Building Corporate Structures Vs. Grassroots Power

After I told a smart friend about the work I’m doing around Makers All, she asked me if I’d spent any time thinking about what kind of corporate/organizational structures we’d want to create. When I first started Makers All, I assumed I’d be spending a lot of time on it. Now I’m more focused on how to build grassroots power. There are three reasons why I’ve made the switch.

First, it doesn’t make sense to me to spend a lot of time sweating the details on policy when you don’t have the community power to fight and win them. DC and academia are filled with lots of great ideas that go nowhere; I don’t want to add to the collection.

Second, if by some miracle your policy ideas you start to gain traction but there isn’t a movement or other political power that has the muscle and commitment to make them happen, there’s a decent chance they’ll be used to do the opposite of what you wanted. Powerful political players often twist ideas to suit their parochial interests or to provide cover for their real interests — e.g., promoting “family farms” to subsidize Big Ag and further undermine family farms.

Third, I think some of the best ideas for rethinking corporate structure will come out of the day-to-day struggles to make things happen — and that will include trying to get folks to sign up to fight to change things. For example, good corporate structures need to be both economically and politically sustainable. There’s nothing like being in political street fights to make you acutely aware of how structures make those fights easier or harder.

I don’t mean to denigrate the work that other folks may be doing around rethinking corporate structures. I certainly think it could be useful. But our side tends to spend too much time thinking about building ideas and not enough time on thinking about how to build the grassroots power needed to make those ideas a reality. It’s time to change the equation.

New Version of Framework: 0.3

After a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, a new version of my framework! I finally decided to get rid of Make Creativity Work and Make Community Work in favor of a more streamlined approach that’s also more deeply rooted in our history. I’ve probably got another year’s worth of work before I can say it “tight and bright.” But this is a significant step forward.


Many experts believe that between 2025 and 2040, 25-75% of all jobs will be replaced by robots/AI. Given that the rules of our economy already concentrate wealth and power at the top, this crisis could end up devastating the middle class and the poor and destroying our democracy. But not all experts agree that robots/AI could bring about mass unemployment, and there’s no way to know who’s right.

If you don’t know if it’ll rain tomorrow and you can’t afford to get wet, the smart thing to do is bring a small umbrella. It’s time to stop obsessing over trying to predict the future and start focusing on creating a strategy to build more just, prosperous economy regardless of whether robots and AI destroy many jobs. In short, it’s time for Makers All.

Our Values

Before we explore solutions, first we need to ask, what values do we want a more just, prosperous economy to support? Makers All argues for the following:

  • From Harlem to Harlan County, ensure no community is left behind — and heal the damage already inflicted by white supremacy and deindustrialization
  • Provide income security regardless of how many jobs are eliminated
  • Give everyone a chance to express their creativity, to explore their full potential, and contribute to society

Makers All’s strategy for building a economy that supports these values is based on 3 pillars: security, knowledge, and power.

Pillar #1: Security

First and foremost, we need to guarantee everyone has enough to live on regardless of how many jobs are eliminated:
– Provide everyone a Universal Basic Income so no one starves
– If robots/AI create mass unemployment, create opportunities to earn more income that anyone can take advantage of and that strengthen communities (e.g., “volunteer bucks”, income for taking care of children and the elderly). The extent to which we need to create these opportunities will depend in part on how successful the next 2 Pillars are at creating broad-based prosperity.
– Reduce the amount of income we need to live a good life: personal digital fabrication, affordable housing, etc.

In doing so, we can also give everyone the flexibility of not having to work 40 hours a week and shift the focus of our efforts from ensuring there are enough good paying jobs to ensuring income security for all.

Why Security Isn’t Enough

Most debates about mitigating robots’ impact stop here. But in an economy where robots/AI are ubiquitous, just focusing on security leaves most of the power of this new economy in the hands of a small elite. This would be dangerous even if robots don’t create mass unemployment. But remember Mitt Romney’s makers vs. takers? Now imagine an economy where more and more people will never have a job. This is a recipe for disaster.

The last time many people in our society were economically secure — the decades right after World War II — it was in no small part because in the 1930s and 40s unions built grassroots power at the heart of the economy. By the 1930s, automation and mechanization were deskilling many jobs and pushing down wages. But by organizing both skilled and semiskilled workers within a factory, white workers were able to force corporations to share the profits workers had helped create. The main challenge we face today is how to build a new form of grassroots power at the heart of the new economy regardless of how many jobs are eliminated — and ensure that this time everyone benefits.

But how do we build grassroots power in an economy dominated by robots and AI if only a handful of people know how to make robots and AI? The answer is Pillar #2: democratize the technology in such a way that everyone benefits.

Pillar #2: Knowledge

Making and editing videos used to be a skill only a few possessed. Today it’s so accessible that it’s possible to make a living making/editing videos without years of formal training (although highly trained professionals still occupy a major economic niche). Is something similar with robots and AI — or for that matter, with augmented and virtual reality, digital fabrications, wearables, and other emerging technologies that are going to become the core of the new economy? And can we do it in a way that also lays the groundwork for building grassroots power at the heart of this new economy?

We aren’t the first people to wrestle with the issue of how to democratize technology. From the 19th century agrarian Populists to the early 20th century Agricultural Extension Services to the the popular health education movement started by Our Bodies, Ourselves in the 1970s, we already know how to make complex technical knowledge accessible to a wide audience.

If we apply these lessons from the past, we can revolutionize the world of programming. We can rewire tech culture to prioritize building coding tools that are widely accessible and create an ecosystem around these tools that smooths the learning curve between levels of technical expertise. In doing so, we can ensure that in every community, as many individuals as possible can participate in the new economy both as tool users and tool creators.

But words alone won’t convince people that this coding revolution is possible; it’s going to take real-world examples. That’s why Makers All is beginning work on spinning up apart project to demonstrate what’s possible.

Finally, as important as it is to reduce the gap in technical know-how, we also need to shift the way we think about worker retraining. Today we often use an individualized, atomized model of “lifelong learning,” where workers must keep swimming towards a life raft as one economic wave after the other sweeps them out of it. Instead, we needed approach designed to knit communities back together by building a community-based ecosystem that not only teaches people to use in make tools but also how to build businesses, economic power, and strengthen citizenship. Or to put it another way, what if vocational education and worker retraining were designed like the 1960s Civil Right Movement’s citizenship schools?

Pillar #3: Power

To understand how to build grassroots power at the heart of this new economy, first you need to understand the new economy’s dynamics. Over the next 20 years, not only robots and AI but also augmented and virtual reality, digital fabrication, wearables, and other emerging technologies will become ubiquitous. In this new economy, the greatest value won’t come from physical products but from the creative works that power them: a robot’s software that lets it cook, the recipe that tells it how to make tomato soup, the patent for sensors that lets it know when a chicken breast is done.

The Internet has given us a sneak preview of what an economy dominated by creative works could look like. With websites, YouTube, and open source software, we have an unprecedented bounty of creative works at our fingertips. But the financial benefits have largely gone to the top: musicians, newspaper reporters, and other makers of creative works have a harder time paying the bills, income inequality has soared, and communities from Compton to Detroit have essentially been written off.

To avoid a future that looks like the present, we need to build grassroots power within and across communities. The goal: to ensure that everyone, not just a handful of corporations and the wealthy, gets a seat at the table where decisions get made about the legal and de facto rules governing creative works so that both the creative bounty and the profits are widely shared (e.g., “YouTube Done Right”). As we attempt to do so, we may be able to learn important lessons from the successes and failures of late 19th-century populist movements who faced surprisingly similar economic challenges.

AR, VR: Perfect Timing for Community Tech Project

Last week I got a new iPhone that’s augmented reality (AR) friendly. For the first 20 minutes, I was giggling like a little boy — in no small part because I had dinosaurs wandering around my kitchen.

40 minutes later, after downloading the top rated apps: all I could do with AR is play games, see what furniture I might purchase would look like in my rooms, and draw in the air.

Microsoft’s decision to skip a version of Hololens and wait until 2019 before releasing their headset to the general public now makes a whole lot more sense. I’m sure we will see some cool AR apps for smart phones in the next year, but the development tech for building them is still pretty primitive. And the more I played with my iPhone, the more obvious the limitations of doing AR through a tiny window became.

This week, we learned that Apple came to the same conclusion. They leaked that they’re going to come out with a headset sometime — they hope — in 2020.

Given the news that’s been coming out around VR, I think the same is probably true there: the tech is almost here, but not quite.

This is kind of a bummer for people who are into AR or VR. But for communities that our society has essentially written off? It’s perfect timing. AR and VR are just beginning to take off, but they still have a ways to go. That means there’s plenty of time for these communities to take a shot at fully participating in this new economic opportunity by getting a seat at the front of the economic bus.

Our Robots, Ourselves

One of Makers All’s core assumptions is that there’s no reason developing robots and AI can’t be accessible to a much wider audience. Some people think that’s crazy; only an expert could possibly understand this tax.

Back in the early 60s, that’s exactly how most folks thought about medicine. Nancy Miriam Hawley recalls recalls an encounter she had with her OB/GYN:

Imagine me as a 23 year old professional young woman asking a question after the doctor (he) recommended that I use a new –to- market pill for birth control. What’s in this pill? I ask. His response: condescending pat on my head and literally said “don’t worry your pretty little head!”

Minus the head pat, that was pretty much the standard answer doctors were expected to give. They had years and years of intensive training. How could anyone — let alone a woman — be expected to have any real say in their treatment given that they couldn’t possibly understand medicine?

In 1969, Hawley and several other women who had met at a women’s conference decided it was time for a change.

We had all experienced similar feelings of frustration and anger toward specific doctors and the medical maze in general, and initially we wanted to do something about those doctors who were condescending, paternalistic, judgmental and noninformative. As we talked and shared our experiences with one another, we realized just how much we had to learn about our bodies. So we decided on a summer project: to research those topics which we felt were particularly pertinent to learning about our bodies, to discuss in the group what we had learned, then to write papers individually or in groups of two or three, and finally to present the results in the fall as a course for women on women and their bodies.

As we developed the course we realized more and more that we really were capable of collecting, understanding, and evaluating medical information. Together we evaluated our reading of books and journals, our talks with doctors and friends who were medical students. We found we could discuss, question, and argue with each other in a new spirit of cooperation rather than competition. We were equally struck by how important it was for us to be able to open up with one another and share our feelings about our bodies. The process of talking was as crucial as the facts themselves. Over time the facts and feelings melted together in ways that touched us very deeply, and that is reflected in the changing titles of the course and then the book, from “Women and Their Bodies” to “Women and Our Bodies” to, finally, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

Today, the idea that we couldn’t understand enough about medicine to have an informed opinion seems about as antiquated as using leeches. In fact, these days you can even get a degree in the art and science of making medical information accessible to the public.

And as complex as robotics and AI are, it’s not in the same league as medicine. To understand the human body, you need to understand biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, statistics, etc. In fact, medicine is so complex that even someone with years and years of training in one medical specialty isn’t qualified to have an expert opinion about another specialty.

So the next time someone talking about robots or AI does the equivalent of patting you on the head, remember that the only reason that they can get away with it is that we are just at the beginning of a movement that’s committed to do in robotics and AI what those women did “about those doctors who were condescending, paternalistic, judgmental and noninformative.”