i3 Detroit: Creating | Community

When you hear the term “hackerspace” you might conjure an image in your head of early ‘90s cyberpunk films that depicted cyberspace and the art of hacking with brightly-colored swirling computer-generated graphics with flashing bits of code set to a techno soundtrack while stylish teens typed intensely on tricked-out Compaqs.
In the case of the Ferndale-based nonprofit organization i3 Detroit, “hackerspace” doesn’t even refer to computers. Hackerspaces, also known as makerspaces, are collaborative spaces where people come together and, well, make stuff. i3 Detroit exists because, prior to it, nothing quite like it existed in the area.
“Basically it started because no one else in the area had done it,” says Nate Bezanson, founding member of i3 Detroit. He explains that hackerspaces have a 30-year history in Europe but they were very software-focused, no hands-on skills (so, your initial imaginings of what a “hackerspace” might look like might not have been totally off). Then, in 2007 or 2008, a group of North American hackers took a trip to Europe and came back saying, “This is so cool; we cannot live another day without this here.” This, according to Bezanson, was the beginning of the second generation of hackerspacers – the kind that are less Hackers and more Maker Faire.
“i3 is a great example of the growing creative spaces that we are seeing throughout the county,” says Irene Spanos, Director of Economic Development & Community Affairs for Oakland County. “We are very proud that i3 is part of our community.”
i3 started in April 2009 as an idea and a vision shared by a group of people meeting at a coffee shop. Because rental space and industrial equipment doesn’t come for free, it took some time and some fundraising before those initial ideas, first communicated on a site called hackerspaces.org, could be made into a hands-on reality.
But people were willing to pitch in money to make it happen, even though it wasn’t totally clear what it would look like in the end. “If people believe strongly in an idea, even if it doesn’t exist yet, (they’ll support it). That seems obvious today with Kickstarter. It’s funny to think today that it wasn’t that long ago that it wasn’t that obvious.”
So at those early coffee shop meetings people started kicking in money. After awhile they had enough money for a first month’s rent, and by September 2009 they had their first space in Royal Oak. Occupancy issues at that space forced them to move, but by April 2010 – just one year after those first casual meetings over coffee – they had opened in their permanent home in Ferndale.
So … what does a hackerspace look like on the inside? Well, this one’s got a craft room, an electronics room, a bike shop, a vinyl shop which includes a vinyl cutter (when that new toy came in the crew spent months “committing acts of vinylism,” tagging each other’s stuff with custom stickers in an escalating series of practical jokes), two large laser cutters, a 2D printer, a 3D printer, a WWII-era TIG welder with self-destruct instructions should it fall into enemy hands, a woodshop, a metal machine shop, three CNC mills, a circuit board mill … and more things so far outside this wordsmith’s realm of comprehension that it’s difficult to even regurgitate.
And a treehouse-loft in the middle.
“You really just can’t imagine it,” says board member Karen Corbeill. “It’s really hard to convey the idea of a hackerspace without actually experiencing it.”
Which is why their space is open to anyone and everyone, member or no. They just want people to experience it for themselves. A non-member still has full access to all of the tools inside and, provided a member “sponsors” them during their visit (basically making sure they don’t break or steal anything), can proceed forthwith with the making.
“The majority of the people who come in sign up on the spot come in and just start making stuff,” says Bezanson.
Full-fledged members get their own keys and have full 24-hour access to the space. And becoming a member is akin to becoming part of a new community – a community of makers, inventors, fabricators, creators, fiddlers, and tinkerers.
Oh, and they also trick out Power Wheels and race them in national competitions.
The space is about 8,000 square feet but, as both Bezanson and Corbeill point out, it’s not about the size of the space but about the people in it. (Or, it’s not about the tools but the people who use them.)
“It’s not about the tools we have or the square footage we have but about the people and the community we create,” says Corbeill. “We’re like a family.”
Bezanson reiterates, “The social and collaborative aspects of it are impossible to overstate.”
The qualifications for membership are pretty relaxed: You have to be over 18. You need to be able to clean up after yourself. You have to play well with others. “It’s a community here,” says Bezanson. “If you’re abrasive or abusive you’re not going to fit.”
Members come from all walks of life and all backgrounds – engineers, artists, computer programmers, you name it. “The kind of people that are attracted to this have so many hidden talents you’d never imagine,” says Corbeill. She recalls one member, who is exclusively an oil painter, asking her if everyone there is really good at more than one thing. Her response was simply, “We didn’t start that way!”
Don’t know how to use something? Just ask. Want to learn how to do something no one else knows how to do either? Figure it out together. “You learn so much just by being here,” Bezanson says.” Instruction is informal, one-on-one, and usually instantaneous. This is, after all, a place where people choose to spend their free time – a hobby, not an obligation.
Which isn’t to say that no jobs come of it – one of the less-frequently-shared stories of i3 are the number of jobs members get as a result of being there. The inevitability of social networking in such a collaborative space and the demonstration of skills that may not be so easily translated onto a resume allow for the sort of “it’s all in who you know” connections that lead to real jobs – the kind of jobs you never apply to through a Monster automated form. The kind of jobs monstrously talented and creative people like this are actually passionate about.
One of their mottos is “be excellent to each other,” and that translates into every aspect of their work and workspace.
“I don’t think I can use the word ‘community’ enough,” Corbeill says, and that pretty much sums up i3: hackerspace, yes, but moreover a collaborator space.