Maker-Spaces: Three Englishmen Forging A New Form of Capitalism

Jay Cousins and Jonty Waring are two englishmen in two different cities but with the same problem: how to attract non-techy types to their maker spaces?

Cousins is a co-founder at Open Design City, a maker-space at one of Berlin’s pioneering cowork spaces Betahaus. Waring is co-founder of the London Hackspace, a stand-alone cowork and maker-space just off London’s Silicon Roundabout. Both Waring and Cousins have picked up on an emergent reflex amongst social entrepreneurs to ‘make’.

Journalist Thomas Ramge, co-founder of a German Etsy-like site called Marke Eigenbau (he is author of a book by the same name), has been charting the emergence of maker-spaces for years. He explains that business visionaries and geeks are rarely contained in the same person. It takes a geek to actualise a business vision in our digital economy, and sometimes, it takes a business visionary to see the full implications of a technology a geek might be working on.

“I see that phenomenon that little maker workshops…tend to be more combined with co-labs that offer an office infrastructure with desk chairs and wifi,” Ramge says. In otherwords, that maker-spaces (co-labs) are growing up next to cowork spaces is no surprise. They are a natural extension of each other. Waring holds a weekly open night on Tuesdays (with a keg) as a welcome mat for artists, journalists, VCs, anybody with an idea. As a “hackspace” part of the global Hackspace Foundation, the maker-space attracts only tech types. He’s also reaching out through Young Hackspace, a program of events that brings geeky kids and their parents into play around.

“People are very keen all the time to experiment and make things but also learn new things and try out new things,” says Martin Dittus, Young Hackspace co-organiser, “And sometimes that fails and sometimes it’s a big success and the process is as important as the end result. There’s a lot of opportunities for us to share that with people who can’t necessarily provide their own experiences.”

Open Design City in Berlin has taken a different approach; Cousins purposely didn’t want to call it a ‘hackspace’ because “then it would only attract hackers”. His purpose is much bigger: to co-locate ideas with tools and know-how. He is encouraging an aggressive program of events put on in the space by, well, anyone really.

“The most important aspect of physical proximity is inspiration both ways,” says Ramge. Maker-spaces along side cowork spaces create alternative corporate structures where within the network of the building there is someone who knows marketing, programming, graphic design, and has a cousin who’s husband runs an export business in China (for instance). Marketers, Ramge elaborates, know customers mentality maybe better than visionary or a web-developer and can help tweak a product before it goes live. That’s the gift of the maker space to coworking.

Though coworking is growing as a movement and maker-spaces are cropping up all over, it may take the vision of yet another Englishman, Jimmy Greer, to take them mainstream. Greer has just launched Retail Reset, a movement aimed at actualising online customer brand-participation.

“Imagine all the shops in the high street are no longer competing on their brands, they’re competing on giving people more skills and more community. … High streets are the last place where we all go and congregate en masse. Right now you walk down Oxford Street and it’s a seething mass of angry people but it could be a place that’s absolutely buzzing with creativity,” Greer explains. (Oxford Street is a main shopping thoroughfare in London). Britain’s high streets like America’s main streets are dying a slow death.

What Greer wants is for major store brands like H&M, Zara, John Lewis (like a UK JCPenny) to set aside a portion of their floor space for maker-spaces: up-cycling, talk-shops, integrating small scale producers into their value chain by inviting them to co-locate. Greer is working on a book with the disruptive capitalist visionary Umair Haque. Haque’s economic manifesto for capitalism next goes like this: to survive brands must use their reputations for good by creating products with authentic, deep value along side their customers. That is, products and services with full, long-run life-cycles.

“The new high street is about giving people more, helping people realize their potential,” says Greer. Ramge agrees, putting maker-spaces at the beginning as well as the end of a product’s lifecycle could transform the way we consume, “People who are involved in small scale production with very tight ties with their customers will tend to produce stuff that should last longer and overall, that’s something our consumption should be built on.”