Pattern Recognition: Makers, Marketplaces and the Library of the Commons

By Mark Sigal
June 16, 2009 | Comments: 4

"There's something happening here;
What it is ain't exactly clear."

- For What It's Worth, Buffalo Springfield

volcanic-eruption.jpgCreative destruction is upon us. Print media has gone from toll bridges to soup lines seemingly overnight.

It seems inevitable that the ripple effect of this transition will be nothing less than a full re-boot of the print advertising business.

Meanwhile, the big box retailer (think: Circuit City, Sears, Comp USA) and the record store (wither, Tower Records) are relics of a bygone age.

Add to that an auto industry that is clearly at a crossroads, not to mention the carnage from a financial market crash that has wiped out 20-50% of most people's portfolios (via home equity depression, stock portfolio depression, unemployment), and our sense of the known and predictable is under assault.

Seedling.jpgBut with entropy and systemic destruction, a fertile, creative ground promulgates, and we see tangible signs that "something" renaissance-like is bubbling up.

How else to reconcile that at the same time we see a consolidation within the agriculture, meat and dairy producing industries, we are also seeing a rise in organics, small lot artisan producers and farmer's markets?

Exhibit A: Maker Faire
makerfaire.gifEnvision a Public Market meets County Fair with a touch of Burning Man. That's Maker Faire, the offspring of Make Magazine (dedicated to the DIY - Do It Yourself - lifestyle).

Like its parent, Maker Faire celebrates the organic, the homemade, the customizable, the non-conforming, the technical and the eclectic.

The Maker constituency is a jambalaya-like melange of purveyors, artisans, kit builders and DIY'ers in areas devoted to: robotics and electronic gizmos; arts and crafts; fashion and music; food and drink products; and vehicles and installations that defy description. (Okay, I'll try - "Look, that's a treehouse on wheels, and the mechanical giraffe just passed me on the left.")

Maker by the Numbers
If I were to ask you how many people you thought attended this year's two-day Maker Faire in San Mateo (on May 30-31), what would you guess? 5,000 people? 10,000? How about 78,000 people (a 20% increase over the prior year's event)?

For some relativity, that's slightly more attendees than a San Francisco Giants baseball game on an average daily attendance basis. In other words, if numbers don't lie, the Maker constituency has mainstream activity type of audience numbers.

Six Degrees of Demographics
six-degrees.pngPrior to the event (where I led a presentation and demo of an iPhone powered universal remote control application/platform), I had never heard of Maker Faire, so I was pretty surprised to find the proverbial six degrees of separation at work in terms of Maker attendees within my social and professional universe.

In attendance at Maker were: a family from my son's kindergarten class; two members from my book club; and another two friends from my professional circle.

Needless to say, it punched a hole in my reductionist "this is the Burning Man crowd" theories.

Another AHA was how many women were Makers, a welcome sight, inasmuch as we often default to associating events like these with single, pimply young males, although there were plenty of them, too. A label-defying "social broth" in attendance, to be sure.

Mass Customization: On-Demand, Open & Shared
The advent of the laser printer presaged the rise of desktop publishing. Blogging turned the web into a printing press for the masses.

The iPhone is mobilizing media, communications and information sharing, while facilitating all sorts of rich application spaces to emerge (50K apps, plus 1B downloads and counting).

recipe-book.jpgEverything is getting Digitized and Cloud-ifed. There is an implicit Library of the Commons between YouTube videos, Flickr pics, Twitter tweets, social bookmarks, Wikipedia entries, Amazon product pages and the Google-sphere.

The trend towards open APIs for customizing and composite-ing the data flow in and out of Facebook, Twitter and Google, among others, suggests a river of third-party apps, web sites and web services washing away the legacy ways of communicating, connecting and buying, leaving in their place a social fabric that is organic, networked and fundamentally, shared.

Dovetailing this trend, all sorts of new-fangled design, fabrication, assembly and output solutions are getting cheap, precise and easy to use.

At its most basic, folks like CaféPress and Zazzle are making DIY custom t-shirt/poster/mug creation easy.

Similarly, at Maker I heard story after story of how the value chain had moved to a place where robotics makers could build a high degree of sophistication without having to re-invent the wheel (as there was/is a robust ecosystem of third-party robotics sub-system makers they could leverage), which is emblematic of what has already played out in the technology industry, suggesting that there is something metastasizing that crosses social, societal, professional and logistical lines.

Consider Amazon, which has overrun many a brick and mortar industry segment by building and executing a better mousetrap; namely, an end to end logistics footprint that includes vast product listing data stores; a phenomenal customer relationship management (CRM) system; intuitive, rich product discovery tools (powered by the wisdom of the crowds, no less); and the ability to interstitial-ize "Ships from" and "Sold by" between operating buckets and third-party operators that plug into the Amazon ecosystem.

Not one to rest on its laurels, Kindle, Mechanical Turk and Elastic Compute are all reflective of Amazon's ambition to lever logistics, digital generation systems and a loosely-coupled marketplace model to foment a new kind of entrepreneurial engine for the Mobile Broadband Era.

The moral of the story is clear; once-exclusive domains and fortress-like silos are becoming open, and the barriers between disciplines are falling.

market_tour_6.jpgBringing this trend to my backyard, at my local Farmer's Market, food entrepreneurs of every stripe can formulate and launch new health drink concoctions and fine-tine them with taste trials from one weekend to the next; they can go direct-to-consumer on a tikka masala "heat and eat" line with a nominal captial outlay; and/or cultivate brand advocacy by doing "meet in the street" activities to promote a popular gourmet sausage line.

When Gravity Becomes Your Friend
There is an S-curve in nascent markets, a time when gravity shifts from being your enemy to being your friend.

We are on the cusp, a fortnight from it being easy to source and assemble new and custom products on-demand, leveraging open know-how and a free market of services that combine inter-disciplinary substrates across once-impenetrable mechanical, electrical, chemical, math, communications, computer, media and manufacturing boundaries.

The tyranny of the "All or None" is ending, and the dawn of the Meta-Maker is upon us. The Golden Age awaits.

Related Posts:

  1. Overview of my Maker Faire Presentation: The Universal Remote Control Platform

  2. Built-to-Thrive - The Standard Bearers: Apple, Google, Amazon

  3. Innovation, Inevitability and Why R&D is So Hard

  4. Googling Innovation: On strategies to Seed, Select, and Amplify new ideas

  5. Kinkos, Ritz and CaféPress: We're in the Output Business

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Heard this not for the first time . It all makes sense, my question is WHEN it 'll come true: today, tomorrow or in 20 years...

@Simon, it would be helpful if you clarified what you are referring to when you say "this," as the trends referenced in the post and the Maker numbers are pretty here and now.

But to validate your basic comment, I read the book Future Perfect, which introduced me to the concept of mass customization way back in 1997 (Blur, by the same author, came out in 1999, and took a more applied approach to the concept - it's the more readable of the two books).

Overnight trends always take longer than you give them credit for but once they kick in they happen quicker than you give them credit for. That has been my experience at least.


Mark -

I like how you've tied the Maker movement to several different threads -- artisanal farming, craft-making, the computer hacker ethic -- all of which are small push-backs against mass production.

The act of making something is deeply satisfying because it is uniquely human. It restores balance to a consumption-driven culture.

@Michael, thanks for the note, and I am going to tweet your quote (with attribution) as it captures why some people make better than I can crisply put it. The numbers that Maker Faire generates (in terms of attendees) are non-trivial, which says that it's more than just a few eccentric types, but a real wave that is growing into something mainstream.

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