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During the mid-1980s, spaces began to emerge across Europe where computer hackers could convene for mutual support and camaraderie. In the past few years, the idea of fostering such shared, physical spaces has been rapidly adapted by the diverse and growing community of “makers,” who seek to apply the idea of “hacking” to physical objects, processes, or anything else that can be deciphered and improved upon. Some 1,100 hackerspaces have now been established globally.

A hackerspace is described by hackerspaces.org as a “community-operated physical space where people with common interests, often in computers, technology, science, digital art or electronic art, can meet, socialize, and/or collaborate.” Such spaces can vary in size, available technology, and membership structure (some being completely open), but generally share community-oriented characteristics. Indeed, while the term “hacker” can sometimes have negative connotations, modern hackerspaces thrive off of assimilating diverse viewpoints (and openness) – these often being the only guiding principles in otherwise informal organizational structures.

In recent years, the city of Detroit has emerged as a hotbed for hackerspaces and other DIY (“Do-It-Yourself”) experiments. Several hackerspaces can already be found throughout the city and several more are currently in formation. Of course, Detroit’s attractiveness for such projects can be partially attributed to cheap real estate, which allows aspiring hackers to acquire ample space for experimentation. Some observers have also described this kind of making and tinkering as embedded in the DNA of Detroit’s residents, who are able to harness substantial intergenerational knowledge and attract like-minded individuals.

Hackerspaces (or “makerspaces”) can be found in more commercial forms, but the vast majority of spaces are self-organized and not-for-profit. For example, the OmniCorp hackerspace operates off member fees to cover rent and new equipment, from laser cutters to welding tools. OmniCorp also hosts an “open hack night” every Thursday in which the space is open to the general public. Potential members are required to attend at least one open hack night prior to a consensus vote by the existing members for admittance; no prospective members have yet been denied.

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A visit to one of OmniCorp’s open hack nights reveals the vast variety of activity and energy existing in the space. In the main common room alone, activities range from experimenting with sound installations and learning to program Arduino boards to building speculative “oloid” shapes – all just for the sake of it. With a general atmosphere of mutual support, participants in the space are continually encouraged to help others.

One of the most active community-focused initiatives in the city is the Mt. Elliot Makerspace. Jeff Sturges, former MIT Media Lab Fellow and Co-Founder of OmniCorp, started the Mt. Elliot project with the aim of replicating MIT’s Fab Lab model on a smaller, cheaper scale in Detroit. “Fab Labs” are production facilities that consist of a small collection of flexible computer controlled tools that cover several different scales and various materials, with the aim to make “almost anything” (including other machines). The Mt. Elliot Makerspace now offers youth-based skill development programs in eight areas: Transportation, Electronics, Digital Tools, Wearables, Design and Fabrication, Food and Music, and Arts. The range of activities is meant to provide not only something for everyone, but a well-rounded base knowledge of “making” to all participants.

While the center receives some foundational support, the space also derives significant support from the local community.  The location, for example, is in a church basement provided by an enthusiastic minister who has embraced the novel approach to youth engagement offered through making.  The space has also attracted a more diverse crowd than just young hobbyists, with retirees being heavily involved in mentoring and overall operations.  For example, one retired machinist took it upon himself to build the entire woodshop.

Sturges emphasizes that tapping into existing or emerging community energy is essential for such a place to thrive.  This strategy makes outreach more effective and allows the project to dovetail existing support networks with positivity.  In the two years since the Makerspace was founded, Sturges estimates that around 10,000 Detroit kids have been exposed to the possibilities embedded in technology and entrepreneurship by means of the Makerspace itself, open hack nights, and a stand set up weekly at the city’s Eastern Market.  Sturges sees this as just the beginning.  He is working with Blair Evans, a local superintendent and director of a new community Fab Lab called “Incite Focus,” to finalize plans which will create additional makerspaces throughout the city and connect the space’s youth-based programming directly to school curriculums.

Further Possibilities in Detroit

In collaboration with Incite Focus, the Boggs Center, and a range of other community organizations, Jeff Sturges is seeking to create a “resilient network,” similar in nature, he explained, to the wireless mesh networks the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition is seeking to create in low-income Detroit neighborhoods.  Makerspaces could thus serve as key community infrastructure. Sturges emphasizes that makerspaces are a way to concentrate public and private resources to make Detroit a fertile ground for bringing up the next generation of innovators.

Through the “resilient network” described by Sturges, ordinary people could gain access to the different technologies at each site and circulate ideas throughout the city.  With such potential, planners could serve a key role in facilitating collaboration with other community development practitioners, thereby helping to establish communication channels between these spaces and the general public.

This article is published in partnership with Columbia University’s URBAN Magazine.

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