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How The Maker Movement Is Revitalizing Industry In American Cities

From Pittsburgh to Chattanooga to San Francisco, people are making things again.

Illustrations: Denis_A via Shutterstock

The maker movement is the platform for today’s artisans to create, craft, and develop leading ideas and products. The meteoric growth of micro-manufacturers and online platforms like Etsy demonstrates how strongly the movement has taken root. And it's in cities where makers are plying their trade. It is the urban arena that is the true fulcrum of innovation as the natural meeting place of people, place, and prosperity.

This hyperlocal manufacturing environment holds potential not only for individual hobbyists (myself included)–-but for economic development efforts. Community wide advances in local entrepreneurship and job creation are growing due to the rise of maker spaces, both nationwide and globally. Particularly as we move full circle with the rise, once again, of cities, it is imperative for city leaders to capitalize on the creativity, advanced skill sets, and far-thinking ideas of city dwellers for the betterment of our communities. Luckily, this is happening on the ground right now.

If you’ve visited Pittsburgh lately, you might have noticed that companies like Google and TechShop have set up outposts in the city’s developing urban core. Drawing on the prowess of the robotics engineering programs at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Melon, the city has found a new calling, becoming one of the most encouraging spots for innovation in the country. Economic investments in startups, maker spaces, and the broader technology sector are resulting in real value for the city at large. The increased revenue from economic growth has translated into bike lanes, parks, and events—projects aimed at making the city a more livable and vibrant place that people increasingly want to call home.

From Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh to rugged-outdoors towns like Burlington, Vermont, the maker movement is providing localities a framework for unlocking growth and engaging citizens. Thinking long term is one of the critical things that all cities have to do and Burlington has been hard at work preparing the next generation of makers. The city, in a reflection of a growing number of communities, is leveraging the power of its library system as a learning tool beyond books, with 14 libraries in the region offering maker workshops for K-12 students.

Farther south, Chattanooga has revamped the fourth floor of its flagship library downtown into a maker space—it is a key anchor of the emerging innovation district, helping to spread the maker movement and entrepreneurialism throughout the city. Coupled with the super-fast municipal Internet, Chattanooga is becoming a powerhouse regional player on the tech scene and drawing people in, building new jobs, and creating a wide array of opportunities.

In San Francisco, the connective tissue of innovation is strong, with the maker movement being a key lever for success. In addition to support from the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, the city offers grants and tax incentives. Additionally, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development helps to coordinate key programs to feed San Francisco’s maker cluster. Critical successes have grown out of maker spaces there, with Square being one of the key examples demonstrating the value of rapid prototyping and experimentation.

Having first been introduced to the maker movement in my own travels to San Francisco, it was apparent to me that the combination of creativity, STEM-related industry, cross-sectoral diversity, economic opportunity, and the ever-important charismatic sense of place was a recipe for success.

That’s the power of the movement: its ability to draw production back into the cities where consumption occurs. This can have profound economic and social benefits. In addition to added jobs, proximity means more innovative potential for workers. The untapped skills and knowledge unleashed in a maker space now has the potential like never before to become part of the creative economy of the city as a whole.

Our National League of Cities research on local economic conditions further shows that the growth of the maker movement in cities has been on a big upswing: 26% of cities currently have a maker space and 13% have hosted a Maker Faire. As this growth continues, it reflects the flavor of the city, with each region’s spaces uniquely affected by the economic environment of each place. Examples of this diversity can be seen in former manufacturing cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, where the maker movement has emerged organically as these cities look to diversify by incorporating innovative new technologies into their existing factories. The full spectrum of what is happening in these cities and more is explored in our just released report, How Cities Can Grow the Maker Movement.

As the transition away from generic, mass-produced merchandise continues apace, it becomes more apparent that makers are leading us all toward a more unique place. Bringing back local industry helps build strong local economies and strengthen the workforce. It’s not just competition from overseas that keeps leaders up at night thinking about the workforce shifts to come. The maker movement, while not a cure-all certainly points in the right direction, and encourages entrepreneurs who are looking to share their ideas and innovations with others, and the city is the place where it lives, breathes, and succeeds.