The Maker Economy: Democratizing Production to Prototype Unique Solutions

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Topics: Future of Learning

3D printers, laser cutters and even desktop manufacturing all seemed like stuff of the future ten years ago. At the time, they created excitement about the prospects of decentralized modes of creation and fabrication and set our minds on fire with ideas of how we might bring out the inner “maker” in all of us.

The idea that local communities would be able to innovate, customize, design and create solutions to meet local needs – in other words, that they would be able to utilize new tools to “make” unique solutions – was central to the Maker Economy driver of change from KnowledgeWorks’ 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning. This post, part of an ongoing reflection on that forecast, revisits the possibilities it described for the maker movement and the maker economy.

The 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning, published ten years ago, revealed how many of our fundamental relationships — with ourselves; within our organizations; and with systems, societies and economies — were being reimagined and re-created in ways that could disrupt the status quo and challenge our usual assumptions.
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The Maker Economy driver of change detailed possibilities for personal fabrication technologies and online networking applications for sharing knowledge about making, including plans, best practices and approaches and lessons. It forecast that these technologies would enable communities to forge their own economic futures by creating solutions to their unique needs. It also saw schools, local businesses and community centers as becoming hubs for design knowledge, rapid prototyping and problem-solving skills that would increase local, cross sector interdependence.


There are connections between the drivers of change identified in the 2020 Forecast to those identified 10 years later in Navigating the Future of Learning. For instance, in the newer forecast, we explore how forces of change such as the Maker Economy are causing local communities to remake their geographies.

The making of a movement

From today’s vantage point, the impact of the Maker Economy driver of change on local communities’ ability to truly forge their economic futures seems to be in question. Yet there can be little doubt that the Maker Movement is here to stay and has had impacts on communities and in education in ways that the 2020 Forecast did not imagine.

The Maker Movement can be defined as a cultural trend that places value on an individual’s ability to be a prosumer; a creator as well as a consumer of things. Individuals who create things, or “makers,” come from all walks of life and share a common interest in design and creativity. The movement continues to grow. Maker Faire, an event to celebrate making, launched in San Mateo, California, in 2006 and has grown ever since, with 150 Maker Faires now held around the world. Instructables.com, an online maker community that attracts 30 million people every month, also highlights how much the Maker Movement has grown.

The Maker Movement has also moved into classroom, with making being viewed as an integral part of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) and project-based learning. It has even garnered attention and support from the federal government. President Obama hosted the first-ever White House Maker Faire in June 2014. President Obama continued his support of making in 2015, declaring a  National Week of Making to support the Nation of Makers. In 2016, President Obama renewed his commitment to the maker movement, including support for maker education by continuing the National Week of Making. There he highlighted broad public support for maker education, which included:

  • More than 1,400 K–12 schools, representing almost one million students from all 50 states, making commitments to dedicate a space for making, designate a champion for making and have a public showcase of student projects
  • More than 100 additional commitments, including the distribution of one million foldable microscopes to children around the world by Foldscope Instruments, the investment in 100 new makerspaces by Google as part of the Making Spaces program and new steps to support making at 77 universities and colleges through Make Schools Alliance

These examples highlight how making has taken ahold in communities and learning. While it has not had the direct impact on communities’ economic futures that the 2020 Forecast explored, the movement itself is still growing.

What new skills has the maker economy required, and what industrial and knowledge economy skills have remined important?

As outlined above, the maker economy has not taken off in the ways the forecast imagined. However, many stakeholders now see making as a means for cultivating 21st-century skills to help get learners ready for the future of work and increase the relevancy of learning experiences. Among them, the British Council sees making as an avenue for developing adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to learn fast, to communicate effectively and to work in changing ways with changing teams of colleagues. Similarly, the Tarrant Institute noted that maker-centered learning can help cultivate clear and effective communication skills, self-direction, creative and practical problem-solving skills, responsible and involved citizenship and integrative and informed thinking. Somewhat paradoxically, as more communities and learners integrate making, it can be expected that there will be implications for the economy, even if those implications might be different than those imagined in the forecast.

What new models of education suggested by the maker economy have transcended industrial-age, assembly-line models?

Maker education has transcended industrial-age, assembly-line models of school in two key ways. It can be broadly placed under the umbrella of personalized learning in that learners often drive the creation of the items or projects they are making. More specifically, maker education seeks to teach learners in a personalized interdisciplinary format, encouraging collaboration and teaching across subjects.

Making the future of learning

While the maker economy may not have fully taken off, the maker movement is still growing. As more maker spaces pop up and as the price point on personal fabrication tools continues to drop, more people are likely to join the movement. Maker education can also be expected to grow as more schools adopt making, STEM, STEAM and project-based learning programs as relevant and engaging learning experiences and as approaches for cultivating the 21st-century skills needed to prepare learners for a new world of work.

How might your learning community adopt maker education? What benefits might making bring not only to your learning community, but to your community as a whole?

Our recent comprehensive forecast on the future of learning explores topics like how forces of change such as the Maker Economy are causing local communities to remake their geographies.

2020 Forecast Retrospectives