Making space in Denver: Makerspaces for community building and workforce development

Market forces are powerful. Try as we might (and we should) to build enough housing, most agree that we will be unable to build enough housing over the next few years to provide enough supply options in Denver to meet demand. Because we cannot build enough housing fast enough, the most effective means of combating displacement of disadvantaged populations is to equip individuals and families with the means to earn higher incomes to afford increasing costs of housing and critical services. Traditionally, manufacturing jobs were one ticket to solid middle-income jobs, even for those with lower levels of education. The manufacturing context in the U.S. has changed dramatically, with most mass-production manufacturing now being sourced from lower-cost countries. However, there is a movement and growing demand for “maker professionals”, individuals skilled in digitized, small batch, mass customization practices. Small batch, mass customization allows startup businesses the opportunity to be more nimble, to rapidly prototype using local sourcing that substantially reduces the time and cost to deliver a product. Many refer to this growth in need for maker professionals as the “maker movement”. In February 2016, Popular Science magazine reported that makerspaces are rapidly growing in popularity. According to the article, “Over the past decade, makerspaces have exploded in popularity all over the globe—user-reported numbers show nearly 1,400 active spaces, 14 times as many as in 2006. Also called hackerspaces or innovation labs, these establishments act as communal workshops where makers can share ideas and tools. They can pop up anywhere, including in schools, libraries, and community centers.” President Obama hosted the first-ever White House Maker Faire in 2014 and has since hosted annual maker week events in June. Building on this momentum, the Nation of Makers, a national nonprofit, was recently established to support America’s maker organizations through advocacy, resource sharing, and the building of community within the maker movement and beyond. The growing opportunities and resources to support peer-learning and sharing are very exciting to us at Denver Shared Spaces.

This past weekend, Denver Shared Spaces attended the Rocky Mountain Makerspace Summit in Colorado Springs, a gathering of approximately thirty individuals (according to our rough count), dedicated to growing makerspaces with diverse objectives in communities throughout the State of Colorado. The individuals we met, representing diverse backgrounds, skills, and demographics, were inspiring in their dedication to building maker capacities in their local communities. Makerspaces around the state differ greatly in their missions. Some spaces cater to professionals seeking equipment to prototype, some to hobbyists, and some to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. At the Summit, we met Dorothy Jones-Davis, Executive Director of the Nation of Makers organization. While she highlighted many resources that the organization is making available to makers across the country, what was most inspiring was her description of the broad ecosystem of makers in the United States. This broad ecosystem included those providing STEM education to mass customization and rapid prototyping, to culinary spaces, to artists, and beyond. Essentially, if you make things, the Nation of Makers has resources to help you succeed.

To expand programs and outreach, states are being assigned an ambassador. In the State of Colorado, the Ambassador is Elise Van Dyne with the Colorado Maker Hub. The Colorado Maker Hub is a nonprofit 501c3 organization that was established within the last few years to advance and connect Colorado makers – a vibrant community of tinkerers, tech enthusiasts, artists, educators, youth makers, inventors, hobbyists, science clubs, students and entrepreneurs – through events, education, pilot programs and online collaboration. Elise and her team organized the Rocky Mountain Makerspace Summit last weekend, as well as the annual Denver Maker Faires (next one planned for this October) and the Sparks and Spirits event that occurred in May. At the Summit, we also met Bernie Lynch, Project Director of Made Right Here. Made Right Here is an apprenticeship program that started in Pittsburgh in 2012 with the goal of providing new tools for unemployed persons, creating new jobs that will stay local. The pilot of this program in Pittsburgh was so successful that it is now funded annually by the U.S. Department of Labor to add new local programs at five-to-ten maker sites per year. The goal of this expanded program is to develop and grow local supply chain connections and create local jobs. Given the challenges that many makerspaces have in obtaining start-up funding, participating in this program would have a big impact.

Small makerspaces like DenHac and ideaLab at the Denver Central Library (as well as their local branch spaces) play crucial roles in the Denver community to facilitate learning and community-building across skill levels and demographics. Nevertheless, there is still unmet need for opportunities for individuals to learn new skills to earn more and remain in Denver. The City of Denver Office of Economic Development is taking notice and has been working with leaders throughout the Denver community to develop a strategic vision and plan to implement a premier makerspace in Denver. While a premier space would certainly be exciting, we at Denver Shared Spaces are most interested in steering this makerspace initiative toward a network model that would facilitate sharing and maximized opportunities for citizens of all ages, targeting children and disadvantaged individuals in neighborhoods experiencing dramatic changes.

Are you interested in starting or joining a makerspace? Are you a maker currently engaging in an entrepreneurial project supporting the Denver community? Or just have thoughts on the growth of makerspaces in the Denver Metro Area? We want to hear from you! Please contact me at myonke@denversharedspaces.org.