Oakland Fab City Travel Blog - Chapter I: Chicago & Detroit

As we work to help local FabLabs start, coordinate, and evolve, we’re also developing an Oakland Fab City Innovation Center (“FCIC”). This project lays the groundwork to achieve our long term goal: to create an Oakland where all of us make all we need, The FCIC will be uniquely Oakland in its design and impact. To support the development of story and financial model for this project, we’re doing some travels into the field throughout the rest of this 2019.

We just returned from a whirlwind three-day, two-city tour of Chicago and Detroit design and manufacturing sites. We had a team of five of us on the road: Sal Bednarz and Aakash Desai from Fab City staff, Philip Arca from the Fab City advisory board, and Nora Jendoubi and Derwin Sisnett of Maslow Development (Memphis).

The Maslow team came to visit us in Oakland a few months ago - they’ve been visiting makerspaces and other sites across the country to support a community co-designed development in Memphis, centered around a high school and makerspace. Their Lighthouse Project is a mixed-use development including a K-12 school, mixed-income housing, health & wellness facilities, and workforce development opportunities, including makerspace to enable exploration of design and manufacturing.

Chicago was a priority for us because we saw in our research a variety of specialized spaces serving their various member/customer/client communities in different ways. There is no central planning involved. Public policy plays a role, but not a primary one. There is a mix of sustainable for-profit, and publicly funded programming. These two spheres often exist together at a single site.

No single site can be everything to everyone, and the sites we visited are successful because they understand where in the larger manufacturing ecosystem they fit. We found that many of the people we visited knew others on our itinerary, and some were actively collaborating with each other, understanding that, while serving the same communities, they often don’t really compete with each other in a direct way, and that by coordinating, they are able to do more and serve those they serve even better.

In Chicago, this seems like the organic framework on which to build a really exciting Fab City program. In Oakland and the Bay Area, our manufacturing communities tend to be much more diffuse, and not served in the direct and effective ways many of the programs below do, supporting their sector-specific needs and helping them form professional networks with others like them.

Detroit is one of five other US Fab Cities, and the Incite Focus FabLab is a parent lab to our Elevator Works site. Still recovering from the collapse of its auto manufacturing industry in the 80s and 90s, Detroit is reinventing itself. Manufacturing is in its bones and its blood, and its depleted condition has given many a sense of much to gain and little to lose. Experiments happen; risks are taken. And now, several years into this new chapter, really interesting innovation clusters are emerging. A new textile and apparel industry is growing, supported by key industry partners, great education, and support for emerging designers and producers.

This trip left us all incredibly energized. We made new relationships with these great programs, and helped in a small way to connect them to each other. So many of the people we met with were so generous with their time and energy. We clearly owe a debt to pay this forward as we continue our work, and to return the favor to those folks and their communities when they visit us here in Oakland.

We visited a range of sites, from educational to industrial, for-profit and nonprofit, food and non-food. Every one of them informed our work in a unique way. Below is a quick rundown of those sites. We’ll be doing some more short trips between now and the end of this year, and will periodically post updates here. Stay tuned.


THE PLACES



Chicago - ICNC Make City Incubator

The Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago is an economic development organization with a 50-plus-year legacy. It started as a collaboration of factory businesses in what has become the Kinzie Inustrial Corridor. It acquired 416,000 square feet of industrial buildings in this corridor, in which it launched a manufacturing incubator in 1980. On the day we visited, the Chicago City Council approved the extension of the Kinzie Corridor, preserving and expanding the industrial zoning of this area and protecting it from a boom in condo and apartment conversions of these buildings in surrounding neighborhoods.

A silk screening company in the incubator services many of the other tenants branded apparel needs. This company will likely be replaced by another apparel company when it outgrows this space

A silk screening company in the incubator services many of the other tenants branded apparel needs. This company will likely be replaced by another apparel company when it outgrows this space

Make City is supporting the emergence and growth of traditional small food and non-food manufacturing. The program includes an onsite SBDC (Small Business Development Center), an International Trade Center, and a workforce training program to serve member companies. It’s staff delivers a hard-to-pin-down secret sauce, making incubator companies feel connected and capable.

It has over 100 incubator businesses in its facility, inhabiting spaces ranging from several hundred to a few thousand square feet. Companies generally have a three-year lifespan in the Incubator. The vast majority outgrow the space and move on to larger facilities elsewhere.

There’s another relevant ICNC program that we didn’t get a chance to visit on this trip - The Hatchery is a growth-stage food incubator founded in partnership with Accion Chicago, which started inside the Make City building but recently moved into its own space. It’s got 54 available small kitchens for companies to rent, and has support programming in place to support the sector-specific needs of food manufacturing.

The stand-out for us:

Visible network effects, with many businesses buying product and services from each other, and promoting each other’s offerings.


Chicago - Fablab at Museum of Science & Industry

This museum is big in every way, and its FabLab programs are big, ambitious, and fruitful. The MSI team is a charming group of engineering and design nerds who have found a great home and are making incredible impact in education and community development in the South Side of Chicago.

An aquarium filled with thousands of 3d printed objects made by FabLab visitors invites us to DREAM!

An aquarium filled with thousands of 3d printed objects made by FabLab visitors invites us to DREAM!

They have staked out a three-mile radius around their South Side location, and are providing services to all 17 public high schools in this circle. They offer a professional development program for teachers, hold regular convenings for educators in the region, and provide equipment to those schools to launch mini-FabLabs. The team is constantly researching low-cost digital fabrication equipment, and have adopted an evolving specification for a startup FabLab for less than $7,000. This works because the MSI FabLab is able to provide services to teachers and schools to ensure they know how to use and maintain equipment. By taking this approach, they are able to cut the cost of building a FabLab by more than 90%.

The MSI FabLab youth program serves 100% youth of color from the South Side of Chicago.

The stand-out for us:

Their flexible self-directed learning and qualification framework based on colored martial arts-style ‘belts’; also their refinement of super-low-cost FabLabs for area public schools, and their support for nearby educators. (Actually, a lot more things stood out, but this needs to be a short message...see for yourself.)


Chicago - mHub

mHub is laser-focused on creating the best possible conditions for high-growth hardware companies to start and grow. Their workshop is equipped to the gills with really capable equipment, and their relationships with services companies to help members do hard things is a strong enabler.

Pitch night at mHub

Pitch night at mHub

We visited on a pitch night and saw one of their member companies working to raise capital to grow their gps tracking service for kids. mHub is the sort of place that it’s easy to see high-growth companies getting the support they need to grow. Members and staff are clearly sensitive about the needs to protect IP of their members. We weren’t allowed to take photos of the space, and some areas (like an IOT research lab belonging to Accenture) were off limits to visitors.

The stand-out for us:

mHub’s relationships with large industry partners and with university tech transfer/incubation programs who have taken space in their facility.


Chicago - The Plant

The Plant is about plants, and food, and fermentation. They have literally plumbed tenants to each other, delivering waste product from one project as a raw material input to another. Their collection of food, farming, fermentation and research tenants are clearly in great company with each other, and with The Plant’s team, who is building an awesome facility for and around them.

Inexpensive and beautiful design elements like this planter/light fixture made from bare conduit and old smoker chimney parts are everywhere in the building

Inexpensive and beautiful design elements like this planter/light fixture made from bare conduit and old smoker chimney parts are everywhere in the building

The building is the second major project undertaken by Bubbly Dynamics, a for-profit real estate development firm. Their first building is in the Nearwest neighborhood, adjacent to ICNC’s Make City incubator. It’s known simply as Bubbly, and is a light-industrial business incubator that's home to small and emerging manufacturers, product assemblers, and community maker spaces.

Bubbly Dynamics conceived this new project to serve the food manufacturing companies they saw that needed a unique kind of industrial space. Incidentally, several of their tenants are or have been members of ICNC’s Hatchery program.

The site of a former meatpacking and meat smoking plant, The Plant certainly conveys a feeling of evolving from our meat-heavy past into our plant-driven future. The businesses inside are doing everything from indoor and outdoor farming, beekeeping, algae research, brewing, craft ice, social enterprise based on Afghan saffron, and much more.

The stand-out for us:

The Plant feels really rooted in the history of its building and the surrounding neighborhood. Interior design does an incredible job of preserving and repurposing the meatpacking bones of the facility. Conference rooms are located behind old smoker doors. Sheet metal chimneys become planters. Old soot-stained walls are part of the backdrop for all that happens in the building today. Their Packingtown Museum is a learning and event space that documents this history.

Also, they’re working hard to close a financing gap to complete installation of a huge biodigester on their site which will turn food waste into biogas as well as liquid and solid byproducts that can serve as inputs for other Plant tenants.


Chicago - Polsky Exchange

The Polsky Exchange is a program of the University of Chicago. It includes heavily subsidized coworking in a beautiful building for community members, and a 12-month cross-sector business incubator program. It’s located in a commercial district just off the University of Chicago campus, and just a few blocks from its Booth School of Business.

Incubator companies include pure tech, consumer and b2b hardware, consumer and professional services, and more. The Exchange boasts membership of over 3,000, and has provided service to thousands of companies.

The onsite Tech Bar at Polsky Exchange serves as a more convenient and lower cost alternative to the Genius Bar or Geek Squad for students, faculty and members

The onsite Tech Bar at Polsky Exchange serves as a more convenient and lower cost alternative to the Genius Bar or Geek Squad for students, faculty and members

The Polsky Exchange includes a Fabrication Lab, with trained staff providing free service to members working in digital design and fabrication. The Lab has been a resource for some of the incubator companies, as well as to students & faculty, and community coworking subscribers.

The architecture of the Polsky building is striking - well-lit, colorful, airy, and full of workers.

The stand-out for us:

We felt immediately welcomed in this space - Polsky members smiled at us. Their Director brought us chairs from his office. This is no small thing, and is supported by architectural design features, and a team which obviously emphasizes this in their culture. Thanks for the warm experience!


Chicago - Idea Shop and Ed Kaplan Innovation Center at Illinois Institute of Technology

IIT is a rarefied place that turns out world-class designers and architects. The Idea Shop is a makerspace located in the IIT Innovation Center, open to students and faculty. Their building is high-tech, highly experimental, and has made a dramatic impact on its inhabitants.

3d data visualizations made in the IdeaShop by IIT students

3d data visualizations made in the IdeaShop by IIT students

IdeaShop is a makerspace open to students and faculty of IIT. It isn’t open to the public. It’s well-equipped, and has staff that can clearly help others learn to use its equipment and get their projects made. It was an active space, with people coming and going constantly while we were in the space. (This was hard not to notice, because of the motion-activated voice prompt to swipe badges on entry and exit of the space.)

The larger Ed Kaplan Innovation Center is an event space with open floor plan student workstations. It’s set up like an actual design studio - students and faculty all have assigned desks inside the gleaming white facility.

The stand-out for us:

The Innovation Center building really felt like a huge working design studio, and the evidence of design and collaboration were everywhere.


Chicago - Harold Washington Public Library - Maker Lab and YouMedia

We went to visit the main branch of the Chicago Public Library to see its Maker Lab, which is on the third floor of the library building. The Maker Lab is a small space, and has a small staff that help library patrons with digital design and fabrication projects. It has laser cutters, 3d printers, vinyl cutters, sewing machines - what you’d expect.

We thought we’d have a quick tour of the Maker Lab and wind down our day. Instead, staff suggested we check out the Youmedia space on the ground floor of the library. “It’s a space for youth, and they have some 3d printers and stuff down there", they said.

Young people pursuing their passion provide the means to engage others without the need for adult intervention

Young people pursuing their passion provide the means to engage others without the need for adult intervention

We headed downstairs to Youmedia, not at all prepared for what we found. Youmedia is a mind-bending program, centered around creating safe space for young people inside a public library. It was loud, active and full of youthful energy in a way that very few spaces are. The program includes music production and recording equipment, digital fabrication and sewing, 2d and 3d design, student group projects, video games. Also, there were books.

The librarians at Youmedia (yes, they’re librarians!), walked us through the space and shared their philosophy: by providing a safe space for youth and filling it with opportunities for those young people to explore and create, they’ve seen that that’s what actually happens. Some of the users of the space are content to hang out and battle each other in Smash Bros, but we saw several working on creative projects. They were composing and recording music, sewing, working on digital illustrations, cutting vinyl and wood, making 3d prints. They were collaborating. Some of the young people had become experts, who helped others navigate machines, technology, and the space.

The stand-out for us:

Young people, given the opportunity to create in an energizing space, were doing so, and doing it their way. There was no pressure for visitors to do anything they didn’t want to do, and many were using their time to experiment, create, and learn.


Detroit - Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center

ISAIC is a skills and job training program and an industrial incubator fueled by a contract sewing/textiles microfactory and industry customers. It has a hybrid commercial/non-profit operating model, which enables ownership by ISAIC worker-members. They are further enabled by tight coordination with the fashion design and manufacturing program at the nearby College for Creative Studies and relationships with local manufacturers including Shinola and Carhartt.

Storyboards for ISAIC’s programs and buildout

Storyboards for ISAIC’s programs and buildout

The core of the ISAIC machine is their contract manufacturing floor, which is being built out to service large manufacturing runs for customers throughout the region and beyond. The constant need in this factory for trained workers provides the opportunity to train new workers who might be starting with literally no design or sewing experience. Augmented by designers and sewers graduating from the nearby College for Creative Studies, this platform provides the workforce basis to recruit other larger manufacturers. This helps seed a burgeoning textiles industry ecosystem which allows companies like Carhartt rehome their offshored production.

The production floor at ISAIC will be designed and operated based on the team’s learnings building and operating the Shinola factory floor. They have developed a worker-centric operating model which is unusual in the textile industry - the opposite of a traditional ‘sweatshop’.

Freelancers and small shops locating in the same building create additional demand for the contract manufacturing plant when they take orders that they cannot service on their own. This enables these very small companies to rapidly flex their operation while reducing risk - their manufacturing is still onsite, and almost inhouse, but doesn’t require these tiny firms to raise capital, buy equipment, build out factories, and hire workers in order to grow.

ISAIC is undergoing their buildout now, and will launch soon.

The stand-out for us:

Jennifer Guarino, ISAIC’s CEO, is a superconnector and has the network, skills, confidence and charisma to pull this ambitious program off. We saw this reflected in the reactions that others had to her as she toured us not just around the ISAIC site, but many others nearby. Jennifer - please let us repay your generous hospitality when you’re in the Bay Area!


Detroit - Argonaut Building / A Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education

This building is home to several tenants, including the College for Creative Studies, the School for Creative Studies, a charter Middle and High School focused on arts and design, and the Shinola factory and offices. The building and surrounding ones also include hundreds of units student housing for the College and nearby Wayne State University.

Leather cutting and etching cnc mill specifically for pattern cutting for footwear and accessories

Leather cutting and etching cnc mill specifically for pattern cutting for footwear and accessories

The Argonaut Building was built in the 1930s by General Motors to house its internal R&D programs. Lots of cars were designed here until the early 2000s. General Motors donated the building to the College for Creative Studies in 2007, and it was re-christened the A Alfred Taubman Center for Design Eduction. CCS moved its undergraduate design programs to the building, and launched new graduate programs in the new facility. CCS continues to turn out world class automotive designers, in addition to its other programs.

CCS also operates a charter Middle School and High School for art and design students. Many of them stay on for the CCS college curriculum.

We visited the CCS Fashion and Footwear program, and met faculty & students. They have a wide range of specialized sewing equipment, along with modern touches like a CNC leather cutting machine that projects patterns onto the vacuum cutting table to enable the operator to align the leather to the pattern to avoid imperfections.

We also toured the Shinola factory and offices, and saw firsthand their sewing floor, which was really not very different from the CCS classroom in terms of its equipment and layout. It was easy to imagine learning in one space and making the transition to design or create in the other.

The stand out for us:

Movement of people between school and industry through internships and projects happening in the same building. The ground floor cafeteria as a space where all of these people - students, professionals, and others from the surrounding neighborhood - come together in unexpected ways. Also, College’ evident mission to train fashion students in not just design, but actual manufacturing. This happens in a way that enables them to move on in their careers as adaptable professionals and effective freelancers and entrepreneurs - those who start business or make manufacturing decisions are more likely to keep those operations inhouse instead of immediately defaulting to outsourcing.


Detroit - Incite Focus

Incite Focus is the seat of Detroit Fab City activities. A FabLab which has been rooted in the Detroit community for years, it has served hundreds of young people through hands-on education programs. Incite Focus recently located into a new location in partnership with Wayne State University, and is now smack-dab in the middle of a vibrant innovation cluster. It’s working to refactor its programs and offerings to grow its impact and become an enabler for community partnerships and emerging designers and fabricators.

Learning about some of the Incite Focus team and member projects.

Learning about some of the Incite Focus team and member projects.

We happened to be visiting during a time that Incite Focus had paused its community open hours, which normally happen every afternoon. These have been so well-attended that the FabLab team has been unable to keep up with its internal projects and do some maintenance in its new space. (Great problems, as they say!)

The stand-out for us:

As with other FabLabs, the Incite Focus staff has a passion and creativity that is infectious. We’re sorry we weren’t able to see that passion rubbing off on community members during their open hours, but glad we got to see the team hard at work creating and able to really open up about the process of reimagining themselves.


Detroit - TechTown

A nonprofit coworking space and business incubator/accelerator, TechTown is home to hundreds of members, dozens of orgs and companies, and a service center serving hundreds of area emerging businesses. TechTown is not manufacturing-focused, but is part of the vibrant innovation district that includes all the above Detroit sites, and many of its members are emerging manufacturers and designers.

Open plan coworking at TechTown

Open plan coworking at TechTown

In the TechTown building, there are offices and lab spaces available for rent, for businesses who outgrow open-plan coworking and need their own dedicated space.

TechTown has an unusual mix of support for tech startups and neighborhood small business under one roof. This leads to interesting network effects achieved through physical proximity. We saw a coding boot camp company, a tutoring service for high school students in areas like aerospace engineering, alongside clothing designers and food producers.

The stand-out for us:

The diversity (ethnic, racial, gender, age) of members in coworking space, and the sheer number of activities being served out of the building. On the day we visited, we saw a pop-up retail market, a happy hour reception in the public plaza outside, and lots of smiling members buzzing around the ground floor coworking space - this didn’t seem like an unusual day for the TechTown team.


Detroit - True North & Core City

Cheap real estate in Detroit is an enabler for emerging creative and manufacturing businesses. Core City is a petri dish of innovative live-work, retail, and larger scale manufacturing initiatives. The vision we saw for the future of their neighborhood is inclusive, locally productive, experimental, and unlike anything else in our experience.

Ponyride shared sewing shop in its new Core City home

Ponyride shared sewing shop in its new Core City home

We visited a planned 1M sqft industrial/residential/retail development which has become the new home of the manufacturing collective Ponyride, and will include cultural events space and the framework to support hyperlocal economic development.

The stand-out for us:

Core City is a rural village in the middle of a city. The folks who live and work here are committed to their neighborhood, and might live to see it become something as vibrant as it once was, and even be able to avoid displacement as this happens.