Maker Faire at five: The community it's forged and the future it needs

Maker Faire made its Detroit debut five years ago and it's caught on with surprising rapidity since then. Produced by the Henry Ford and Make magazine publisher Maker Media, the event brings over 400 makers to the Henry Ford to demonstrate and share ideas. The metro Detroit public has responded enthusiastically, with a turnout of nearly 22,000 at last year's event. As Maker Faire Detroit celebrates its fifth birthday, we talked to a trio of makers who have been involved from the beginning about why they like the fair, how it's impacted metro Detroit and what its next steps should be.

Jason Gibner
Jason Gibner may be a Maker Faire exhibitor, but he spends most of his time at the event marveling at the works of others. The 38-year-old Milan resident has exhibited what he describes as "bright-colored, weird paintings of robots and sci-fi characters"  in the craft tent since year one. His favorite part of working the tent is getting a front-row view of the rest of the show, which he describes as part comic con, part tech conference.

"Last year there were go-kart races and there was just a dude riding a go-kart around wearing a Predator mask, and everyone was cheering him," Gibner says. "I was just like, 'Well, that's awesome. That's the dumbest yet most awesome thing I've ever seen.' Little things like that make me really happy."

Gibner's only advice for the Faire is to "keep getting weirder and wilder." He says the show is a key networking event for metro Detroit crafters and makers, creating a vital sense of community support.

"It's just good in any situation to get other people that are in the same mindset as you are, that are doing the same weird things that other people would say are a waste of time," he says.

For the viewing public, Gibner says the Faire is a great place to see not just go-kart-racing sci-fi characters, but also the cutting-edge technology of the future. He vividly recalls seeing two junior high school-aged kids walking around last year's Faire, controlling a flying disk with their laptop. 

"These kids are coming up with the craziest stuff that I have never thought of in my life," Gibner says. "Walking around there, not to sound too cheesy, makes me feel good for the future of humanity."

Brandon Richards
Brandon Richards and his fellow OmniCorpDetroit members come to this year's Faire with a creation hot off the presses from another major Detroit maker event. Richards, a 32-year-old Detroit resident, is an organizing member of the OmniCorp hackerspace, which participated in the Red Bull Creation competition earlier this month. OmniCorp will feature its Creation entry –a mobile events information kiosk– at Maker Faire this year. Like Gibner, Richards says he enjoys the community spirit of the event.

"It's being around like-minded individuals, people who are into creating and thinking on their own and doing things in their own way," he says. "There's no right or wrong answer to anything."

However, he says Faire organizers should add more scheduled demonstration-type events if they want to keep building their audience. He notes that the Faire has repeatedly featured go-kart events and appearances by EepyBird, the duo famous for their epic-scale Coke and Mentos experiments. But he says the show needs something fresh to keep people coming and sticking around.

"Obviously, seeing everybody's setup is really cool," Richards says. "I feel sometimes, though, that I get through that in a couple hours. So getting people to go two days takes events going on."

Richards says the Faire is a boon to public awareness and understanding of the local maker community. As more people discover metro Detroit makers and how they work together, Richards predicts that new makerspaces will begin to pop up in greater numbers with a variety of approaches.

"I think a lot of people don't even realize that there are hackerspaces and makerspaces and tech shops in our backyards," he says. "I think that opens the eyes of those kind of people."

Jeff Sturges
More than just the site of a Maker Faire, Jeff Sturges says Detroit is a "maker city." 

"Making has gotten divided and siloed and somewhat hidden a bit due to some changes in industry," says the 37-year-old Detroit resident. "I think new movements in industry and culture and life, such as the maker movement, are causing people to peek their head out and look around and figure out…what else we can do to make our world more interesting, to find new places of work and to help one another out."

Sturges is the founder and conductor of the Mt. Elliott Makerspace in Detroit. At this year's Maker Faire he and his cohorts will be building makeshift radios with Faire attendees and leading their second annual Caribbean Mardi Gras parade. Sturges says there's a friendly spirit of competitiveness that drives Faire exhibitors to make their offerings a little bigger and better each year. But he says the responsibility for moving the Faire forward should be equally shared between exhibitors and Faire supporters in the worlds of industry and philanthropy.

Sturges says the relationship between the corporate world and the DIY sphere is one that can and should be mutually beneficial. Do-it-yourselfers can produce marketable ideas for the business world–as in the case of one Henry Ford. 

"He is the prime example of a guy who was a tinkerer who turned it into a very valuable business, which is the reason why the host site exists," Sturges says.

Sturges sees the Faire as a catalyst for potentially much bigger developments in metro Detroit and the world at large. He recalls the inspiration he felt seeing a light, fast and cost-efficient electric tricycle built by an exhibitor at last year's Faire.

"You think, 'If this guy did it or if this woman did it, what can I do?'" he says. "To me, that is something that builds and builds and builds until periodically we have transformative, innovative things happening that can change industry and can change culture and can change life in this region."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

http://www.davelewinski.comAll Photos by David Lewinski Photography
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