Making a Maker City

Good will be co-chairing MakerCon. Buy your ticket today!

Good will be co-chairing MakerCon, May 12-13. Buy your ticket today!

This post is the first of a three-part series on Making a Maker City. It’s based on my experiences meeting with nascent Maker cities, my speeches on the topic, and most importantly my work with the Mayors Maker Challenge, especially in San Diego. My goal is to convey what I’ve learned so as to equip others to collaborate locally and transform their cities.


In 2010 I found myself in the Bay Area on the weekend of Maker Faire. Having recently subscribed to Make: Magazine, I had heard of the event and I didn’t have anything better to do, so I attended. Corny as it sounds, my life would never be the same. Let me explain.

Almost 30 years earlier I had graduated with a degree in Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering with every intention of having a career in Making. However, like most of America, I spent the next many years in software and services after graduating with my MBA. During this period almost two generations grew up without hands-on Making as part of their life experience. Given this, what I saw at Maker Faire shouldn’t have been possible and consequently it blew me away.

I won’t go into why I was so affected by what I saw because at the time I didn’t understand it myself. Having lived through several revolutions (PC, Internet, Smart Phone, etc) I just felt that something important was happening. This thing called the Maker Movement was something I wanted to understand, so I set out to learn all I could.

For three years I explored the richest vein of Maker Movement early adopters: makerspaces. Across the U.S. and Canada I learned from visiting over 100 spaces and later from co-founding Nova Labs. Their individual stories varied but their core essence remained the same. Spaces have tools with which members worked collaboratively on projects and they all share the values of openness and sharing. As time went by I started exploring new emerging communities of early adopters.

Discovery, Familiarity, Collaboration

Increasingly I would hear of a makerspace helping a library by setting up 3D printers or by conducting programs. Increasingly I’d learn of a science museum or a school working with makerspaces. As new institutions started to embrace the Maker Movement they discovered others who had trodden the path before them. Out of this discovery new relationships would form and often these groups would find themselves working together.

Making a Maker City

This process of discovery leading to familiarity leading to collaboration is powerful. Left to chance, the progress through these stages might happen or might not. I found this process to be potentially important but I could no longer take the time to travel and explore it. My three year journey through the Maker Movement was coming to an end. I was moving across the country.

In January of 2013 I moved to San Diego. Such a great town!

I arrived to find relatively few Maker institutions on the scene. The Fab Lab had been around, and Maker Place, a retail makerspace, had recently launched their membership service. The new Central Library was opening soon with 3D printers. There were various and sundry other activities but very little organized Making. I decided to take what I had learned about Discovery, Familiarity, Collaboration and apply it to San Diego.

Staging a Mini Maker Faire

I wanted to connect with Makers in my new hometown and promote the Maker Movement locally. Staging San Diego’s first Mini Maker Faire was going to be the prescription but being new on the scene I needed help. With three partners and a vast community of Maker-volunteers we set out to do just that.

Various Banners and Signs from San Diego Mini Maker Faire

Various Banners and Signs from San Diego Mini Maker Faire

Almost anyone with desire and the ability to organize events can hold a Mini Maker Faire. There are qualifying criteria but they’re reasonable. At its core, Mini Maker Faire is a licensing program with a supportive community of producers and lots of online resources. Many are signing up to stage Faires. Around the world the number of Maker Faires continues to surge: 2013 saw 100 and 2014 had 135. People increasingly want their own local event.

From having attended many Maker Faires I knew they were a wonderful celebration of Making. Great projects get exhibited and the wave of attendees gets inspired. It’s a lovely formula that in San Diego would definitely bring Makers out and stimulate the local Maker Movement. Of this I had little doubt. However, would it advance my goal of getting Making institutions to collaborate?

Maker Institutions Collaboration

Beyond individual Maker ecosystems, my stretch goal was to also stimulate an institutional Maker ecosystem. To do this we needed to quickly force players down the path from discovery, to familiarity, to collaboration. If in the course of Maker Faire we could make this happen then perhaps we could dramatically advance my goal.

How? Quite simply by plopping them down side-by-side on the show floor, introducing them to one another and encouraging them to talk, and then following up after the Faire to promote collaboration. That was the plan. This is what it looked like.

Clustering Maker Institutions on the Maker Faire Floor

Clustering Maker Institutions on the Maker Faire Floor

We didn’t know how well our approach would work. All we could do upfront was design the setting and extend invitations. During the event we promoted interaction. And afterwards we encouraged collaborations. Not confident of how well this would work, we crossed our fingers and launched into it.

Wow! Within 90 days of our Mini Maker Faire we had 11 instances of institutional Makers working together on Maker programs!

Making a Maker City

As excited as we were by the spurt of activity immediately after the Faire, we didn’t know if it would last. As months went by the good news is that interest didn’t wane. Collaborations continued and more institutions got into the mix. A year later we’re happy to report that a nascent ecosystem seems to have taken root.

The goal was to use a Mini Maker Faire to jumpstart the process of institutions discovering one another, getting familiar with each other, and then collaborating. With deliberate effort using a licensed event which is available to us all we’ve shown that Mini Maker Faires can serve as a catalyst.

All well and good. San Diego is better off for having taken this bottom-up approach to fostering the Maker Movement. It’s a story that in and of itself is worthwhile telling, however the good news is that it doesn’t end there. In the next post I’ll share how an even bigger impact can be generated by layering on the top-down approach of the Mayors Maker Challenge.