Lately we have been thinking about how the artisans within the maker movement become (and stay) connected. The movement manages to encompass everyone from tech-oriented hackers and engineers to crafty jewelry makers and clothing designers to artisan food cart chefs to creative branding agencies to socially entrepreneurial placemaking nonprofits. Jeremiah Owyang, a Silicon Valley and San Francisco-based maker movement researcher, has called the maker/artisan connective tissue the “collaborative economy.” We prefer to think in terms of an ecology (an assemblage, if you will).
This ecology consists not only of the very diverse set of makers and artisans themselves, but also of makerspaces such as ADX Portland, online e-commerce sites such as Etsy or Big Cartel, fairs and festivals such as the Maker Faire or Renegade Craft, local blogs that end up being read all over the world (like Bike Portland), local boutiques, collaborative workspaces, social media, community workshops, and so on. Collectively these things coalesce into an ecology orchestrated by many individuals and small enterprises. This ecology is in juxtaposition to a more easily visible network of larger corporations within which the actual human ecology (the inner workings of the firms themselves and how workers connect between firms) is somewhat obscured or even rendered unimportant (because the total output of the firm is primarily what is considered). The artisan economy is different, as if the shell of the large corporation has been melted away and we are left with actual humans counting on each other to produce and exchange.
So with the ecology of makers and artisan enterprises growing so rapidly, how will they all manage to swim in the same pond without drowning each other? What seems to be missing in the storm of media attention and on-the-ground buzz is what happens after these entrepreneurs actually start their businesses. What is the average lifespan of an artisan enterprise? What happens to those that fail? At the micro scale, if an artisan fails and is forced to limp back into the “real world” of cubicles and routines, does this negate the investment of their desire into the artisan economy? At the macro scale, if competition remains the default mode of operation in the artisan economy, what stops the familiar process from repeating itself, in which we end up with three or four giant companies after the dust settles?
The makers and artisans here in Portland seem to have considered this harsh reality, but they have also made attempts at adaptation (or evolution, if we continue to think ecologically). In Portland, we hear the term “coopertition” – a portmanteau of cooperation and competition – quite often. This borrows from the “sharing is the new buying” ethos that makers and artisans have been innovating along their way. But is “coopertition” realistic? On the one hand it might mean that the harshness of competing for survival has eased, and artisans and makers can now begin to count on each other to survive. On the other, it might mean that without the economic protection of a giant corporation (i.e. benefits like health care, accounting departments to do taxes, and so on), artisans and makers are living precariously enough that they need to cooperate with each other to survive. Alternatively, many artisan enterprises are just one or two people, and being small can be lonely. If everyone is competing against each other for market space, the maker movement might feel more alienating than emancipating.
The fact that a word such as coopertition has begun its ascent into the lexicon of the artisan economy tells us something of the maker architecture, the ecology of connections and relationships that makers and artisans form. There is a desire for connection amongst artisans; take this quote from USA Today: “The secret appeal of [makerspaces] is not simply the low-cost access to powerful tools and studio spaces, but also the community of entrepreneurs, marketers, hired hands and general go-getters who coexist under the same roof.” Later, the same author quotes Mark Hatch (CEO at TechShop) referring to maker communities as “communities on steroids.” It’s not that we should take what the USA Today says as gospel, but the quote serves as an apt example of the strong desire for connection (as well as the myriad connective tools of the Internet Age) amongst artisans, which in turn gets us closer to understanding the density of the artisan economic ecology.