Why Philadelphia Needs More Makerspaces … NOW

Global maker movement leader Dale Dougherty visited Philly last week and made a strong case for why they matter. He also offered tips on how to keep them open.

Dale Dougherty, third from right, with NextFab representatives.

Dale Dougherty, one of the Maker Movement’s biggest catalysts, dropped into Philadelphia last week to keynote the September Maker Meetup. But before the talk, Dougherty, who’s the founder of Make magazine and the creator of the global Maker Faire event, caught a peek of Philadelphia’s maker community. As one Philly leader candidly put it recently, maker activities here have struggled, with spaces coming and going and funding waning and growing. As Dougherty toured NextFab’s Washington Avenue headquarters, he put Philadelphia’s maker community into context and offered his take on the future of the movement here and beyond. He’s got some counsel for local government and explains why making, particularly in a city like Philadelphia, is still revolutionary. 

BizPhilly: What’s your definition of a maker?
Dougherty: A maker is someone who is able to take an idea and develop it into something tangible and real. You can consider an artist doing that. You can consider an inventor doing that. There are a lot of different ways to look at making, but it all comes down to having a creative confidence to trust your idea, a knowledge of the tools and process that are available to you, and a sense of purpose in feeling that this matters and is worth doing.

BizPhilly: Can you speak to what the maker movement means to participants and how much it has grown?
Dougherty: I started the magazine called Make in 2005 and then a year later started Maker Faire. Through those initiatives I realized just how much being a maker is part of the American identity. To see ourselves as produces and builders and makers of things is part of who we are. But consumer culture has kind of squeezed this into a corner. We’ve almost been disabled by consumer culture to the point where we just think about buying things and not making things. So my initial impetus behind all of this was to celebrate making as a culture, to celebrate the people that do this and to actually celebrate the joy of making. At the same time, technology has made it easier for us to create physical things. The maker space has personal meaning and satisfaction for people, and technology is aiding it so it becomes more accessible and affordable.

We started Maker Faire in 2006 out in San Francisco where I’m based. We’ve done it for 12 years there and by the time this year is over, we’ll have over 200 Maker Faires in 40 countries. This summer I was in China, Singapore, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Russia for Maker Faires. It has just leapt borders and cultures and languages because it’s something people can connect to I think.

Dale Dougherty (R) with NextFab president Evan Malone.

BizPhilly: In your time here so far, what have you gleaned about Philly’s maker community?
Dougherty: Well overall, since about 2010, I had begun to see the growth of makerspaces of different sizes and scale, and to some degree they had different goals. Some were oriented more academically and others were oriented more toward community. This was also around the same time we realized that if we really wanted to help young people become makers, we needed to get makerspaces in schools and in libraries. Here in Philadelphia the Free Library has makerspaces, and universities like Drexel down to elementary schools have versions of makerspaces.

I sometimes use the analogy that if a kid watched a basketball or baseball game and then said, “I want to play that,” but we didn’t have facilities and we didn’t have the athletic field or coaches or teams or leagues, that kid would never develop the ability or interest in the sport. The makerspace in particular for kids is a place for them to practice innovation and practice learning about technology. Some of it can lead to education opportunities; if you’re good at this, you go to college and take programs in engineering and design that you would’ve never otherwise thought of. But it can also lead to entrepreneurial work, where you go on to create a company, a business or product.

I’m just learning a bit more about NextFab, and this space is important because it helps to define a community of people, not just individuals. In the maker community we can learn from each other and we do learn from each other. And a lot of the learning isn’t in the purview of formal education. It’s an informal education, the kind of thing you learn outside of school. If NextFab can help to create a place where you meet other people who are doing what you want to do, that is really valuable. There is opportunity for specialized services and such.

Courtesy photo.

BizPhilly: What are some specific opportunities for growth you see in Philly’s maker community?
Dougherty: This is still a very small thing. The number of people that consider themselves makers in Philadelphia is small. You can interpret that one way and say, “Oh there’s just not that many people who are makers, and that’s it.” But what I’ve written about is that this something we can all do like athletics. We once didn’t consider women to be athletes. Only men were allowed to play sports, and we had a very narrow conception of what sports were. But now we know the more you get people to participate, the more they develop these capabilities and confidence to do it.

One specific area that’s interesting is that in many ways the maker movement is like a prototyping revolution, so it’s easier to make a version of something. But to go into production and to create a product requires expertise in manufacturing and perhaps other connected fields. So we still need a better mapping that shows where the maker community is and where industry is. We need to identify where the small manufacturers are that can make things. In Eastern Pennsylvania, for example, we should be asking, what can be made here? Where do you have factories? And are they willing to do small batch manufacturing? Meaning, they don’t have to be making a million products but maybe they can make like fifty or one hundred thousand.

Courtesy photo.

BizPhilly: I’m glad you raise the point about linking makers to industry. I recently interviewed a Philly startup CEO who said a big challenge is manufacturing her company’s products. Right now, she manufactures everything in China but would gladly make them in the U.S. if it were economical to do so. What’s it really going to take to connect makers and startups to local manufacturers?
Dougherty: I think this all goes back to business being a community. What this CEO is trying to do is hard to do alone. But if what she’s doing is tied to what other people are doing and there are groups that represent the interests of those makers, it can help create a dialogue on manufacturing. It seems like a lot of makers here [at NextFab] are not getting their calls returned by manufacturers. I don’t know that we solve this, but maybe we could work with groups here to say let’s talk about this. We believe from the maker side that this is a way to create innovation and that the manufacturing industry needs it. And we value manufacturing because of the jobs and the kind of work it offers people here. There’s a workforce development component as well as a manufacturing component. So how can we all work together on that? Sometimes the manufacturers tell me, “We don’t want to talk to young entrepreneurs because they waste our time.” That’s what we need to work on.

And in many ways, there are two different worlds. There is the new world that is influenced by tech, the internet and communication. In the old world of manufacturing you still have to call someone up and say, “I have a job. Can you give me a quote?” So the problem is that we can’t easily determine who has a foundry business within a hundred miles that has the capacity and interest in working with the maker. You have to go out and knock on the door and talk to someone or get a referral from someone to figure these things out. But this CEO is a trailblazer trying to figure it out. If we have more like her, I think we will get the manufacturers to pay more attention.

BizPhilly: Do you see any opportunities for local government to get involved?
Dougherty: Yes. Economic development agencies and others at the city level are always looking to bring companies into an area. But they should also be asking, how do we grow companies? The maker movement doesn’t follow the startup model. We’re not looking to raise venture capital and create a big company and sell it. We’re more about establishing companies that are going to grow and create products they can sell. City development agencies should also recognize that makerspaces are about hiring people to work for them, especially a diverse workforce with a diverse set of skills, so not just programmers. They have a broader set of needs because they are making physical products.

Courtesy photo.

BizPhilly: So what do you have to say to Philadelphia’s city government?
Dougherty: Don’t just invest in companies or startups. Think about the people and human capital. A goal should be to increase the skills of people and find opportunities for them, and people who maybe aren’t going to college. Or maybe they tried college and it didn’t work for them. How can we find other fits for them in our economy? I think makerspaces offer something that is both high value and accessible for more people, rather than say working at McDonald’s, for example. They can actually gain real skills. But I think the lesson there is we have to equip them to be good learners so that they can be comfortable around technology and comfortable around different workspaces.

Makerspaces have a broader mandate to not just be a hub for startups but also be a place where people can develop new skills and experiment. If you’re unemployed or underemployed, you’ll need a little help to do that. And that’s where the city might want to step in to figure out how to support some of these efforts.

BizPhilly: Still today I think of makerspaces as mostly male spaces, particularly white male spaces. Is this a fair assessment? If so, can you speak to accessibility? How can we get to a place where makerspaces, especially in a city like Philadelphia, aren’t just for white men?
Dougherty: Maker spaces need to work on it and take it on as a challenge. But around the world, in different countries and across different cultures, I see that all kinds of people are showing up at makerspaces, so generally making it isn’t just about white American males. In our culture we have to figure out how we can get really anyone to show up and do this. We have to really be open and inclusive about this to make sure we don’t think of this as just a male thing or a white thing. And that works on both sides, for whites and for others.

This is also why the location of makerspaces is pretty important. It’s unrealistic for people to come from one part of town to another part of town. In Detroit, one of the makerspaces is inside a church and kids coming on Sunday get assigned to build things. The church already had its own community, so the makerspace fit into that community. There are lots of opportunities to be creative in our outreach.

Courtesy photo.

BizPhilly: In Philly and beyond, where do you see makerspaces in the next 10 years?
Dougherty: A persistent challenge is creating sustainable makerspaces. Long-term, should makers fund themselves? What’s the role of government in helping to fund them? Sometimes people want makerspaces to do educational outreach, but where is the funding for that? Some governments in Asia are putting money directly into it, but in America, that is more rare than common.

As spaces begin to mature, they begin to develop programs, like programs for entrepreneurs such as the accelerator here at NextFab. Right now, the makerspace is trying to figure out how to get and afford the equipment and the space it needs and also recruit a base for membership. In the future, spaces will have specific programs they can run that will interestingly bridge the gap between academia. In other words, makerspaces will help people acquire real world working skills that they typically don’t acquire in school.

And a lot of people in this space are trying to figure out how to create a more equitable economy, an economy where the people participating and contributing feel invested in it.
But then there’s the question of whether capitalism can adapt to it or not. I heard someone on a panel recently say, “We don’t want Silicon Valley! We don’t want casino capitalism!” They want something that recognizes the value of the people and the jobs they do. There’s some kind of cooperative model that we need, rather than a competitive model. Makerspaces can be hubs of cooperation and collaboration rather than competition. That’s the kind of change I think we need in our economy, for people to feel like they can actually benefit and not feel exploited.

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