Before the industrial revolution, there were no standard parts, no size 10 shoes, or quarter inch screws. Artisans worked in small shops, turning raw materials into custom solutions for people on a face-to-face basis. If you wanted a suit, you would go down to the tailor’s shop and he would work with you to select fabrics, take your measurements, and create a garment to your exact specifications.
We are now about to enter that world again. With the advent of 3D printers and a plethora of crowd based, direct-to-consumer websites like Etsy and CafePress, domains once held exclusively by multinational corporations are slowly slipping away from their control. From crowd funding through Kickstarter and RocketHub, to technical consulting and operations support via Elance and Odesk, the barriers to entry that once prevented entrepreneurs from accessing huge markets have begun to erode.
Crowd-based services that provide consumer and business solutions on a national basis have taken a bite out of traditional brick and mortar businesses. Challenging economy hotels, AirBnb lets consumers rent couches, bedrooms, or homes by the night. Fiverr and Amazon Mechanical Turk provide support and creative services to individuals and business on a task-by-task basis. In the professional services arena, expert networks BidAWhiz and Clear Capital provide tax advice and real estate appraisals, respectively.
The next phase of artisanal redevelopment promises to be far more transformational. Known as the “Maker Movement,” thousands of individual creatives are customizing what was formerly the domain of mass market consumer goods. With the advent of 3D printing and scanning, individual artisans are able to make high quality products including custom seamless garments and replacement parts for everything from engines to aircraft.
On a social level, the change has been slow to reveal itself. With the last downturn in the economy, many people have moved toward freelancing rather than full-time employment. While this has meant increased volatility in work consistency and benefits, the upside in efficiency has allowed some skilled workers to dramatically improve their financial situation. Meanwhile, solutions to mitigate the downside-risk involved in self-employment are beginning to evolve.
While not intended to replace work-based insurance, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) has opened the opportunity for artisans of all ages to work independently, without the fear of health-related bankruptcy. Further into the future, the development of income stabilization cooperatives, crowd sourced manufacturing companies, and crowd-based distribution channels will allow increasing numbers of individuals to enter the artisanal workforce.
As we grow more and more interconnected via technology, the homogeny of the industrial revolution will eventually give way to artisanship. It is a virtual certainty that the future will look much more like the past than we ever expected.