Review of Making Things Work and Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

Review of Making Things Work and Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems In A Complex World by Yaneer Bar-Yam, NECSI Knowledge Press, Cambridge, MA 2004

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson, Crown Business, NY, 2012

Review by Hazel Henderson


These two books, Making Things Work and Makers, study pragmatic issues of efficient organization and production at two levels: 1) re-tooling our paradigms, theories and strategies for organizations and human societies as they evolve and 2) the actual fabrication of products and materials using digital methods of 3D printing and fabrication now revolutionizing our mass-production models.  These are fostering a revival of artisanal, small-scale methods and distributed customized manufactures by a new generation of crafts, makers and entrepreneurs.

The two authors of these very complementary books are superstars in their respective fields: Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, a veteran complexity scientist and founder of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), and Chris Anderson, doyen of the digerati, author of The Long Tail, which renamed risk, and editor of WIRED Magazine.  Braiding their two worldviews together yields a breath-taking view of our rapidly accelerating processes of globalization and technologies – reminiscent of Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s Future Shock, their perennial best-seller from 1970.

In Making Things Work, Yaneer Bar-Yam demonstrates the power of systems thinking and complexity science and how it can be applied to problems as diverse as restructuring US health systems, education, ethnic violence, terrorism, global conflicts and new approaches in aid to developing countries.  I highly recommend Part I which is a masterful yet readable primer on complexity science and its key principles, explained through analogies to ecology, biology, the human body-mind system and evolutionary concepts beyond the simplistic “selfish gene” of Richard Dawkins.  I wrote in Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy (2007) of the hijacking of Charles Darwin by Victorian elites in Britain and their focus on the “survival of the fittest” as justification for their privilege – a phrase actually coined not by Darwin but by Herbert Spencer in The Economist.  Bar-Yam explains the error of these early “social Darwinists” as focusing on competition – whereas all complex systems, including human societies and organizations, keep competition in balance with cooperation in their many functional levels.

Recently, Bar-Yam has developed a complexity model that demonstrates the links between rising food prices, rioting among deprived populations, market speculation in commodity futures and government subsidies to corn-based ethanol.  While obvious to a trained policy wonk like me, leading to my views that these perverse subsidies should end and my call for pension funds to “refrain” from such commodity speculation – Professor Bar-Yam has proved these links mathematically in his research (NECSI).  He is now applying complexity science models to the European sovereign bond market – to show how these bonds can be mispriced (see also my CSRWire “Grossly Distorted Picture”), making a similar argument using other evidence. I showed how bond markets focusing on GDP growth in evaluating sovereign bonds in Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Spain and Italy fail to account for the value of their productive ecosystems efficient modern infrastructure and well-educated populations.  These assets are all set at zero and unaccounted in GDP.  I highly recommend Making Things Work for all financial analysts, traders and asset managers, as well as policy analysts and business managers.

Makers is a page-turner by Chris Anderson, a brilliant observer and a talented story-teller.  In a deeply personal way, Anderson lures us into his own fascination with the Maker movement.  He takes us to the “makers’s faires,” incubators, tech shops to meet the millions of tinkerers, inventors, hackers and experimenters now creating this new industrial revolution of 3D printing and remote fabrication of thousands of products worldwide.  The reader is led into this unfamiliar new underground world, soon to explode around us into the mainstream and how its new entrepreneurs and their facilities are out-competing mass-producers with batch-processing for niche markets.

Most of these “fab” enterprises and their businesses are conducted online and their products marketed via the web.  This desktop manufacturing is a new kind of high-tech “cottage industry” built on 1) digital DIY, 2) a culture of sharing and collaboration and 3) common standards for designs and open-source, creative commons distribution.  This upends the competitive industrial model, allows copying and use by all comers, while building their unique brands as names, logos and icons.

Anderson sees the Maker movement as the best antidote to today’s jobless economic growth which began decades ago with the advance of computers and automation, as I describe in Building a Win-Win World (1996).  Anderson takes us on a global tour of some of the successful companies run by these self-employing Makers, including his own company, 3D Robotics, which fabricates tiny insect-size drones.  These new sectors often are self-financed through now familiar crowdfunding methods such as Kickstarter – outside traditional venture capital reach – as we cover on our crowdfunding page at  Indeed, I found many commonalities in our own company Ethical Markets Media (USA and Brazil) and our partner Biomimicry 3.8 – both global internet-based companies whose products are intellectual and educational.  These are licensed, marketed and distributed electronically by lean operations and many far-flung collaborators – often enthusiastic volunteers.  Makers is a wonderful, enjoyable read – but also very valuable to all those looking for “the next big thing.”