From Fablabs to Fab cities

In Barcelona, Fab10, the tenth edition of the event on digital manufacturing, inaugurated the launch of the “Fab Cities” project by the city council to create a network of neighbourhood Fablabs.

Fab10, the annual conference on digital manufacturing and the Fablab world, now in its tenth year, was held in Barcelona between 2 and 8 July.

The event, hosted principally at the Disseny Hub, involved three days of presentations and workshops for professionals working in the field, followed by a weekend Fab Festival intended for a wider public and open to the whole local “maker” community.

The event then finished with a symposium day, with contributions from Bruce Sterling and William McDonough, among others. It was moderated by Neil Gershenfeld from MIT in Boston, the creator of the Fablab concept itself.

Opening: DIY plotter by Pietro Leoni. Above: Fab10 Barcelona, 2–8 July 2014
“Fab10” gave the city of Barcelona the opportunity to launch the ambitious “Fab Cities” project, which the city council hopes to use to establish a network of neighbourhood Fablabs. The aim is to have, within around six years, ten active workshops integrated with the local community, one for each area of the city. Speaking on this was Tomas Diez, head of Fablab Barcelona (part of the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, IAAC) and the lead organiser of Fab10.
The idea of creating a city Fablab network, Tomas told us, came from the desire to return manufacturing to the urban area and, in particular, to the citizens themselves – to recreate, in other words, a modern version of the medieval corporations. Fab10 represents an opportunity to investigate the local community’s interest and to begin to construct an ecosystem of workshops that also includes some of the hybrid spaces and makerspaces – such as MOB (Makers of Barcelona), Made and La Fabrica del Sol – already present in the city.
Fab10, Barcellona, 2–8 luglio 2014
Fab10, Barcelona, 2–8 July 2014

The noble principle at the root of this initiative notwithstanding, it is difficult not to think of the risks involved in moving from a desire for customised production – the founding Fablab principle – to standardised production, via semi-public and top-down strategies.

On the theme of sustainability, the need for Fablabs and makers to find a better way of managing resources and materials emerged. Tomas finished with the claim that the reappropriation and customisation of production would not lead to a reduction in things produced, but an increase in products relevant to users.

Neil Gershenfeld con la Fabee City Car sviluppata da IAAC e HP Designjet
Neil Gershenfeld with the Fabee City Car developed by IAAC and HP Designjet
On this topic, we discussed again the tried and trusted principles of the circular economy and “cradle to cradle” design, which have re-emerged in this third, maker-led industrial revolution, just as they did more than ten years ago in the early stages of systemic design. William McDonough (the co-author of The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability. Designing for Abundance, 2013) relaunched the concept of “upcycling”, insisting on the need to develop industry that creates value and does not simply limit itself to not being harmful.
3D printer "made in Africa" by W.Afate "poor, ecologic and democratic"

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation then extended the dialogue with the first successful examples of this approach in the manufacturing world – such as Renault’s industrial regeneration at Choisy-le-Roi and the Philips Pay per Lux strategy, where the company takes charge of electricity consumption, as well as the cost of the lights themselves.

“Fab10” also shed light on the current lack of progress in the maker movement, which is still too heavily based on “making” without a definite aim and on the use of manufacturing technologies just for the fun of being a “maker”. With around 350 Fablabs operating around the world and more than 100 annual Maker Faires, problems of logistics and sustainability (environmental and economic) cannot be ignored.

Prosthetic leg low-cost by the Amsterdam FabLab

There are some similarities with what happened in the era of the first computers and electronic calculators: we need to move from niche use to the integration of these technologies into everyday life, creating ecosystems to deal with the environment and local communities. 

The conference also saw the presentation of the Fab Awards, the result of an annual digital manufacturing competition. The winner this year was Afate Gnikou’s W.Afate 3D printer, the first such printer to be manufactured in Africa and wholly from electronic waste (e-waste). The symposium revealed marked interest from industry – the large multinationals especially – in the creative and technological potential concentrated in the Fablab network. Presenters for Nike, Google and Airbus expressed their desire to find common ground with the maker community and their hope that they can use makers’ know-how – but without commenting too much on sharing their own.

The logo of Fab10

Niel Gershenfeld, the symposium moderator, also announced a contribution of 10 million dollars to the Fab Foundation on the part of Chevron. The money will be used to start up ten new Fablabs in areas of the United States in which the company operates. Recent events, such as Stratasys’s acquisition of MakerBot (with relating patents) cast some doubt on the private sector’s intentions. It is impossible not to fear that the founding principles of the “Fab movement”, a product of the desire to move away from traditional industrial manufacturing, will become compromised.

Bruce Sterling himself warned the audience against placing too much faith in the good intentions of large companies working to create “smart”, “fab” cities, because that is how standardisation and control begin.

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