Making Detroit: Changing the story


Since visiting Detroit last summer, I’ve felt a connection to a city that I had never before set eyes upon. I don’t know exactly why. On my own, I explored the ugly, decrepit parts of the city and I felt I was looking at a disaster zone like New Orleans after Katrina. When I mentioned that analogy to someone, he replied that Detroit was a disaster more than 50 years in the making. What a terrible story to be telling, even if it rings true.

However, as @NutureGirl pointed out in a recent blog post, entitled “Catastrophe Thinking” — if you want to make change, you have to change the story. Maybe that’s what attracts me to Detroit: might it be time for a new story there? This is my Detroit story, which is the back story to my organizing Maker Faire at The Henry Ford.

rickomatic.jpgOn my first visit to the area, I gave a talk at A2 Mechshop, a co-engineering space organized by Dale Grover and Bob Stack. They host a monthly “Go-Tech” meeting for the tech community. After my talk, someone said: “We could really use a Maker Faire here.” There was immediate agreement by all.

I began to wonder how a Maker Faire in Michigan could happen. Others on the same trip expressed a similar idea, emphasizing what it would mean to the area. I was intrigued, but I thought it would be hard to do.

Before I visited Detroit, John Law had put a bug in my ear at a previous Maker Faire. I should probably say legendary culture-hacker John Law, a co-founder of Burning Man. John had been to the first Maker Faire where I asked him to tell some of his amazing stories of his wild and subversive escapades in San Francisco. At Maker Faire in 2009, John told me that he was buying a house in Detroit. He was going to start spending time there because artists were moving Detroit, and he thought we should consider doing a Faire in Detroit. It sounded like a crazy idea at the time I heard it, but I didn’t lose the thought.

What made me think it was possible to do a Maker Faire was that I met people who were doing cool things. Ann Arbor certainly had a lot going on. There were about a hundred people at the GO-Tech meeting, including Rick Chownyck (at right) who did a metal-casting demo that I blogged. Dug Song’s A2 Geeks was a great example of fostering an open culture for hackers and developers by networking the geek community.

I attended an A2 Ignite hosted by Ryan Burns, which was a Friday date-night for hundreds of people at the University of Michigan. Later the same night, energetic Bilal Ghalib showed me a screen-printing space he’d set up at a local teen center. I visited the I3 Detroit hackerspace, which was just getting started. In a day or two, I had the feeling that a nucleus of makers already existed. They weren’t all connected to each other, but they could be.

I also visited The Henry Ford in Dearborn and met with curators Marc Greuther and Suzanne Fischer. They’d heard about Maker Faire, and were very interested, but they also realized it was unlike any event that had been at The Henry Ford. On a tour of the museum, I got very excited by what The Henry Ford represented: a history of American making.

Walking amongst the steam engines, automobiles, planes, and bicycles, I saw it as the ultimate maker destination. Designed by Ford himself, he wanted others to learn and experience what previous generations had made — these marvelous machines. As I enjoy reading history, I was fascinated by the long history that was spawned by the tinkering in Henry Ford’s garage. I thought The Henry Ford would be a perfect place to host a Maker Faire, and allow us to connect what’s happening today with a past that shows us what’s possible.

Detroit is a city and a region that grew up because Henry Ford not only built a car but realized what it would mean if cars were affordable for nearly everyone. Others were building luxury cars. Ford built the car “for the rest of us.”


Henry Ford’s “999” race car

On another trip, I went with Mark Hatch and Jim Newton of TechShop who were considering opening in Detroit. We met with a bunch of people from industry and academia. We visited locations such as TechTown, a technology incubator at Wayne State University. Diana Rhoten, from Startl in NYC, who was part of these meetings, told me that we should think of Detroit as changing from “Motor City to Maker City.” In retrospect, she had started framing a new story for Detroit. How could a city with manufacturing in its blood re-invent itself and find new ways of making things? How could new places to work and new ways of working and working with new tools such as 3D printers create a new future?

I was particularly impressed by the co-working spaces such as A2 Mechshop, in which five companies share a workshop, including a company that makes electric motorcycles. I visited Mike Kessler’s WorkanTile Exchange, a 3,000-square-foot co-working space beside a coffee shop in Ann Arbor. Mike pointed out that while many people have jobs that allow them to work at home, they enjoy getting together with others and sharing a common workspace.

Again, these were all new ways of thinking the value of physical space. I also realized that people were starting to figure out ways to recombine their talents and work together. They didn’t necessarily need a large company to make things happen. They could do it spontaneously, out in the open, on their own, even casually. The could do more with less. The kind of collaboration that is valued in open source communities is manifest in a co-working space.

When I returned home, I told Tim O’Reilly that I’d like to organize a Maker Faire in Detroit. I said it would be a challenge but I thought we should do it — because it was worth doing. As Tim has often said to me, he had been thinking the same thing. It was important to try developing Maker Faire not just in a place that seem ideal, like San Francisco, but also in a place that might actually need it. I don’t mean to imply that either of us thought that we possessed some insight into Detroit’s future. We just wanted to do something that even in a small way might serve as a catalyst, bringing a lot of talented people together so they can share their enthusiasm and knowledge with each other.

A Maker Faire Grows in Detroit

So, at the end of this month we will open Maker Faire Detroit at The Henry Ford. It will run July 31-Aug. 1, Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission to Maker Faire will also include entrance into The Henry Ford Museum (Greenfield Village requires a separate admission.) You can buy tickets in advance here.

It is not only Detroit’s Maker Faire, but the first big one in the Midwest. Over ten hackerspaces from around the Midwest are expected to come. Makers are coming to Detroit from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.

There are also two special events in conjunction with Maker Faire Detroit. Can Do Camp will take place Thursday, July 29 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Eastern Market. This event is for makers, hackers, and entrepreneurs to connect with each other and look at ways we can build hands-on communities and foster innovation. I wrote about it on O’Reilly Radar as well.

Also, Elliot Washor of Big Picture Learning has organized a Maker Faire Symposium on Friday and Saturday bringing educators, students, and experts together. Its formal title is “Designing Programs to Help Youth ‘Make’ Their Way in the World.” They will study makers and Maker Faire to look first-hand at ways we learn with active hands and minds. They’ll be developing a policy paper on how making can be developed as a capacity within our schools and communities.

Please come to Maker Faire Detroit if you can, tell others you know to join us, and even from afar, wish us well and follow us on Twitter. In a separate post, I’ll say more about what you’ll find at the first Maker Faire Detroit.

Making Detroit Stories

Each time I return from Detroit, I find my head filled with ideas, having discovered something new and interesting, having met people I really enjoyed, having learned something I didn’t know. I leave thinking of new opportunities arising in Michigan, and I wonder what I’d do if I were much younger. Would I move there? I completely understand why people like Andrew Archer and Jeff Sturges have done so — to start something new. (I profiled Andrew and Jeff in “Kid Robot” in MAKE Volume 23.)

In other parts of the country, I run into people who tell me about the Detroit in which they grew up. All of them have good stories to tell. Even those who’ve left still have a strong connection to Detroit that is unmistakable. I could explain away such fondness for a hometown but I choose not to. I choose to believe that it’s not just sentiment but it’s something with a much stronger hold. It has certainly gotten a hold on me.

The new story for Detroit is waiting to be told. It’s a story about what people are doing and what they can do. If you have a new Detroit story, send it along. I’ve also asked some of the makers I’ve met to share their own “Making Detroit” story. We’ll publish those stories here on Make: Online as they come in.


DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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