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The futurist: Blueprint for a Makers District


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The demise of local retail stores has been painful to watch. Empty storefronts and weed-infested parking lots are gut-wrenching symbols of community decay. So if I told you there was an immediate way to turn this around, would that catch your attention?

This whole transformation in thinking started with a short visit on Saturday to “The Source,” an artisan food market inside a former 1880‘s brick foundry in Denver’s River North District. Located far away from most retail, I quickly became enamored with how this eclectic mix of 15 shops could attract a packed house on a cold wintery day in February to an industrial part of town.

This brief experience caused me to spend countless hours over the following days researching similar developments around the country. For me, the collision course of intersecting trends in retail has become a full-blown obsession. (Just for the record, obsessions are underrated.)

To summarize briefly:

  •     The first shopping mall was born in Edina, MN in 1956. After peaking in 1990, there have been no new malls built in the U.S. since 2006.
  •     Big-box retailing was born in 1962. That’s the year when Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Target all opened their first big stores. After 50 years of putting mom and pops out of business, big-box retail is now struggling.
  •     In 1994, Jeff Bezos launched Amazon as an online bookseller. Twenty years later it has emerged as the primary reason big-box stores are shutting down.
  •     In 2005, MAKE Magazine published it’s first issue, signaling the beginning of the makers movement. Words like “handcrafted,” “home grown,” “authentic,” and “artisan original,” suddenly entered the public lexicon.

With retail stores closing, consumers are left with fewer options for out-of-the-home forms of entertainment, and a pent-up demand for meaningful experiences.

This collision course of trends is creating the perfect storm for the next retail revolution – Maker Districts.

A maker district can best be described as a cross between an artist colony, farmers market, woodworking shop, music festival, bakery, brewpub, and brainstorming session all happening in the same space. It’s all that and more.

Here’s why I see Maker Districts entering your lives in a big way.

The Maker District Advantage

With online storefronts like Amazon flourishing, the need to run down to the local store and pick something up has been replaced with a few clicks of the mouse and a UPS guy knocking on your door the following day. But consumers are getting restless. As mind numbing as it might have been to run to the store and pick up a bag of flour, there was always the chance of running into someone unexpectedly.

Coffee shops have replaced retail stores as the next best place to hang out. Most are busy, noisy places, but fresh coffee is constantly being brewed and people love to feel part of the maker experience.

The maker experience comes in many different forms, most of which are on the opposite end of the spectrum from coffee.

There are several reasons why Maker Districts are on the verge of turning traditional retail on its head.

First, people love to watch things being made. Every source of creation is also the source of inspiration. Second, small mom and pop businesses have a vested interest in building their community. No, they probably aren’t the most sophisticated, tech savvy business people, but artisan products don’t need to compete on price, and they only need to earn enough for a comfortable lifestyle. These are people that are doing what they love, not changing the world.

Finally, from a real estate standpoint, the time it takes to refill an empty big box center with a Maker District can be a fraction of the time it takes to bring in another large-scale retailer. Cities will love having sales tax revenues replaced quickly and neighbors will love being part of the new experience.

Planning a Maker District

It’s no longer good enough to see a painting, people want to witness the artist painting it. Being “authentic” goes far deeper than buying a limited edition copy “signed by the artist.”

Walking through an active, vibrant shopping district where people are baking bread, spinning pottery, brewing beer, making jewelry, cutting and designing stained glass, decorating cakes, molding with pewter, and sculpting with clay, will give every visitor their own one-of-a-kind experience.

In addition to the sights and smells, having musicians performing mood-stirring music will help establish a different character and flavor with every visit.

In this environment, creative people are both the entertainment and the proprietors of the shops.

Not only will this be a showcase for talent, it will attract audiences that are hungry for inspiration.

Makers take Center Stage

All of the shops in a Maker District needs to support the idea of “making the products being sold.” Small, intimate storefronts ranging from 600 to 1,600 sq. ft., built around niche verticals will enable them to focus their resources.

Every storefront needs to be a local enterprise. No franchises or national brands.

Restaurants will be the anchor tenants, and various other food shops will add essential ingredients to the mix. Freshly made food helps intensify the smells and ambiance of the shopping experience. Possible food-related shops may include:

  •     Restaurants
  •     Cookie shops
  •     Home made candy shops
  •     Home made ice cream
  •     Pretzel shops
  •     Bread bakeries
  •     Donut and sweet roll bakeries
  •     Meat markets
  •     Fudge shops
  •     Custom health food makeries

In addition to restaurants and food shops, there should be a number of drink shops ranging from coffee shops to breweries. Option in this area will include:

  •     Coffee roaster, brewers
  •     Tea cutters, brewers, and mixers
  •     Energy drink mixatoriums
  •     Smoothie and protein drinks
  •     Hand crafted beers
  •     Cideries
  •     Distilleries

Legalized marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington will soon see similar prohibition-ending efforts spreading across the nation. This will open the door for shops such as:

  •     Artisan marijuana
  •     Weederies
  •     Food lacing shops
  •     Custom edibles

In addition to consumables, creators of any number of hand-made products will find a welcome reception in this environment.

  •     Custom one-of-a-kind furniture
  •     Artisan clocks and time pieces
  •     Jewelry makers – rings, earrings, and necklaces
  •     Clothing, scarves, caps, ponchos, and headbands
  •     Custom made shoes
  •     Handbags, backpacks, and carrying cases
  •     Clay sculptures, bronze sculptures, stained glass
  •     Painting, drawings, sketches, and etchings
  •     Pottery, basket weaving, and woodworking

Adding to the mix will be next generation hyper-personalized product makers.

As an example, BoXZY just introduced an unusual fabrication machine with three personal fabrication devices built into a single machine - CNC mill, 3D printer, and a laser engraver. The CNC mill can shave and refine aluminum, hardwood, and plastic into small intricate designs, while the 3D printer can fabricate many complex shapes. The laser engraver is perfect for searing names, logos, and even photos into wood, cardboard, leather, and plastic.

Support Services

Complementary to the maker community on the main floor, will be a variety of support services that can be added to 2nd and 3rd floors of the building. These might include:

  •     Designer and fabricator services
  •     Architects, landscape designers, and interior decorators
  •     Maker spaces and other educational support facilities
  •     Coworking and business colonies

Final Thoughts

Talent attracts talent, and creative genius will inspire other creative genius.

Even though a newly opened Maker District will have merchants scrambling to make their businesses operational, they will also be inspiring a new generation of young people with their energy, focus and enthusiasm. Maker Districts will be the community catalyst for a host of other ventures. Creative people provide the spark of imagination, and local evangelists will help promote ingenuity and inspiration to virtually every other aspect of the community.

A sleepy, uninspired town can be instantly transformed into a community known for its brilliance. Out of every Maker District will come the uniqueness that every town, village, and city has been seeking. Most of these elements already exist. The breakthrough innovation of a Maker District will be in how they are incentivized and assembled into a highly respected place in their own community.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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