The process of writing business plans, “about us” pages, and “elevator pitches” is all a process of distillation. Until now I have simply been throwing ingredients into the large pot that will someday become LiveWork Studios, turning up the heat, and occasionally stirring. I’ve been trying to engage as many people as possible in discussion about the focus and structure of this enterprise, but I always sense a bit of a sideways glance coming back at me. I know that my thoughts and ideas sound a little unfocused and bizarre. This has been one of the few times in my life that I have found myself at a loss for words. I can “feel” what it is that I want this place to be, but it’s a synthesis of so many disparate ideas and influences that my attempts to describe it just sound insane. I’m like the music critic writing about a band that’s un-classifiable. The good news, I think, is that my inability to find the right words stems from the fact that this
an entirely new enterprise. I don’t want to have to resort to a recitation of more familiar business models in order to get my point across. “It’s like IKEA and Etsy built their own Design Within Reach by downloading SketchUp plans from Wikipedia.” So maybe the best approach for now is simply to delineate a few key concepts and to expand on them as we go along. We’ll start with the “big ones” and work our way down to the specifics.
- Introduce a democratic system or democratic principles to: "public institutions need to be democratized".
- Make (something) accessible to everyone: "mass production has not democratized fashion".
If it hadn’t already been (I think wrongly) attributed to the Target Corporation, I would just go with the mantra “democratize design”. I like this mantra not in the sense that it was meant for use by Target as a substitute for “design for the masses”, but in the double entendre created by the first definition of the word “democratize”. It’s not just design that needs to be “democratized” in this sense, but the entire workplace centered on this or any other type of manual production. “Design for the masses by guys who wear glasses” has a nice ring to it too.
There has lately been a lot of talk about the rise of direct digital manufacturing (DDM) and its potential to lead us into the next industrial revolution. As techniques for mass customization and manufacture-on-demand become more prevalent, we are poised to enter an entirely new phase of human development. The sci-fi writers and business boosters see this as the American worker’s chance to come out on top once again, but few of them address the inherent obstacles created by our present economic system.
Efficiency is what DDM is all about. The ability to move rapidly back-and-forth between the phases of design and production makes the DDM process uniquely scalable and agile. The ease of automation brought about by machines such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC routers allows manufacturers to respond quickly to changes in demand, materials, and design. All of this bodes well for owners and entrepreneurs, but it does very little for the average worker. The idea that the current vast expanses of unemployed Americans will be able to transition easily into new roles as designer/builders is as far-fetched as hoping the entire high school basketball team will end up playing for the NBA.
This problem, to me, is what makes the cooperative model of organization increasingly attractive. Workers cooperatives value innovation and efficiency as much or more than simple production. In the old corporate model of production, increased efficiency ultimately only benefits management and is in fact often detrimental to the rank-and-file. Witness the current unemployment crisis. Worker productivity is at an all-time high and yet there are fewer and fewer jobs available for this most productive of American workforces. How is it that after 200,000 years of human evolution the average American still works well more than forty hours a week?
The constant boom-and-bust cycle of our current economic model functions as a simple ratcheting mechanism that sheds jobs and extracts wealth as productivity increases. With each contraction in the job market, employers get to see just how few employees it takes for them to get by, and the efficiency increases realized throughout the boom years become immediately apparent. When hiring begins again there are never as many jobs as there were before. And why would there be? Even the most altruistic of employers is not going to hire unnecessary workers just to make a dent in the unemployment numbers.
This is why we need to work for ourselves.
Another important aspect of design’s “democratization” (in its second definition) has to do with the way in which it is distributed to the masses. Simply making something inexpensive (or
) does not make its ownership possible for all or even most people. People do not truly own that which they cannot easily access, understand, maintain, modify, repair, and reproduce on their own terms. The open-source model has had great success in the software world and it is now beginning to gain some traction in the world of manufacturing, sometimes under the term “open design”. There have been plenty of articles and opinions written about the failure of the open-source model, but these mostly seem to relate to traditional top-down, proprietary methods of production and marketing. The workers cooperative, however, is perfectly poised to
(poor word choice as Boots Riley would say) on open source’s unique set of attributes.
Being a small producer of physical objects, our reach into the world at large is necessarily limited, but having our designs open and available to all increases our brand’s exposure and identity at very little cost to us. In fact, the process of documentation necessary to present plans, bills of materials, and assembly instructions through the web or other means can only serve to refine our designs and production methods. The dissemination of these designs and methods through print, workshops, the internet, and other media is vital to the mission of the organization and to the mission of cooperatives in general. In many ways, this ethic can be summed up in the old med school mantra of “see one, do one, teach one”. Nothing helps us to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of our own methods more quickly than having to teach them to someone else.
The work that we engage in as a cooperative must have a well defined scope. Although we are not (at least we
not be) in the business of mass-producing the same designs over and over again, we must establish an approach to our work that allows for predictable and repeatable outcomes. Our strength lies in our ability to adapt to changes in market forces and customer needs through efficient use of the techniques and technologies at our disposal. While projects may be produced in a variety of media from furniture and textiles to electronics and software, a consistent and guided approach allows designers to express their ideas in a manner that is consistent with the stated goals and techniques of the cooperative.
Proposed projects need not adhere to a limited set of materials, processes, or outcomes, but they should be guided by a common design approach or “aesthetic” and they should have a clearly defined strategy for execution. Each project undertaken (or “sanctioned”) by the cooperative must be vetted for the commitments necessary for its successful completion. These include but are not limited to: projected time frame, labor hours and skill levels, shop space, materials, budget, marketing, and distribution. In a sense, each potential project should be presented for the member’s consideration with its own mini business plan. Part of this plan should describe the “narrative arc” of the project with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The question of how we will get it out of the shop and move on to the next project is in some ways just as important as how a project begins. Each project will have its own narrative that may end in a variety of ways. Potential outcomes could include a short production run with marketing and distribution handled in-house, licensing of designs for off-site production, or assistance in setting up members or community members to take on production themselves by forming their own businesses (especially coops). The members will determine a maximum desired workflow for the space based on project size and scope, and projects will be scheduled to utilize the available space without creating overloads and conflicts.
Members will participate equitably in the profits (or losses) of the cooperative through a combination of cash and/or labor. “Patronage” will be distributed based on a combination of project profitability, hours worked, skill level, and authorship stake. Members may also choose to buy into “preferred stock” or have it awarded to them based on other equitable contributions such as materials and equipment donations.
The concept of sustainability is at the heart of both the cooperative business model and the products produced through the cooperative structure. The cooperative model recognizes that perpetual and unrestrained growth should not be the measure by which a business is deemed successful. Cooperative members recognize that their success is measured by their ability to provide comfortably for themselves and their families through work that is meaningful and rewarding while maintaining a concern for the effects of their actions on their co-workers, community, and on the environment at large. Designs should be tested for sustainability in all phases of production through material selection, construction techniques, packaging, longevity, and potential for reuse.