The Artisan Economy

The next ten years will see a re-emergence of artisans as an economic force.
–from the whitepaper, New Artisan Economy from Intuit’s Small Business Series, 

It’s fun to think about…the idea that artisan-makers will be able to create sustainable livelihood, especially here in the U.S. and influence a “great (economic) turning.”

And it’s not far-fetched to fathom that we’re on the cusp of a true artisan renaissance. At least under the scenario laid out by the guy who coined the phrase “new artisan economy,” Robert Katz, a Harvard labor economist.  The reason why it’s not hard to envision it happening, though, is that his scenario includes low-skilled workers in the mix along with the highly skilled people making things by hand, which is what we normally associate with the term “artisan.”

Certainly, the idea that we’re in the midst of “The Third Industrial Revolution, has launched a good number of opinion columns, whitepapers like Intuit’s and blog posts, like this one. But as I read the articles and look at the situation from the seat of my background, I have to admit to more than a little skepticism that the conditions are ripe for the strong-sized movement we’re all hankering after.

I do think the conditions are in place that will convince a bunch of people to trade in their cubicle offices and mindless robo jobs–when they’ve been lucky to still have those–for a go at making things for a living. And there certainly are a burgeoning number of maker spaces, garages, community tech centers, artisan trails et al rising up to support them.  I think the movement will be great news for liberal arts majors, if it’s true like Katz posits, that a liberal arts degree will be much more useful for useful arts work-careers than having business ones.

And with more societal cachet, those choosing the artisan-maker path, might avoid a parent’s harangue  to “Get a real job.”

But I don’t think there is a large enough market of buyers to support an artisan-maker driven economy of the type that  affords a good number of people outside a “lucky few (which isn’t met to infer that lucky means talentless), residing in the usual places that support bobo life, like, you know, Brooklyn (current darling) and the greater NYC area, Portland (another darling), San Francisco-Oakland..adding the smattering of art-cultural districts and neighborhoods with their few blocks of art/isan studios, indie businesses and cute boutiques.

To support a large number of artisan-makers, living in other places, it’ll take what business writer from the 80’s, Geoffrey Moore, calls  “crossing the chasm.”

Right now–artisan-maker economy version 1.0–feels like the California gold rush, in that the money makers, the ones  creating sustainable livelihood and in many cases more than that–are the people selling stuff to these “new age miners.” Instead of picks, shovels, Levis and courtesans, it’s CNC milling machines, laser cutters, fancy sewing machines, digital fabricators, screws, nails, filaments, software (and apps like Tinkertoys, the renamed Modio after being bought by the giant Autodesk)…though in this scenario it’s fancy, hand roasted, fair trade lattes, not high priced courtesans to whom they turn to for pleasure.

Not a bad business model. On some levels, one with less risk attached. And one that I’m considering personally–either as a bricks-and-mortar business or online shop– because I am just a so-so artisan and do love the beauty of tools, materials and entrepreneurial practices…not to mention building “great-good-place” community.

I’m a little bit cynical at this stage, but I will soldier on. Or is that solder on?

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