The Maker Movement

A Maker Faire is coming to your hometown, and you’re invited. Here’s how the Maker Movement came to be and why you should join.

Piano Playing Robot

Makers are people who push the boundaries of technology and art; they find new ways to use technology to make life easier, more efficient, and more fun.

R2D2It has been since the dawn of humankind that our species has identified pain points—a problem with a need, real or perceived—and created solutions to alleviate them. Meet the makers: a technology-based extension of the DIY culture who create solutions through tech-infused designs. Their passion for technology sets them apart from traditional craftspeople and DIY enthusiasts. For example, instead of weaving a traditional crochet piece with yarn, the maker will use fiber optic materials to create wearable works of modern art. Other makers might create tech-based solutions in the form of Internet-connected robots that can aid people in assisted living environments.

The maker community, thriving since 2005, stretches from the far reaches of Tibet to the heart of New York City. Right now, they’re tinkering in garages, around kitchen tables, and inside public spaces like libraries and dedicated “makerspaces.” Armed with laptops, 3-D printers, electrical components, and determination, they’re giving life to innovative ideas and pain-point solutions, building the actual products themselves.

While some of these makers are pure hobbyists who sell their wares online or at “Maker Faires” or produce goods only for friends and family, a growing number of the ambitious ones are taking their making quite seriously, building organizations and companies that are changing the world with life-enhancing innovations. Imagine a new wheelchair that enables a person to stand. And take, for example, DIYAbility, a New York City-based organization that holds maker events to help those who are differently-abled create tech-based inventions that improve their quality of life.

Colorful Technological ToolsOrigins of a Movement

It was in 2005, that a small, dedicated team, led by maker and entrepreneur Dale Dougherty, launched Make magazine. The publication formalized the Maker Movement, identifying the term “maker” to clearly define this new class of DIY creatives as people who sought to infuse creation with cutting-edge technology. Makers are people who push the boundaries of technology and art; they find new ways to use technology to make life easier, more efficient, and more fun. Make magazine celebrates this new creative class with how-to content for professionals and amateurs, inspirational stories, profile pieces, project ideas, and new technology updates.

In 2006, the Make magazine team convened the first Maker Faire in San Mateo, California, and the excitement was palpable. More than twenty thousand makers spent the weekend building, experimenting, teaching, and best of all, smiling. This was the do-good, feel-good event that paved the way for the global expansion of the Maker Movement. The annual calendar of Maker Faires now has 133 events all over the world.

Robot MachineMaker Faires are unique, powerful, and motivating experiences described by the creators as The Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth. Imagine walking into a giant exhibition hall that has been transformed with all the magic of a modern-day Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It’s packed with side-by-side inventors of all ages showcasing the very best that human imagination has to offer. Grab a front-row seat to watch a piano-playing maker with a headset that uses EEG technology to create an audiovisual representation of her brainwave activity. Turn the corner to discover another maker demonstrating the use of a fully functional prosthetic limb manufactured in his living room with a 3-D printer. Walk another ten feet and you’ll find yourself in front of a tabletop greenhouse equipped with sensors, a webcam, and wireless Internet. It grows fresh produce and connects with gardeners around the world via social media.

Maker Faire attendees walk away inspired by the inventions, demonstrations, and participatory workshops that are integral to the gatherings. They see ordinary people, people just like them, building extraordinary inventions thanks to readily available technology and materials.

“At the heart of Maker Faire is the idea of play. We kind of get lost in it,” says Dougherty. “People here have a love of what they’re doing and it comes across. They walk away feeling optimistic. What they come away with is a feeling that they can do things.”

A Cultural Appetite for Maker Creations

Just as Make magazine launched, an American cultural shift was taking root, turning away from mass manufacturing and toward artisanal goods. This rediscovery of the beauty of unique products, services, and experiences crossed a wide range of industries from gift items like jewelry to home goods and decor. In particular, an appetite for local, responsibly produced, fair-trade food created intense demand for businesses like farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets, and craft brews. Design-thinking manifestos and the capability to personalize everything from toys to clothes to gift cards also played a hand in making everyone feel like they could put their own mark on products. Every personal possession became a fashion accessory and a badge of design honor.

Technology-lovers saw this mass desire to individualize design as an opportunity to showcase their work and build businesses around their passion. DIY items merged with technology and novel products appeared to surprise, delight, entertain, but most of all to prove useful to potential customers. This renaissance is still well underway, showing no signs of slowing down. If anything, it’s growing stronger and spreading more extensively across the globe.

The Great Recession Shapes the Maker Movement

The craft cultural shift was gaining momentum just as the global economy began a steep downward spiral, catapulting the rise of the Maker Movement. The Great Recession that began in 2007 turned careers upside down and, out of necessity, shined a light on the DIY mindset. At the end of 2008, I was the lone occupied desk in a sea of empty cubicles vacated by multiple layoffs at my formerly stable financial company. There and then I discovered three monumental career truths of the new economy: my career is safest in my hands, multiple income streams are necessary, and now everyone is an entrepreneur so we might as well act like entrepreneurs. In other words, I became a maker.

Maker Technology

The desire to invent and build is alive and well in America.

I was already designing mobile apps for my employer, projects that fall squarely in the maker domain. The Maker Movement helped me feel less alone in my small cubicle at the height of the recession. It made me aware of a whole community of people who cared as much about inventing and technology as I did. Every time I sat down at my desk, I reminded myself that people all over the globe were doing exactly what I was doing: trying to build a better world through invention and design.

In 2012, I launched my own business as a product development consultant to other makers, focusing largely on supporting those whose work lives at the intersection of technology, business, and culture. For example, building a board game that teaches courageous creativity and empathy as players work on global challenges. Then it lets players seamlessly share their ideas and creations through social media.

Maker Faires Robot

Robots of all types are popping up at Maker Faires, even the sort that take wearable tech to a whole new level.

Technology Transforms Society’s Making Capabilities

Every maker needs two external resources to be successful: a marketplace and a way to exchange money. While Etsy is an e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items, tech-savvy makers needed something different—an easy way to build their own professional-looking websites that showcase their creations. Services such as Shopify make it simple for anyone to open a professionally-designed online store with next to no effort, time, or money. Couple this with easy online payment tools such as PayPal, and in a few clicks everyone’s in business.

During tough times, communities crave comfort from interaction and the sharing of information. Enter Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), free classes, many of them oriented to tech-loving makers, available to anyone with a desire to learn and an Internet connection. Coursera is the leading MOOC platform with 9.2 million users. Most of these classes are taught by professors from top universities. In addition to MOOCs, professional fellowships exist to help diversify the maker community. Elizabeth Hall, the director of recruiting at Fog Creek Software and Trello, spearheaded the Fog Creek Fellowship to provide professional mentoring for women makers and create job opportunities for them.

In addition to online stores and training, makers needed a way to spread the word about their work. Thanks to the golden age of social media, makers now have that power to effectively market themselves. Smartphone and social media adoption hit tipping points as the economy hit a breaking point. Facebook and Twitter, followed by Instagram and Pinterest, gave makers an easy way to snap photos of their creations, quickly share them, and drive awareness of and traffic to their online storefronts, thus driving sales.

Computer TechnologyPatterns of a Movement

The remarkable confluence of all these factors catapulted the Maker Movement, and continues to do so. Without any one piece, we may have never witnessed the empowerment and goodness that individuals and communities feel today in the process of making. One step inside a Maker Faire in any city, and it’s nearly impossible to ignore the excitement of makers and attendees alike. Making capitalizes on the ingenuity of the human imagination and makes it attainable to build what we dream.

Doughtery sums up the Maker Movement aspiration in one poetic, meaningful sentence: “That all people, young and old, come to see themselves as makers, creators, and doers. I know that the people who have the skills and knowledge to make things have the power to make the world a better place.”

We don’t need to wait for the future to arrive. We can—and, in my humble opinion, should—make it.

[©All images courtesy of Stefano Tinti/]

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