Detroit-Easter Market-Wasserman Projects-Detroit Design Festival_13Inside Omnicorp Detroit

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 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.

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.

Future Possibilities of Hacker/Makerspaces

The growing interest in and development of hacker/makerspaces has been explained, in part, as a result of the growing “maker” movement. Through the combination of cultural norms and communication channels from open source production as well as increasingly available technologies for physical production, amateur “maker” communities have developed in virtual and physical spaces.

Publications such as Wired are noticing the transformative potential of this emerging movement and have sought to devote significant attention to its development. Last year, chief editor Chris Anderson published a book entitled Makers, in which he proclaims that the movement will become the next Industrial Revolution. Anderson argues such developments will allow for a new wave of business opportunities by providing mass-customization rather than mass-production.

My contention, however, is that the transformative potential of these trends goes beyond new business opportunities or the ability to gain a competitive edge for economic growth. Rather, these trends demonstrate the potential to actually transform economic development models entirely.

1. New Forms of Community Engagement

Apparent throughout the literature on the “maker” movement and noticeable during any visit to a space is the profound personal development that occurs when people begin to figure out and create things themselves. First, going beyond pre-made solutions encourages creative problem solving. Second, by embracing collaborative processes, “makers” also become much more accustomed to working with others, even drawing mutual support and inspiration from one another.

Projects like the Mt. Elliot Makerspace represent shifting perceptions of learning. Arguing that our current education system is overly top-down and geared toward narrow specialization, many “maker” advocates emphasize that a more well-rounded and participatory experience is an appropriate approach for human development. As Neil Gershenfeld, creator of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, explains,

The common understanding of ‘literacy’ has [been] narrowed down to reading and writing, but when the term emerged in the Renaissance it had a much broader meaning as a mastery of the available means of expression…Such a future really represents a return to our industrial roots, before art was separated from artisans, when production was done for individuals rather than masses.

Enabling such forms of production provides an interesting alternative to the division of labor doctrine espoused by Adam Smith. With excessive division of labor, individuals stand to lose comprehension for more complex systems and large segments of the population are confined to repetitive tasks rather than having the ability to create. Perhaps most significantly, a shift to a maker-oriented society could offer a cultural counterpoint to the reigning power of consumerism. Rather than choosing from pre-packaged forms or finding identity through the things we own, becoming more active producers could enable new perceptions of agency and aspiration.

2. A Reconceptualization of How Things Are Made

Open-source inspired practices and modes of commons-based peer production can now be seen in a wide range of areas, from scientific research and innovation platforms to crowd funding mechanisms and financial management. The potential exists for open collaboration to be harnessed to complete all phases of complex projects including input, design, evaluation, marketing and more. The culture of making represents the adoption of these practices in physical production.

In this process, the designs for physical objects are widely shared through online networks and open for all to download, collaborate on, and improve upon. Through these processes, rates of innovation increase dramatically and products can be quickly altered to meet different needs or local conditions.

These innovative modes of production are not only becoming enabled by new practices and norms, but also by emerging technologies. While many spaces continue to utilize conventional tools, more advanced technologies are becoming increasingly affordable and user-friendly. Three-dimensional printers, which produce physical objects by layering materials such as plastic, ceramic or even tissue, perhaps most vividly demonstrate the potential of increasingly widely used technologies.

While originally thought to be a breakthrough for rapid prototyping of products, 3-D printers have quickly advanced to create complex objects such as an ultra-efficient vehicle in forty parts rather than thousands, or semiconductor chips a hundred times faster than the previous state of the art technology. Experts proclaim that such technologies will eventually be on every individual’s desktop, but shared use from a community could be even more immediately attainable (and arguably more appropriate).

The most equipped spaces can be described as Fab Labs, where technologies of fabrication are becoming increasingly accessible as interfaces are evolving to include a broader user-base and start-up costs continue to decline. Fab Labs hold tremendous potential for enabling new community development strategies.  Again, as Gershenfeld describes, “for all the attention to the ‘digital divide’ in access to computers between developed and developing countries… there is an even more significant divide in access to tools for fabrication and instrumentation.”

3.  Potentials for Community Scale Production

With such rapid user adoption and increasing availability of technology-enabled products that were previously perceived to be limited to the context of mass production, it is worth considering how the maker culture might actually impact community economic development.  Could the increased access, flexibility, and participation involved in these practices make certain economies of scale less relevant? Could communities become less dependent on large corporate structures and gain greater resilience through such advanced, localized production?  Might the need for constant, aggressive competition between communities be replaced by open collaboration?

While these considerations are still somewhat speculative, planners could play a key role in preparing for and even enabling these possibilities.  Many parallels can be drawn to the recent embrace and support for local agriculture initiatives as both movements stand to generate similar benefits through greater sustainability, community-building and local economic development.   Like urban agriculture, makerspaces and open-technology forums often stand at odds with current market logic, but look to transform how we think about production and consumption altogether.  By advocating for greater support and facilitating coordination, planners could help reach transformative potentials.

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