Emerging EcoNomics #1: DIY “Makers” and Resilient Communities

So we find ourselves in the midst of economic disruptions that may well foreshadow long-term, whole-system economic breakdowns fed by a full spectrum of emerging dynamics – from resource depletion (especially peak oil and loss of fresh water and topsoil) to climate change, with its extreme weather events and disruptive impact on agriculture – to say nothing of increasing wealth disparity (and its concentration of economic and political power), population growth, and who know what kind of wild cards will show up next from the global financial casino, novel technologies, geopolitical shakeups, solar geomagnetic disruptions… The list goes on, filled with uncertainties. 

Times of profound change and challenge are also usually times of rapid social transformation.  Such shifts can unfold in positive or negative directions – often both at the same time.  Crisis undermines business-as-usual and creates winds of change that can fill the sails of reaction or innovation – or overturn the boat with all aboard.

So I find myself wondering about the role of alternative economic approaches and innovations in catalyzing social transformation in the event of significant systemic collapse.  I’ve been exploring this off and on for two decades, but I’ve usually put it on the back burner so I can focus on my “wise democracy” work.  I’ve told myself that political and governance systems are more basic since they set the rules of the game.  However in the mess of real life, politics and economics are totally entangled, profoundly shaping each other.

I think it has also been hard to immerse myself in the possibilities of economic collapse because I’ve assumed it would necessarily involve extreme suffering and violence.  Surprisingly, I have found my views on that shifting lately as I have stumbled on more and more interesting trends and innovations that paint a picture that seems remarkably promising even in the face of many disturbing elements.  For the first time, emerging economic factors give me a sense that we just might make it – and that we could do it with some degree of elegance even at this late date.

So in this note I’ll share one piece of the puzzle that generated that sense of possibility, followed by many other pieces later.  As I go, I’ll try to clarify how I see all these pieces fitting together into something much larger that I hadn’t realized before.

THE DIY REVOLUTION

In the beginning – it was April 2011 – I read a series of articles in WIRED magazine under the title “How to Make Stuff”.  It talked about the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement – often now called “the maker movement”.  It featured stories about 3D copiers and and other computer controlled replicators that I’d heard of but not thought much about.  It described how we could work up some design and send it to a 3D printer or automated router and out would come a tool, a piece of jewelry, a relief map of a landscape…  I found the possibilities raised in the articles pretty amazing.  I hadn’t realized how these technologies are developing rapidly and, with the price of 3D printers dropping, are becoming increasingly accessible.   
(Of course every technology has its dark side, so people are now reflecting on how criminals could use – and are using – 3D printing for nefarious purposes
but check out the comments to that PC World post for some moderating complexities.)

After I read that issue of WIRED, a brief search on the internet uncovered a video where a man brings in a large wrench to be copied.  A staff person scans it, makes a requested adjustment to the CAD (computer aided design) image on the computer, pushes the “print” button to send the digital model to his 3D printer – and out comes a functioning wrench made of extremely strong composite that the customer then uses to tighten a large nut.  Hmmmm.  This was beginning to seem very real to me, and very thought-provoking…
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQ-aWFYT_SU?wmode=transparent]

A few weeks later someone sent me a TED talk about a project to co-design fully functional open source industrial-grade machinery – 50 machines from tractors to cars to brick-making machines – everything needed by a self-reliant community.  The project – Open Source Ecology – is set up to share the emerging designs freely so any community could theoretically make them from scrap metal and other local materials.  What they call “The Global Village Construction Set” (GVCS) is “a modular, DIY, low-cost, high-performance platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts.”  They already have a number of these machines designed and prototypes produced, with videos of their ongoing work on their site and elsewhere, available to anyone interested.  In the context of the larger maker movement, Open Source Ecology gave me glimpses of how certain things – both big and small – that I have always assumed would no longer be available if the global economy collapsed, were becoming increasingly possible to produce locally.  

Now in the last several months friends have introduced me to how very large and rapidly growing the maker movement is.  I find myself surprised at how sophisticated and well developed a subculture it is, with its own MAKE magazine, online design-sharing sites, hundreds of physical “hackerspaces” with publicly usable 3D printers (I even discovered one in my medium-sized hometown), and “Maker Faires” attracting tens of thousands of people to learn how to make everything from trousers to a circuit board that enables your houseplants to send you a text mess
age that it needs watering.  

And then one of my news lists sent me an article by Jeremy Rifkin entitled “The Third Industrial Revolution”.  In it socio-technical visionary Rifkin notes that the distributed manufacturing capabilities of 3D printing combine with distributed energy-generating technologies like solar and wind power to offer the potential for local economies that are very energy efficient.  Not only does 3D printing use less material and energy than normal manufacturing processes, but it potentially removes the long-distance shipping involved in moving products around a global economy.  If you want someone far away to have your gadget, you send them the electronic instructions for making it.  Manufacturing could end up being democratized the same way that journalism is being democratized, with thousands of distributed mini-sources of manufactured goods challenging dozens of centralized mega-corporate manufacturers.

I soon realized that the maker movement is the larger emerging trend that includes the “re-skilling” activities of the global Transition movement (aka Transition Towns) that I had researched and promoted several years ago.  Transition is an effort to consciously prepare for emerging crises – like peak oil, climate change and economic disruptions – by increasing the ability of communities, businesses, schools, etc., to be resilient and self-reliant.  One of their many programs encourages people to recover neglected and forgotten everyday know-how – the kind of practical knowledge common a century or more ago, but rarely practiced in affluent modern high-tech cultures obsessed with convenience and service.  If major economic and technological systems and infrastructures are disrupted, we would need to know how to grow, make, and repair things by ourselves, in community.  That is what “re-skilling” is all about.  Its kinship with the maker movement is obvious and exciting – two capacity-building social innovations just appearing from the ground up.

This sudden flood of information about our rapidly increasing capacity to make things locally made me wonder about how that would play out if and as the global economy – upon which we are currently so dependent – were to seriously collapse over the next decade.  Depending on what kind of attention and resources we put into supporting the maker movement in all its manifestations, and depending on the sequence and pace of breakdowns, I can easily imagine vibrant, if simpler, local economies beginning to flourish.  

Into that positive economic vision even more possibilities have flooded over the last year or so – a virtual tsunami of hope that I will try to share with you over the next several months.  It includes new modes of sharing and gifting, new forms of currency and credit, new forms of organization and society, new definitions of wealth and growth, and a new but ancient narrative about what matters, about what is good and valuable, and about what is possible for us, our children, and our world.

Enjoy.

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