ViewPoints: There are more than 500 Fab Labs all over the world – how did it all begin?
Tomas Diez: The Fab Labs were born at the MIT. It started with a grant from the National Science Foundation to bring technology to depressed communities. The first experiment was in an African-American community in Boston, which was given a kit with tools and machines to make things. Later we created a “tool kit” that could be used in remote places, so that people could produce the things they needed locally. So the first Fab Labs were set up in rural areas in Ghana, in Norway near the Arctic Circle, and in an ashram in India. Then more were set up in rural areas but also in cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona. Over the last 10 years the idea has gone viral, with a waiting list of more than 200 that want to be approved and included on the official lists.
VP: How do they get approved?
TD: We have a rite of passage based on fundamental values that all labs must agree to: people sharing technological knowledge. The laboratories consist of a set of machines costing about 80,000€ that together let you make practically anything, from furniture to electronic devices. The idea is that every Fab Lab should be equipped with these machines but also share projects and educational programs. We also ask people who want to start a Fab Lab to sign up to a charter, which sets out some basic principles, such as safety issues, ethics, co-working, and so on. They also have to belong to the Fab Lab network and attend our yearly meetings. Last year that meeting was held here in Barcelona, and this year it’ll be in Boston. And finally the people who lead Fab Labs are trained at the Fab Academy, so they not only learn about technology but also about the Fab Lab philosophy.
VP: So there are more than 500 Fab Labs over the world and they share a philosophy, but each one will have its own character, is that right?
TD: Exactly. There are Fab Labs in architecture schools, such as IAAC [Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia], which are mainly used for design projects. Other Fab Labs operate in a more social context, an industrial context, or for engineering. The Fab Lab in Afghanistan is part of a defense program, so it’s related to aid and cooperation. So is the first Fab Lab in Latin America, in Lima, which is part of an international aid package. But what we’ve noticed is that when Fab Labs are imposed from above, like in South Africa, they usually fail.
VP: So the idea is to encourage local production?
TD: Yes, but without idealizing grassroots. Fab Labs aren’t only local, they’re part of a global network and generate a social community. For example, our community consists of 150 students, and it can be expanded with workshops and so on. It’s about generating a social impact. But for me the most important issue is this global connection.
VP: Let’s talk about Fab Lab Barcelona, one of the most important in Europe…
TD: The first one was in Norway but we are the biggest, thanks to our collaboration with the MIT, which was going on even before Fab Labs existed. The MIT and the Fab Lab network created the Fab Foundation, which is an organization that supports Fab Labs at an international level.
VP: Vicente Guallart, the driving force behind the project, talks about digital production becoming one of the pillars of the city’s reindustrialization. Do you agree?
TD: Absolutely. There have been several digital revolutions: first the computer and then the Internet. Between them they have changed our lives. Connecting computers means information travels much faster, so we can have video-conferencing, send documents, etc. And digital production becomes possible when this reaches the physical level: transforming data that we can all share into objects. When we can give the materials orders, code them, then we can talk about a real revolution. We’re witnessing the consumer citizen become a producer citizen. We’ve already moved on from people just watching TV to those that can create digital information, like uploading Youtube videos. There doesn’t have to be a physical component. A 3D designer can scan an object, digitalize it and send it to the IMA. Now we can share objects and not just music.
VP: Can you tell us something about the projects you’re working on?
TD: There are two important projects. One is the Fab Lab House, which is a solar house prototype, a house that can be made in a Fab Lab. It’s a house built with sustainable materials, like wood; a house that produces all the energy it consumes; a house that can have a little Fab Lab nearby. It’s become a global flagship project. There’s another project, the Wikihouse, which isn’t ours but it’s linked to what we’ve done. It’s about democratizing house building. And then there’s another project that I cofounded, Smart Citizen, which is another pioneering project: I got together with some designers and electronic engineers, and we formed a team. We raised almost 70,000 dollars through crowdfunding, and now have more than a thousand sensors all over the world. It’s a new example of how citizens can participate by providing data for the new smart city. Not a smart city funded by government, with the mayor pressing buttons, but one in which the citizens can produce data themselves.
For instance, people living in the Raval district of Barcelona who are affected by the noise of the tourist trade. They call the police, but they haven’t got any proof. This way they can record the data and say, “Look, it’s two in the morning and the noise level is 90 decibels.” Then there are Open Source Beehives: sensors can be installed in beehives to find out why the bee population is declining. We’re currently redefining the project, and it will probably become a start-up, a business in its own right, and keep growing.
VP: Talking about the business model, is it true that Fab labs are private-public?
TD: There are more than 500 Fab Labs in the world, so who knows! But the one in Barcelona is completely private and proud of it. No funding, either. We also have a company that offers services within Fab Labs. Fab Labs aren’t a business themselves, but projects can make money by using them, creating initiatives around them. For example, the sensors: you start with a prototype and get it going, but if you want to produce 200 you have to turn it into a business.
VP: How does the global Fab Academy work?
TD: The main tool is a class given by the Fab Academy. It’s a global class given from the MIT that’s followed by students in Fab Labs all over the world. And each Fab Lab has a server where students can upload their documents. The Fab Academy is completely open-source, and all the students have their own webpage so they can upload their work as they do it.
VP: The Endesa Pavilion started here as well. How did this collaboration come about?
TD: Companies are interested in working with us because we focus on innovation. It also came out of a Smart Grid project we were working on in 2009, which involved UPC, IAAC and Endesa. We won a contest in which Endesa put up half a million dollars to carry out the project, which is now almost finished. And then we got involved in another project with Endesa for the Fab10 Conference last July.
VP: How do you see the Smart City movement?
TD: I think what we need now is to incorporate a layer in our cities that’s a bit smarter. I think a good way of thinking about it is two things working in parallel: one, the smart city created by corporations and councils that develop infrastructures, the basic engineering, pure and simple, using the business model. And in parallel citizen empowerment to undertake other projects. Technology can be a powerful social, economic and political tool.
VP: What about inequality, which could be the greatest challenge facing society at the moment. How can we design a fairer, more equitable city?
TD: With more participation. First we must stop thinking that we can design a city from scratch; we are not big and powerful enough to do that. Technology offers a better way of establishing channels of communication that let people’s voices be heard. A city doesn’t work just because there are thousands of employees: if you want to improve, you need to find out what your citizens want. And in a city like Barcelona it’s not difficult, we already have technological devices on the streets for people to use. It’s not difficult, but you have to change the way you look at things. It’s all down to how power is distributed.
It’s a bit like the changing role of the teacher. Sometimes the student can know more than the teacher, because he’s read something the teacher hasn’t. So the teacher is an enabler, and the Council should be an enabler too, not an administrator deciding for everyone else. It’s not good for us to have someone else giving the orders, we’ve got to get used to giving orders too. Inequality will end when that happens.
VP: A final message?
TD: I would say people should see if there’s a Fab Lab in their own city, and if so, then visit it.