Advertisement
Op-ed

A ‘radical mission’: launching a makerspace pilot program in Maryland | GUEST COMMENTARY

Maryland is the wealthiest state in the country on a per-capita basis. Citizens also enjoy a low income inequality rate in the U.S. (ranked 19th out of 50) and one of the most diverse populations. However, despite these advantages, Maryland ranks well below median rates in all four indicators in the 2020 Kauffman Entrepreneurship Index. Startups are created at a lower rate, survive at a lower rate, create less jobs, and lure less founders away from their jobs than our neighbors in D.C., Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania. Similarly, Maryland continues to see its once-mighty manufacturing base shrink, losing over 25,000 manufacturing jobs since 2007.

Technical education is another major weakness of Maryland’s innovation economy. The Kirwan Commission report issued at the beginning of 2020 found that only 32% of graduating seniors are college or career ready. Career and technical education was called out in the report as one of the focus areas needing major investment. After 30 years of disinvestment in vocational programs, we no longer have a growing, qualified workforce to fill technical vacancies or launch new companies.

Advertisement

COVID-19 exposed further weaknesses in Maryland’s infrastructure. In a time where fast internet was critical for work, school, and telemedicine, 23% of households statewide still don’t have access to broadband, a figure that rises to 40% in Baltimore. Diminished local manufacturing capacity also made spinning up a Personal Protective Equipment production a challenge, and the COVID-19 recession caused the loss of 1 in 8 Maryland jobs in March 2020. Just as important as the economic effects, the isolation of stay-at-home orders only reinforced the value of accessible social infrastructure like libraries in the life of communities.

Makerspaces — public access workshops with shared tools and classes in how to use them — are a new type of public institution that can address all of these emerging issues and position Maryland for a prosperous future. The Nation of Makers, a national advocacy group, estimates that about 2,000 makerspaces exist in the United States at schools, community colleges, libraries and independent sites. To date, no state has attempted to build a public network of such spaces. Senate Bill 453 promises to make Maryland the first state to take on that ambitious project by establishing the Maryland Makerspace Pilot Initiative, a $5 million fund to be spent over five years to “establish or expand” makerspaces throughout the state.

Advertisement

At Open Works, a 34,000 square foot nonprofit makerspace located in Greenmount West, we have been prototyping what this new type of civic infrastructure can accomplish in community development since 2016. We provide affordable membership access to seven different industrial workshops; education in how to use these tools for ages 8 and up; and rent 110 small studios to entrepreneurs, small business owners, nonprofits and artists. In addition, we run programs for seniors, entrepreneurs, and job training in trades ranging from CNC programming to industrial sewing. In five years, we have enrolled over 4,619 adults and 640 youth in on-site programs. During the height of the first COVID-19 wave, we produced 28,270 face shields using 3D printing and laser-cutting technology; during the third wave, last year, we made 863 flat-pack plywood desks for Baltimore City Public School System students struggling with remote learning.

In 1882, Enoch Pratt founded his eponymous library with the radical mission of making access to books free to anyone — an unusual idea when most libraries required paid subscriptions and only 83% of the population was literate. But Pratt had the foresight to know that an advanced industrial society required a literate citizenry to grow its economy, and providing free access to knowledge was the first step. With a similarly radical mission of making technology and the knowledge to use it accessible to all, makerspaces are the foundation of a technically literate society. Maryland must invest in technical education, emergency resilience, startup creation, and economic development to stay competitive in the 21st century. S.B. 453 is an incredibly important first step to building that foundation, and we urge its swift passage through the General Assembly this year.

Leon F. Pinkett III (leon@baltimoreartsrealty.com) is executive director of Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation. Will Holman (will@openworksbmore.com) is executive director of Open Works.


Advertisement