By KERRY WORTHINGTON, Leaders in Energy Reporter
On April 14, 2016, Leaders in Energy members gathered at TechShop in Crystal City, Virginia to hear how a local economy can be improved with innovation corridors and the movement toward a locally-sourced and maker economy. TechShop was the perfect venue for demonstrating and catapulting sustainability when technology, the economy, and social sciences are brought together. An innovation corridor like TechShop attracts businesses to the region, inspires local development and empowers communities. Not only does TechShop use locally-sourced materials for some of their needs, Arlington County has also developed a number of mechanisms such as its Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) to keep the economy sustainable and develop wealth within the region.
TechShop is a shared, “open-access” workspace for members of the community aged eight and up, including adults. It has become popular among high school students. Spaces members can reserve include activities such as 3D printers, woodshops, laser engraving, computer programming, sewing, and metal shops. All members must take a safety class for each space they want to reserve, and introductory and specialized classes are available. People go there to learn, to have fun, or to sell their products. There are ten TechShop locations around the U.S. and another two in France and United Arab Emirates.
Janine Finnell, Founder and Clean Energy Ambassador, Leaders in Energy, welcomed attendees and highlighted the organization’s mission to build a community of leaders to enable solutions for a more sustainable energy system, economy, and world. She discussed the need for both technological and social innovation and how we are seeing these unfold here at TechShop and in Crystal City. In terms of technology, TechShop has more than $1 million worth of equipment and technology for entrepreneurs interested in building marketable protoypes.
Janine referenced a New York Times article on Crystal City, which came out the day before the event, on how Crystal City is becoming “a laboratory for business innovation”, giving the example of TechShop. In addition, a recent National League of Cities on the maker economy highlights how cities that have designated spaces for prototyping, manufacturing, innovation and collaboration are seeing more economic growth and competitive workforces.
Local manufacturing is also a hot topic. The day before the event, legislation was passed unanimously by the DC Council which will enable local artisan and manufacturers to become certified using an official “Made in DC” logo and provide much needed opportunities for the District’s 60,000 small businesses. She thanked Agustin Cruz, Executive Director, ArlingtonGreen as an event partner and TechShop representatives, Teresa Rezin, Gadsden Merrill, and Miriam Gennari (a lifetime member of TechShop) for hosting.
Turning a Crisis into an Opportunity
Christian Dorsey, as an Arlington County Board Member, said that Arlington is proud of the TechShop space. As Arlington County continues to develop more urban characteristics, county leadership is looking to continue this kind of growth. The recent development was sparked by the recession, with office vacancy at 20%, as opposed to the norm of seven to ten percent.
Some of the goals for the county include promoting clean energy, biotech, and data management industries. He sees opportunity to support these innovation districts with co-located spaces and incubators like WeWork. This is why the county is interested in supporting programs like TechShop and developing young citizens who share the county’s vision for sustainable development.
He also announced that Arlington County will be exploring the future role for light manufacturing and related developments for the Four Mile Run Valley portion of Arlington County. More information on the working group which has been formed to address these topics is available here.
Maker-preneurs in a Maker Economy
Ilana Preuss, founder of Recast City LLC, kicked off the panel with her remarks. She is involved with supporting the real estate community with energy efficiency and small scale manufacturing development. There is a maker movement going on, she says, where people are making stuff again. Work spaces can be redeveloped to give people the space to develop their ideas. What her consulting firm brings to the table is the trifecta of real estate, workforce development, and economic development for a thriving, sustainable business community. Ilana gave a TED talk in November 2011 on “The Economic Power of Great Places.”
Dave McCarthy, Founder and Director of Potential Energy DC (PEDC), is an engineer by background and loves tinkering with ideas. Although spaces like 1776 have provided well-developed startups a place to find venture capital, he thought something was missing for small, local energy entrepreneurs to connect with funders. PEDC is currently in their third round of funding cycles.
Miriam Gennari, President of StyrofoamMom LLC and co-owner of MetroMakeover LLC, was looking for ways to save money through sustainable materials when she investigated the polystyrene market. Polystyrene is a commodity made from oil that has a variety of uses. It does have value in the secondary market, but since it is bulky, it is difficult to get it transported for recycling and typically ends up as waste. Using the local economy, she recycles the polystyrene for making products at TechShop!
A Growing City, a Growing Region
Referring to the New York Times article on Crystal City, panelists said that spaces like TechShop in Crystal City that offer classes and space to bring makers and buyers together allow for a community, local atmosphere – and profits! Taking note of the impact of these spaces, DC is taking action to recognize their own growing number of “maker-preneurs” as one panelist called them, by proposing legislation for a “Made in DC” brand.
It turns out the local manufacturing concept has become a real movement. When the panelists were prompted about the possibility of having a “Made in Arlington” brand, some said that regional cooperation along the lines of a “Made in the DMV” brand might be better than having differentiated movements for each locality. Others argued that brands could be marketed separately in different directions, but with a broad strategy of cooperation. Other cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, have a similar economic strategy to brand their locally made products.
A challenge, and not just in the DMV, is investment. Some cities, such as Pittsburgh, have developed programs to raise funds from local sources, and to keep the funds in the area to keep the wealth in the region.
Another audience member inquired if some of the maker-preneurs were going abroad. Ilana noted some similarities between developments that are moving away from the brick and mortar model to “boutique” shops with mobile locations. Additionally, in some areas where there is a premium on the cost of land, sometimes the product too, the vertical-industrial layout is being adopted. The trend of developing a piece of land that is priced below market into a “cool” use or function, resulting in an economic boom that creates a multiplier effect for that area, is also occurring oversees, Ilana says.
Dave mentioned that PEDC hosted a summit with another country to promote PEDC entrepreneurs; however, the summit was premature for the scale of many of their businesses.
Continuing the Movement
An inclusive conversation took place with the audience, starting with a Professor of Sociology. The Professor noted that community colleges would be a great venue to promote the maker-preneur economy and lifestyle; that there are larger social issues at play here and community colleges could benefit the most from this type of training. Others agreed that places like TechShop could become a bigger part of the picture and become a community centerpiece. For example, TechShop offers summer camps for high school students and initiatives like that can bolster the local movement. Some even said that TechShop could offer a way to observe and develop solar power and lighting though education and initiatives like on site generation, solar panel kits, on site/local generation and energy efficiency. To do this though, there is a need to leverage the board of trustees of community organizations and local/state legislatures; key elements of building a lasting maker movement.
It was clear that there was a lot of passion for and attraction to the local maker movement. The entrepreneurs were warmly recognized by other audience members after the panel. Tours of the space were available to participants following the panel.
Photographs courtesy of Nick Hanson.
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