Creating Maker-friendly cities

Cities should encourage homebrew innovation and inspiration.

Freeside hackerspace in Atlanta
Freeside hackerspace in Atlanta.

In an article in Slate, “What Beer Can Teach Us About Emerging Technologies,” Dave Conz writes that many DIY activities can be illegal in some towns:

“Home brewing is part of a broad spectrum of DIY activities including amateur astronomy, backyard biodiesel brewing, experimental architecture, open-source 3-D printing, even urban farming. (My pet chickens Pepper and Fanny eat my spent beer grains and, in turn, feed me breakfast.) Many of these pastimes can lead to new ideas, processes, and apparatus that might not otherwise exist. Depending on your hobby and your town, these activities can be officially encouraged, discouraged, unregulated, or illegal. For example, it’s illegal to make biodiesel fuel at home in the city of Phoenix (a simple process in which waste vegetable oil is mixed with methyl alcohol into which lye has been dissolved) but not regulated in the bordering towns of Scottsdale, Chandler, or Tempe (where I make mine). Based on its zoning laws, Phoenix considers the process ‘industrial’ and therefore prohibited in residential areas while the other cities do not. If making biodiesel were legal and encouraged, the reduction in exhaust emissions and diversion of grease from sewers and landfills could help clean up the ‘brown cloud’ of smog in the Valley of the Sun.

“We need more sensible policy like the legalization of home brewing beer. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to successfully shop and consume our way into the best future, but we can make it brighter by encouraging DIY.”

I agree that governments, particularly local governments, need to do more to understand and adapt to what might be called DIY citizenship. Cities need to re-examine their industrial policy and zoning laws, redefining what light-industrial means and relaxing regulations that were meant for the industrial age when production was housed in factories. We need cities to become maker-friendly and welcome makerspaces, foster new maker businesses and support individuals who are now doing things that lawmakers of yesteryear didn’t expect them to be doing for themselves. It’s re-inventing what you can do in and around a city, even what you can do in your backyard and garage.

One consequence of not getting this right is that a city shuts down a makerspace, which happened in Nashua, New Hampshire earlier this year, even as it funds economic development efforts to attract entrepreneurs. Cities should encourage this kind of “homebrew” innovation and inspiration, which is a healthy form of growth.

Studying the emergence of makers and makerspaces in cities would be a great urban planning research project, developing a set of policy guidelines for cities to implement if they want to foster the kind of innovation and social change found in the Maker Movement.

Note: I will be speaking at the FutureTense – Tinkering with Tomorrow event this Wednesday in DC.

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  • Gar

    This isn’t a issue just for Makers. Laws are written in general terms to the level that creators can think through. They are generally not written against a group, rather they are created around a problem where safety and controls need to be put into place. The world changes and seldom is there a motivation for government to revisit laws on their own.

    We owned a large group of Quick Lubes. Many city fire departments saw them as gasoline service stations because the laws grouped them together. We were required many fuel management systems in place for safety. The business didn’t deal in fuel. In fact, we collected oil and paid for technologies to be developed for better recycling/reuse.

    Ultimately, we had to fund a federal law change to recognize Quick Lubes differently than Fuel Distribution Centers.

    As Dale becomes more and more recognized for the support of Makers at the federal government level, there needs to be a gathering behind him to make this a federal change to ease city decisions. Cities are acting out of concern that people are heating up cans of open waste grease to spill on the ground as they pour it into their cars… because someone said that was how things worked.

    Just standing up in city meetings wont get a city to change their minds, individuals on city boards being shown how Makers help at a personal level gets the momentum going. Invite local government persons to the fairs and personally walk them through the exhibits, we all thank you for your valuable time spent to help educate law makers. Dale can’t be everywhere, it’s up to us to do what we can at the local level while he works the federal level.