Why Maker Economies Need Local Support

Over the last decade, the drivers of economic prosperity for American cities have undergone a radical transformation. The traditional strategy of municipal growth — lowering taxes and offering economic sweeteners to attract outside firms, doesn’t seem to be enough to attract skilled workers.

Major metropolitan areas and rural towns alike are struggling to grow, retain and attract workers with the skills necessary for the 21st century global economy. An obvious problem is that the traditional education model in most cities simply does not emphasize relevant skills — over half of the country’s school districts do not even offer computer science courses.

But there is a silver lining: In thousands of communities across the country, a wellspring of new organizations, often outside the traditional education sector, have emerged to ensure both kids and adults are equipped with 21st century skills. Last week, more than 50 new partnerships and initiatives in support of maker-centered learning were announced. These new commitments represent 295 organizations in 149 communities.

Maker organizations and makerspaces now exist in over 2,000 cities across 50 states. “Maker spaces” are places where people can work with machinery ranging from laser cutters to 3D printers to learn new skills. These include community-based makerspaces as well as those that are embedded in K-12 schools, colleges, libraries and museums. In our experience, these organizations fill a critical educational and workforce development gap for millions of students and adult workers.

In talking to countless maker organizations, however, we identified a common problem: Many makers do not have significant partnerships with their mayors.

To begin fixing that problem, last week the National League of Cities, Make For All and Nation of Makers co-hosted a “Makers Mayor Collaboratory” in Chattanooga, Tennessee, coinciding with NOMCON, the national conference of maker community leaders. The Collaboratory brought together both mayors and maker organizations to identify areas where local elected officials and makers could work together. Mayors came from around the country, including cities and towns like Rexburg, Idaho; Salisbury, Maryland; Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania; and of course a Tennessee contingent of Knoxville, Tennessee and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Here were a few of the recommendations the group made:

  • Mayors and Makers need to identify a common language to communicate. While each share the broad goals of preparing the workforce of tomorrow and supporting entrepreneurship, mayors frame the conversation around jobs and economic growth, while makers do so around skill development, community engagement and creativity. Learning to share a language will help create a common narrative.
  • Mayors need to be proactive and find the makers in their communities. While some makers may attend council meetings or public forums at city hall, many do not. To begin a dialog, mayors should identify the makerspaces in their communities and create meaningful connections where makers are located.
  • Makers need to better understand what to ask for from their local elected officials. Makers can get frustrated with the lack of responsiveness from their mayors. However, the lack of responsiveness often stems from a misunderstanding of what elected officials can do, and requests coming in that mayors are unable to adequately address. Local leaders can do a lot, from helping with permitting to advocating for resources, but the “ask” needs to be specific, timely and within the reasonable realm of their direct or indirect power.
  • Both Mayors and makers need to understand how the other measures success. How elected officials’ successes are measured is different from how makers would measure them. Mayors are often asked for specific metrics or provocative narratives of success. Makers define success by the skills and opportunities gained by members and the community. Makers can help mayors by telling their stories of achievement, while elected officials can help by promoting those stories to private and civic leaders in the community.

Too often, those in the tech, non-traditional education and entrepreneurship spaces feel disengaged from their local elected officials. This is unfortunate as these groups are the vanguard of the 21steconomy. However, through the Makers Mayors Collaborative it became clear that mayors and makers in fact share a number of goals. By communicating better and understanding where and how mayors can be effective partners, we believe that maker-centered learning can become a staple skill set for everyone.

Scott Andes small


About the Authors: Scott Andes is the program director of the City Innovation Ecosystems program at the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions.


stephaniesantoso_m_photo Stephanie Santoso is Director of Maker Initiatives at Citizen Schools and is a Founding Board Member of Nation of Makers.