Techcrunch: Detroit Hack City

Posted on November 12, 2012

Driving through downtown Detroit is like seeing a city after the Fall. The streets are empty, and there are entire buildings devoid of windows, let alone occupants. It’s the Rust Belt writ large, a reminder that we are not permanent.

We spent a few days in Detroit during our meet-up and I spoke to quite a few entrepreneurs who are either based in the suburbs there, plan to come back after school, or are thinking of moving into the heart of the city. I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see even a few folks rolling back into town. But they need more.

My exhortation is this: Go there, live there, and repopulate Hack City.

I’m not the first person to try to save Detroit. We spoke with a number of big figures there – the biggest being Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans who bought out most of the old downtown core and filled it with teams of young men and women who work the phones all day. He also funds a pair of accelerators. We’ll be talking about that next week when we run our interview with Gilbert.

However, as a hardware guy, I think the possibilities are even greater. In Brooklyn I’ve seen hackers take over entire factories to build guitars, bike lights, and 3D printers. I’ve seen an open source hardware company expand to fill an entire Manhattan loft. I’ve seen distilleries, knife-makers, and Arduino programmers fill up the empty spaces in the endless Williamsburg wastes.

That can happen in Detroit, and it can happen now. A friend, on seeing the empty buildings, wrote “Think of all the stuff geeks could do in there.” And he’s right.

I’m not naïve about the costs and problems associated with building a business. I’m not ignorant of the very real possibility that the city could implode in on itself, taking startups with it. What I’m sure of, however, is that if we turn Detroit into Hack City, if we fill up empty floors of derelict office buildings with CNC machines, Shopbots, and designers, we can build a new manufacturing sector in darkest Michigan.

When I posted that Foxconn might build an LCD factory in Detroit (or LA) a few days ago, I did so knowing full well that large-scale manufacturing in urban cores is a sucker’s game. The world needs more TV plants like it needs more TVs. However, by creating “artisinal hardware,” even if it’s Kickstarter project after Kickstarter project, a hardware hacker could pull in a stable income, create an ecosystem of interconnected manufacturing partners, and help grow one of America’s forgotten cities.

I was talking with a guy in Detroit who told me about building a special kind of PC for a client. He needed a steel case so he went down to a fabricator in the city and drew the plan out on a napkin. An hour later the job was done for $375.

“Charge me more,” said the designer. “They’ll laugh if this is how much it costs.”

The fabricator shook his head. He wouldn’t raise his price. “All I ask is for you to make a thousand of these,” he said.

Instead of hacking in a San Francisco garage, why not hack in a whole building? Instead of landing in the middle of a potential bubble, why not live like a (well-financed) artist in a strange new city? Think of it as a year abroad in an up-and-coming post-crash economy.

Detroit is coming back. It’s a horrible place right now, that’s for sure, and I’m embarrassed that we, the American people, let it get this bad. I’m willing to go back and cover the renaissance (if there is one) if you’re willing to investigate the possibilities. Matt Burns lives just to the North. If you need contacts, we can get them for you.

I want to go back to Detroit, and when I get there I want my dream of Hack City to be on its way to coming true.

John Biggs, Techcrunch