In Toulouse and for the first time in France, on July 16-20, the FAB14 international fablab conference was held under the theme “fabricating resilience”. Will fablabs fill the gaps of our collapsing world?
Toulouse, special report (words and photos)
Fabricate resilience—yes, but how? And first off, what exactly is resilience in the context of digital fabrication, and more precisely of the international conference of MIT-certified fablabs, which concluded on July 20? Neil Gershenfeld suggested one approach at the opening of FAB14 (we talked about it here), with a rather optimistic vision of the future of fablabs (“one million…”).
The fabcity gives an idea of what this resilience refers to: transforming the city, localizing production, deconstructing consumer cycles by rethinking ecology, sharing resources and knowledge. The Fab City Summit, held in Paris leading up to the fabconference, offered a broad view of the possibilities.
In Toulouse and in the context of FAB14—this meeting, or rather reunion, of the fablab community (including Sherry Lassiter’s “baby fablabs”, shared moments of friendly Fabercise, from women to children to Peruvians…)—, this vision of resilient fabrication is not quite as sharp.
The atmosphere inside the Pierre Baudis Convention Center, with its imposing and not-really-DIY decor, is quite welcoming, joyful, positive without simmering in techno bliss. Fabricating resilience is not so clean, despite the talks that fill our mornings (food, mobility, machines, money, access), somewhat belabored (three or four invited guest speakers do an introduction, followed by a little discussion, not really involving the audience…), and dozens of workshops attended by enthusiastic fabbers, from making bioplastics to discovering smart textiles or mastering SolidWorks!
How to make progress in resilience? Nobody has “the” definitive answer, and no speaker will risk giving us a lecture on it—not even Gershenfeld, the all-powerful master of ceremonies. The 1,200 FAB14 participants (official number provided by the organizers, with no further details), mostly from America, Europe and Asia (only a few came from Africa), form a community.
It’s already a first element of response to the question of resilience: together, we can act. And this said community is delighted to come together, exchange and participate in workshops and discussions, discover new DIY electronics projects, dance to the rhythm of Fabercises that punctuate each morning.
— RFFLabs (@fablab_fr) July 19, 2018
This international community flares up with the project of Chilean innovator Alfredo Zolezzi, who developed a killer app for potable water: PWSS (Plasma Water Sanitation System), which transforms polluted water into potable water. Zolezzi tells the tech-savvy audience: “It’s not about technology, the world is full of it, it’s about what we want to do with it. With the huge capacity that you represent, you think that if you make the impact visible, people will follow, but it’s not that simple… Let’s put our hearts into these machines!” He explains that media and industry players saw the “next billion project” in his technology, but he insisted on developing a test unit for poor people: “With one dollar, they can produce 50 liters of potable water.”
So, could resilience be an objective to reverse the vapor of the crazy world of finance evoked by Saskia Sassen in Paris? Tomás Diez (who started the Fab City global initiative) cites bitcoin and its 1,800 cryptocurrencies, which have emerged as “the first technology in the history of technologies to be created outside the military sphere”. This technology “challenges the financial system in a world where money no longer does the job of making the link,” he says, but rather “fills the gaps of what money doesn’t do”. He poses the question to Heather Corcoran, in charge of the maker community at Kickstarter in Europe, citing some of the crowdfunding platform’s most successful campaigns: Foldscope, the folding cardboard microscope ($393,000 raised from 8,457 contributors), Open Building Institute ($115,000 raised from 1,902 contributors), Wazer, the desktop waterjet cutter ($1,331,936 raised from 1,301 contributors). Could resilience be a clear path to plugging the holes in the system? Corcoran plays the devil’s advocate: “Watch out, because when money comes into a project, it can really mess things up.”
In any case, resilience is not giving in to the sirens of disruptive innovation—pushing these open source projects to share over the network, as FAB14 did for some of them, as a way of supporting them, offering them visibility and helping them fill the gaps. In no particular order, here are some of the projects we saw that could help where it hurts.
The open source laser cutter Laserduo, a beautiful beast that could rival the big laser cutters on the market, cuts wood and metal, and can also turn into a 3D printer. Created by an authentic fabber at Kamp-Lintfort fablab at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Germany (see the mini-portrait of its maker, Daniele Ingrassia, here).
Materiom, the elegant platform for shared recipes launched by Alysia Garmulewicz of the University of Santiago de Chile, along with a group of international researchers and makers (interestingly, the majority of which are female). Materiom seeks to document techniques for making new materials from waste, recycled or locally found objects (mussel shells, potato starch, cork, coffee residues…), inventing a new generation of bioplastics (made of gelatin, agar, sucrose composite) and environmentally friendly ingredients. The workshop, patiently and graciously led by Alysia, showed that we can participate locally in this resilient circular economy that is less destructive to the environment.
— FabLac (@FabLab_Leman) July 21, 2018
– Jobs.fabeconomy, a platform to share job offers within the network of fablabs.
– FabDx, the initiative announced (but not yet online) by Tomás Diez of the Fab Foundation, an incubator of talents from the Fab Academy to prevent “losing talents to the labs after training”.
– And this surprising project, which may no longer be so unexpected in a few more years: Claudette Irere, in charge of innovation and economic development at the Rwandan Ministry of Information, Technologies and Communications, is at FAB14 representing the very first fablab opened in Kigali. In terms of career management, it’s a nice perspective for fabmanagers! She explains that her country, where “65% of the population is under 18 years old”, will open three new fablabs, because these spaces are “hubs for creating jobs”, that the government doesn’t expect a return on investment in the short term, and is instead “waiting for young people to invent solutions to unemployment”.
One statement stood out from Shy Rivera Rios, artistic director and co-director of AS220, an art center in Providence, USA, which has been promoting urban, social and artistic change since 1985. She admits that today, AS220 has changed status from a disruptive organization (AS stood for Alternative Space) to an organization that “anchors the community”: “We are seen as a model, and we’re not afraid of that, because we designate our communities.”
In terms of the fablabs themselves, there is a joyful humility in putting the most prosaic issues back on the table: organizing distributed FAB conferences, like a live tutorial on organizing this type of event in the future (when FABX can no longer accommodate everyone), leveraging the logistics of the network and help from the Fab Foundation (no less than 14,000€). How to organize an event that has never taken place yet, how to convince potential partners…
— Vulca 🇪🇺 (@ProgramVulca) July 20, 2018
Finally, we like the idea that Bhutan, a country wedged between India and China with a population of less than one million, was selected to host FAB17 in 2021 (2019 is FAB15 in Egypt, 2020 is FAB16 in Montreal). Bhutan boasts 38 fablabs (!) and has promised organic food—that’s already better than Toulouse, where the university cafeteria meals failed in terms of both French gastronomy and local produce.
In conclusion, one could say that resilience, like the devil, is in the details. The last word goes to Gershenfeld, during the machine symposium, who was surprised that none of the speakers answered his question “What will be the machine of the future?” but instead talked about “the lever that labs can become”: at one million fablabs, “The labs network is the machine!” To be continued…
Read all our articles on FAB14, of which Makery is a partner