By Anne Pyburn Craig
Back in pre-industrial times, making things was the stuff of daily life, a way to generate personal wealth. Mass production, handy as it may be in some instances, created an artificial situation in which we were expected to feed ourselves by making things others decided everyone needed and letting them keep the bulk of the wealth. Making things yourself was downgraded—having a “hobby” or “tinkering,” somewhere between admirable and eccentric, but definitely secondary.
It’s been an uneasy arrangement at best, giving rise to all sorts of competing economic philosophies, shell games, injustice, and dis-ease.
The growing makers’ movement brings the creation of things back within reach. A convergence of art and tech and the sharing economy, it turns out that redefining and relocating the means of production offers communities the potential for economic and environmental sustainability in whole new ways, while opening up an infinite variety of opportunities for collaboration, barter, and neighbor-to-neighbor trade.
“I call it Capitalism 3.0,” says Mike Caslin, CEO and founder of the Global Center for Social Entrepreneurship Network (GCSEN) and professor of Social Entrepreneurship at SUNY New Paltz Business School. The GCSEN’s Kingston co-working and maker space Venturator has recently announced, among a long list of other opportunities, a partnership with Fala Technologies to offer entrepreneurs the ability to take even electromechanical creations all the way from “concept to commercialization,” as he puts it. “We’re at the intersection of making things, and maker spaces come in all sorts of flavors. Craft-oriented maker spaces have become an important ingredient in better classrooms around the world, as educators realize that the “maker mindset” is key to problem-solving and higher order thinking skills. And those skills have never been more important than they are right now.”
Melissa Hewitt, Mary Jane Nusbaum, and Jenny Wonderling have founded the Gardiner-based Circle Creative Collective, dedicated to empowerment and connection-building through hands-on workshops in traditional making skills, from weaving to healing to permaculture. “The skills of hearth and home have been so devalued,” says Hewitt. “But the process of coming together and making is so freeing. We’re rediscovering processes, from earth to product, and since we don’t have the great-grandmothers right there, we make it up and sometimes make whole new things. The feeling of learning to spin wool was ecstatic. It was as if I connected to the ancestors and all of a sudden my body can just do it. My son’s gotten very into this; his feeling of being good at making things has been life-changing.”
“Local materials and local production increase our ability to look after ourselves and increase our ability to handle shocks, to develop true sustainability,” says Martin Kirk, co-founder and strategic director of The Rules, a “global collective of writers, thinkers, coders, farmers, artists, and activists of all types dedicated to challenging the root causes of global poverty and inequality.” Kirk has recently taken on a new role consulting with the NoVo Foundation, and is looking at ways to optimize the maker movement in the Hudson Valley. “Fitting our economy to our own place, rather than having to rely on external people and forces, is a way to build genuinely resilient communities.”
At its heart, the maker movement holds evolutionary goals. As the website of the national nonprofit Nation of Makers defines it, the mission is “to build a society where everyone has access to the tools, technologies, experiences, and knowledge to make anything; to create a thriving, connected, and inclusive community of practice where collaboration fosters a culture of abundance.”
We need to distinguish, Kirk points out, between ideas and information—easy to move around in today’s world regardless of distance—and material items whose price is increased by the energy required to deliver them. “We don’t need to give up being connected,” he says. “That’s an asset. What we need to stop is moving everything around. Maker spaces aren’t the whole solution, but they can play a huge role.”
Maker spaces for art and craft—from FiberFlame in Saugerties to the Mobile Media Labs that the Poughkeepsie-based nonprofit ArtEffect sends to libraries all over Dutchess County—are proliferating as kids and adults discover the satisfaction of creation. The Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center, begun at SUNY New Paltz with some support from the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation, was designated a SMART (Stratasys MakerBot Additive Research & Teaching) lab in 2016. It features a wide variety of 3-D printing equipment that’s available to local businesses and individuals, from an industrial-calibre Objet260 Connex multi-material unit to 40 desktop MakerBot units.
Across the river, Marist has just unveiled a maker space, digital printing, advanced manufacturing facility and center for fast prototyping as part of its Steel Plant expansion. The project received about $3 million in state funding as part of a “holistic economic development strategy for revitalizing downtowns and reinforcing placemaking throughout the state.”
Squidwrench, a hacker space (the terms maker space and hacker space have become increasingly interchangeable) based at Studio 81 in Highland, offers soldering instruction along with coding and wants to begin offering blacksmithing. And Possibility Studios, in the renovated Brush Factory in midtown Kingston, offers an impressive array of tools and workshops in its 1,800-square-foot main shop, available to members and to the public for a drop-in fee.
Just launched in Rhinebeck is Idealab New York, a startup studio that creates and launches startups in food, education, media, and manufacturing. A collaboration between Idealab and The Trillions Co., the incubator includes a 5,000 square foot state-of-the-art innovation space for entrepreneurs, a 5,000 square foot advanced manufacturing facility, and residential housing.
“There’s quite a lot going on already, and we’re looking at how to catalyze more and what might work,” says Kirk. “Can we help network people better? Stimulate the development of local materials? The possibilities are vast. I think of it as ducking under the radar a bit. It’s about unlocking being able to imagine something different without collapsing. Taking back control over what we make and use can help us get back to a human scale where we’re not just functioning as receptacles of ideology in the form of plastics from China.”
“As we enter the millennial world economy, we have to get this framework and behavior set up, replicated everywhere and accelerated for more peace and prosperity,” says Caslin. “That’s the goal of all the competing systems, then they get divided between the populace and the elite. But by widening the onramp, we can value prosperity and people and a healthy planet all at the same time.”