One thing about the Detroit region is that it continues to surprise people. With its resilience, its music scene, and its innovation, this area has never been short on ideas. Anyone who says that “Detroit is dead” has clearly never looked under the hood of their Motor City “rust belt” assumptions.
Quietly tucked away in an unassuming garage in Royal Oak is a grassroots, community-run hotbed of invention, innovation, and interesting, creative projects called i3Detroit – the region’s only hackerspace.
While the term may evoke visions of unshaven, Mountain Dew-drinking nerds mercilessly typing away Matrix-like code in dark basements, “A ‘hackerspace’ is the idea of bringing back the original word ‘hacker,’ which meant someone who tinkers — someone who takes something apart and makes it for a better purpose,” explained Russ Wolfe, founder and current president of i3Detroit, “so the idea of a hackerspace is to bring a bunch of different people from the community together to actually tinker, hack, and build things together out of old parts . . . but at the same time socialize and collaborate in a single environment to see what happens with all the different ideas.”
Long term, however, i3Detroit hopes to help unemployed or underemployed workers develop new skills for future employment, and also facilitate innovation of new products and start up businesses in the area.
i3Detroit — the three i’s standing for Imagine, Innovate, and Inspire, was the brainchild of Wolfe, who knew people in other cities that were involved in hackerspaces. “I loved the concept and thought Detroit’s the perfect place for something like this — we’ve got all kinds of creative people; we need to bring people together.” So he put up a website in April of 2009 explaining what he’d like to do and found like-minded people online. They first met in coffee shops, and by September of 2009, found the space they’re in now.
But at 27 members and countless projects, the i3Detroit community has quickly outgrown their current facility. On April 1, they will be moving into an 8,000 square foot facility in Ferndale — almost eight times the size of their current space. The cost of moving has already been covered, but they are doing a fundraising project through KickStarter.com to allow the purchase of new materials, equipment, and other resources to have on hand for their members and to the community. To help spread the word of the project, entitled i3Detroit Version 2.0, a few of the creative minds made a hilarious viral video that was recently featured on the very popular blog Boing Boing.
Walking into the current i3Detroit facility feels like walking back into high school shop class, only instead of the typical soapbox derby cars and birdhouses, you’re surrounded by projects most people would never dream of. There’s the famous cupcake car, which was so popular that the City of Royal Oak asked them if they’d drive it in a parade. Suspended from the ceiling is a canoe-in-progress, and in the next room is an old-fashioned player piano that will soon run on a dot-matrix printer and use scrap hard drives as hammers. Across the room, a few students are learning how to fuse electronics with a soldering iron. Upstairs are a half-dozen people discussing plans for a top-secret project, while someone in the soundproof studio is recording a podcast.
This isn’t your mother’s arts and crafts.
Or maybe.. it is.
Partnering with Handmade Detroit, i3Detroit also offers classes for those who aren’t quite comfortable with the thought of holding a soldering iron.
“There’s something for everybody,” explains Nick Britsky, founding member and Director at Large, “A popular event we have is our Bob Ross paint-a-longs, where we put [famous PBS painter] Bob Ross up on the big screen, give people the materials they need, and everybody tries to follow along . . . it’s hilarious.”
If painting isn’t quite your thing, there are also classes in screen printing, jewelry-making, cross stitching, computer programming, and more.
Membership to i3Detroit comes in different levels, depending on financial situation and tools used, and the space is always welcome to guests so long as there are paying members there. For more information on i3Detroit, including classes and how to become a member, visit the i3Detroit website.
i3Detroit is only one of about 120 hackerspaces around the country, and there are plans to interconnect them into a network of reciprocity, sharing resources, teachers, and knowledge. For more information on other hackerspaces, visit hackerspaces.org.
[UPDATE: i3Detroit met and surpassed their fundraising goal of $5,000 on March 31, three days before their deadline. More information can be found on the i3Detroit blog. Congrats to the hackers and thank you, Metro Detroit, for making it happen!]