Regulating a revolution

ID-100207059The 3D printing (additive) manufacturing revolution has been heralded by many, and including The Economist and by McKinsey. Today, a new group called Netopia held their inaugural event in Brussels to launch a report that addresses possible policy issues.

The report is a rather depressing read (see below), but the local ‘maker’ / entrepreneur invited to demonstrate 3D printing did capture the real excitement. Above all I was taken by the reference to the ‘maker culture’. Thinking about ‘culture’ helps us understand how profound the transformation is. The same cultural shift is present in open source software, may also be reflected in the emerging sharing economy, and is something that the traditional elites are still struggling to keep pace with.

So the authors’ must be right to question whether present institutional organisation is fir-for-purpose,but this is not a new idea — see for example the Lisbon Council’s Plan I(nnovation). The core idea is that vertically siloed institutions will struggle to provide a coherent response to a horizontal technology change such as 3D printing, or the Internet.

The organisers’ real agenda appeared to be promoting regulation. For example, gun control needs redoubling in light of the first 3D-printed gun, and issues such as liability and ‘copying’ need addressing (the latter is not surprising when you look at the group’s backers). The author of the legal section, Christina Wainikka, who claims rather ominously to focus ‘on using the law to strategic advantage’ calls for levies on 3D printers, like those applied to blank CDs today.

For me, the real challenge for policy makers will not be the substance, but finding a way to apply rules in the context of the broader culturalchange. 3D printing is not only technology for companies, which are used to regulation, but also belongs to prosumers. We’ve seen before that the extension of commercial prohibitions to citizens is not politically straight forward, and if we think of ‘makers’ as budding entrepreneurs, then we should be cautious of red tape anyway.

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