The most country-style French fablab closed down in Néons-sur-Creuse, Indre department. Its co-founder, Olivier Chambon, the famous “bearded man” from the cave, explains why a fablab in a rural area closes down.
When he arrived in Néons-sur-Creuse, Indre department, 400 inhabitants, Olivier Chambon, Parisian web developer, had got out into the countryside…and found himself in a digital desert. In order to reconcile his passion for DIY and his new lifestyle, he co-founded the Rural lab in 2013, one of the rare labs not to have grown in an urban area. The adventure ended with the dissolution of the association that led the project, voted in December 2014. Since the Rural lab closed down, Olivier ‘Babozor’ Chambon remains silent except for a few rare videos posted on his blog “La Grotte du barbu” – the bearded man’s cave –, a podcast of 125 “fun and moronic” episodes on DIY, casual hacking and the hazards of fiddling. So why did the Rural lab close down? The bearded man comes out of his cave for Makery.
Where do you stand since the Rural lab closed down?
I returned to Paris about 6 months ago and I am working as a web developer for Human Inside, a digital agency where I am also doing prototyping. I had no choice because I didn’t pay myself for a year when I was looking after the Rural lab full-time. It was a downward spiral with unpaid bills, bailiffs…The knockout blow came when EDF cut the electricity off. At present, it is rather like a purgatory, you keep your head down and sit it out.
“The Rural lab was a meeting point in a place where there are not so many distractions. Three months after the opening, everybody knew us.” Olivier Chambon
What was the motivation behind the Rural lab project?
We set it up rather like barbarians. The trigger was the call for fablab projects from the Ministry of Economy in 2013. It allowed us to put the project down on paper rather than waiting for hypothetical financing, then creating an association. It also allowed us to test the idea of the Rural lab and prove that a fablab in a rural area made sense because it met a real need of the local population. In specific terms, we invaded the old village pub. As soon as the city council gave us the keys, we unloaded two cubic metres of equipment, without really knowing what we would do with all that caboodle.
What special things does a fablab bring in a rural area?
In rural areas, we don’t even talk about a digital divide. In fact, people have no access to the network because it is not cost effective for operators. When I was supposed to be in broadband, I was only at 512 Kb! The isolation is real, public and private services pull out of these territories. The Rural lab met lots of demands including fixing. We were not there to provide training courses but more to organise production workshops of all kinds, 3D modelling, audio, even internet beginner courses because many people understand nothing about digital technology. The idea was also to meddle with anything DIY, not just code! We even made sausages there… The Rural lab was a meeting point in a place where there are not so many distractions. Three months after the opening, everybody knew us.
What was the feedback of the Rural lab users?
The fact of being set up in the old village pub gave us lots of freedom. We were rapidly identified. 120 members, that’s a lot for a small village! 50% of them found the concept really cool and regularly attended the fablab. As in all associations, there was a core of about 10 people. Cohesion depends on people and the links between them. That, you do not control. Labs are made by people!
How was the Rural lab financed?
Initially, I wanted the local authorities to pay. The territorial municipality representatives were incidentally heavily involved in setting up the project. The village is at the heart of an economic hardship area, one of the poorest in France. This is why we went for a low-cost base membership of €5. Some people gave more. When you set up this kind of place, it is mandatory to have the support of local politicians. We claimed to be independent because we didn’t want to be seized upon, but if you want to find financing, local and regional authorities are the ones that have the means to do so.
Even though the city council and the territorial municipality approved our project, we were not able to put together the grant application in time. An association must have at least one year of existence to process this kind of application. And putting a grant application together is long and complicated! We looked for someone to help us out but it was already too late. Unfortunately it all came down to a question of timing. We only lacked a few months to pull through. We relied on partnerships for the equipment such as Bosh, Intel. But with no cash flow, it can’t be done. I hung on for as long as I could to the hope of generating enough resources to secure even a micro-salary. Up to the moment when my personal situation was no longer viable. We had to spend €500 per month just for electricity. And rather a lot of misfortune came our way: theft of equipment, disagreements…
How does one go about making a fablab durable?
This is a two million euro question! In fact, to establish a viable business model, you need different sources of funding: public funding, membership fees, service provisions. Which also means developing activities such as training for example. You need to knock on every door to secure long-term partnerships. For example we literally did the after sales service for Microsoft by managing users’ problems with their computers. Why not be their subcontractor?
Is a reopening conceivable?
We have just finished clearing the premises. There are always vultures prowling to retrieve equipment, but we redistributed it in order of priority to members, users, etc. I don’t know exactly what the place will become. The drive first needs to be political with a city council that wants to follow up on the project. Lots of people came to see us, other municipalities are interested. There are other initiatives in rural areas but since they are not linked to each other, they lack visibility. There is no rural fablab network for example.
What did you learn from this experience?
We may have been perceived as idiotic madmen. The developer side of me pushes me to analyse point by point the steps that led to this failure. As for the experience feedback, I am not sure it should be formalised, each fablab is a case of its own.
And now, what do you wish to do?
For the time being, I am coming to terms with this experience, I am also taking responsibility for my stupidity. In one way or another, what I would like to do in the next 20 years is to reconcile my passion for DIY and be able to live off it, ideally in the countryside. Just now, I am boiling over because I want to start to do things again. I will revive the videos on “La Grotte du barbu” since I have lots of new ideas for podcasts. This is not the end of me!
End of October 2014, “la Grotte du barbu” made its comeback with episode 125. Olivier Chambon changes the hard disc of his old MacBook Pro:
Find all the tutorials from Olivier Chambon on la Grotte du barbu