5 to 10 years? It then involves some kind of agreement or charter or framework. It could be as simple as a one-page document about what are we going to do? Who’s responsible? How will it happen? Which then migrates to what’s often a committee structure or a group of folks who take on specific responsibilities that are spelled out. And then you start shifting from, what might it be to now that we’re setting it up, how will it operate? And so you’re really setting up an operating system.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (01:02:14):
So who’s going to purchase materials, who’s going to ensure that we have utilities hooked up and all of the rest. And then once you’re operating, there’s a set of things that connect you to the whole ecosystem. So the Fab Academy provides intensive learning opportunities where people get sponsored and do projects and build out the skills of digital fabrication. So the Fab Lab might want to sponsor one or two people to complete the Fab Academy. They will certainly be registered as a Fab Lab at fablab.io. And they might attend the annual Fab Convocations, which bring hundreds of people together.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (01:03:03):
There was just one recently in France, there’ll be one coming up in Egypt and then after that in Canada. So every year in August, the annual Fab Lab Convocation involves graduates from the Fab Academy, projects, activities, workshops, panels. And so in a sense, setting up the Fab Lab is the first part and then becoming part of the ecosystem is what sustains it.
Liam Grace-Flood (01:03:32):
With opportunity zones, we worry that those neighborhoods already primed for investment will be the ones that get all the attention from OZ funds. However, according to Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, when it comes to Fab Labs and makerspaces, the opposite may be true. It’s those more disadvantaged locales that may be the places where this technology is most attractive.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (01:03:53):
We have a hypothesis, which is that the advances of digital fabrication may go furthest in the more abandoned urban settings and the more remote rural settings. Even though these settings lack the same resources as other places, they’re underserved by the existing supply chains and the existing infrastructure and they have fewer barriers in place around trying something new.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (01:04:28):
Interestingly, they also have deep, in rural cases, ancient traditions of barter and exchange and self-sufficiency that may get interwoven with the technology. Looking to the future, the question isn’t just one of digital fabrication making what you need, it’s also one of the surrounding ecosystem of services and governing activities that may also be going on. For example, in South America, there’s a fab coin that has been developed so that people can in a sense play to their different capabilities and do exchange with that as a medium.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (01:05:16):
Blockchain ledgers may end up playing a role if these become long lived exchange systems. But in a sense, there are economic models emerging where people are figuring out how to do comparative advantage kinds of exchanges in ways that aren’t necessarily bound by the existing economic system. And so, I would say that we live in a unique time where the institutions, the rules of the game, can be shaped in a space of one, two or three years rather than one, two or three decades or even one, two or three centuries. Institutions have historically been quite slow moving because they were the sources of stability in society.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (01:06:11):
What we’re seeing is people are reinventing institutional arrangements as the need arises in powerful and exciting ways. What is most exciting about the third digital revolution is the potential for social systems to co-evolve with the technology in ways that lead to a better life and a better society for all.
Liam Grace-Flood (01:06:35):
It’s fascinating to see the overlap in our conversations. Thinking about these spaces’ implications beyond the production phase to extend down the value chain. The lining on the library model, and thinking about political contexts and implications of the makerspace platform. I do also see some differences in opinion. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t specifically call out the diversity of these spaces far beyond what we’ve represented here. The maker movement is a loose collection of people and organizations that look very different, come from all different kinds of backgrounds and have all different ideologies.
Liam Grace-Flood (01:07:10):
If you’re interested in makerspaces and/or their relevance to your community, we’ll be attaching more links in the show notes. They’ll reflect a broader set of perspectives beyond what we’ve talked about here. Take a look. Before you do, I’d like to thank again, our guests, our team and you, dear listener, for tuning in.
Liam Grace-Flood (01:07:29):
Our next episode is about creative financing, important work that underlies all the rest of what we do. 10 out of 10 would recommend. Until then.
Lauren Harper (18:49):
This podcast was recorded in studios at the Yale School of Management, the Yale Broadcast Studio and the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.
Liam Grace-Flood (18:56):
Created by Kate Cooney and the students of the Spring 2019 Inclusive Economic Development Lab class.
Kate Cooney (19:03):
Special thanks to everyone at the Yale SOM studio and Media Control Center: Froilan Cruz, Abraham Texidor, Donny Bristol, Enoc Reyes, and Jessica Rogers.
Kate Cooney (19:12):
And at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning: Brian Pauze and John Harford.
Paul Bashir (19:18):
Audio engineering and production by Ryan McEvoy and Kate Cooney.
Kate Cooney (19:22):
Music from the album, Elm City Trees, composed and performed by the artist, K. Dub. For more information and show notes, visit our website at IEDL.yale.edu.
Camilo Monge (19:36):
Thank you for listening.