Reinventing Detroit from a garage

When your iPhone screen cracks, what do you do? Apple wants you to send them your broken phone, pay $150 and wait a few weeks while they repair it and send it back. Another option is to tap into the community of DIY enthusiasts online and repair your own screen in an afternoon for around $15 through instructions found on YouTube.

Welcome to the Maker community, a collection of engineers, sewers, tinkerers and inventors eager to spread the gospel of DIY. Their name comes from the eponymous Make Magazine, a magazine of blueprints, instructions and photo essays on everything from home-made amplifiers to fire-breathing robots.

A couple of weeks ago  I traveled to Detroit to check out Maker Faire, a yearly county fair-meets-science centre, where participants share machines and designs.  Appropriately, it’s held at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn Michigan, ground zero for the most significant feat of engineering and invention in American history, the automobile.

Many of the inventors at the fair used to be employed by the auto industry as engineers or parts manufacturers. Since the auto industry collapse, they’ve reinvented themselves as garage entrepreneurs.  With so much intellectual and technical skill in one area, Detroit has become a hotbed of DIY culture.

Maker Faire Director Sherry Huss decided to hold the San Francisco-based Maker Faire in Detroit this year for that reason. “A lot of [the economic collapse] was auto-driven,” she says. “Whether it was the factories, or glass, or materials or tires, you name it, that whole system was definitely affected.”

The Makers are reinventing the economy in Detroit as a breeding ground of skilled worker innovation and are reinventing themselves in the process. Makers are devoted to the ideals of repurposing old scraps, fixing broken appliances and using available resources in a competition of creativity and innovation.

The Maker community is decidedly open-source and collaborative. Designs are freely shared, improved and passed on. In this way, the motivation for the Makers is an internal drive to create and tinker. “When the economy goes where it’s gone,” says Huss, “these values become even more important… being proprietary and closed doesn’t really benefit anyone.”

Huss draws a comparison to the early days in Silicon Valley where early tech entrepreneurs laid the foundations for the personal computer in their garages. “The currency here is ideas, it’s not money,” says Huss. “Nobody’s making any money out here… yet.” As in Silicon Valley, some of the tinkering being done could lay the groundwork for the next big technological revolution, whether in materials manufacturing or green technology.

One of the hottest booths at the fair, Bre Pettis’s MakerBot, is a home-made desktop printer, made from a kit costing around $950.  It doesn’t print with ink, but a super-heated stream of plastic: the MakerBot can turn blueprints into 3D prototypes made of latex. “It’s like having a factory in your living room,” says Pettis.  “The knob on my air conditioner broke the other day.” says Pettis. “So I printed up a new one.”

The MakerBot community uploads blueprints onto the online database called Thingiverse. The kids are absolutely transfixed by the MakerBot. “I’d make chess pieces!” says one. “Okay,” says Pettis. “Come back in a couple of hours and I’ll have a piece for you.”

Later that afternoon, Pettis has downloaded a design for an awesome-looking rook, printed it up and given it to the kid. “Our whole goal is to make Makers,” says Huss. “There’s going to be a host of little kids here today whose worlds are going to be changed.”

The Makers have other names: hackerpreneurs, hobbypreneurs, basement inventors. Whatever you call them, market analysts should look to Detroit and the rest of the so-called “rust belt” states for the next wave of technology entrepreneurship. With so much intellectual and skilled labour out of work, workers are taking it upon themselves to innovate just because they love making cool stuff.