Simone Amber from the MIT FabFoundation co-created the Fab Lab Connect platform that aims to fund labs thanks to one thousand dollar grants per project. Announced at the Barcelona Fab10 in July 2014, does the initiative meet the demands of project leaders, always in search of funding? We asked her the question.
Simone Amber, vice-president of Schlumberger where she leads the SEED educational program (Schlumberger Excellence in Education Development), is among the board of directors of the Fab Foundation, an NGO from the MIT that spreads the fablab word worldwide. From the United-States, she answered Makery’s questions on Fab Lab Connect, project launched in July 2014 at Fab10 that sets up a funding platform for labs throughout the world. An interesting initiative since funding represents everyday work for all lab project leaders.
How did you come about developing a platform to help funding fablabs?
I am the founder of the SEED project within Schlumberger. The idea of the SEED program came to me during discussions with Seymour Papert, co-founder of the MIT MediaLab in 1993. He relies on the “constructivism” method whereby you build your own learning process. Example with water: we developed kits to test water, tests which allow you to learn chemistry, biology, but also code. By using Gogo Boards, we went so far as to automate these analyses. Schlumberger employees created the content in their free time whilst we were working with MediaLab students to organise workshops in different countries. Today, 292 schools in 44 countries are using these methods with us. I was interested in the fablab question, very close in terms of the methodologies used. We created one in Russia in 2011. For me, fablabs are an organic evolution of the SEED program. I would have liked SEED to develop fablabs, but it is expensive and we had to find other ways to fund this network.
Hence the Fab Lab Connect project?
That’s the idea: how to fund a movement that can have a real impact on people’s lives. We wanted to rely on prizes, awards offered by companies, which would reward open projects that could be replicated, rather like the Fab 10 Fab Awards. However, our first problem consisted in detecting projects. When one finds them on fablab websites, they are not always well-enough documented in order to be easily replicated. When we thought about the way to accelerate the activities of three new fablabs we are developing (two of which are in Corsica), we thought we would rely on existing projects to get hands-on experience rapidly. We found out that beyond the project, the important thing is the experience of the project leader: he/she can easily help during the replication of projects. This experience prompted us to develop Fab Lab Connect Replication Grants.
How does the Fab Lab Connect work in practice?
Today and first of all, we wish to push “Fabbers” to document their projects properly so that they can be replicated more easily. We will offer grants of 1,000 dollars for these projects. It is not a lot but we think it will encourage them to document their projects. We have a dedicated platform where project leaders can file their work. We ask them to publish plans, photos, explanations, files, and the list of the required equipment. We also want the project leaders to be linked up. Grant winners commit to being mentors in order to help initially two of the new labs we are creating, the Ajaccio lab and the Yachay lab in Ecuador, replicating their projects. We have sufficient funds to allocate 30 grants to start with. Obviously, the projects will need to be published under a free license so they can be shared with largest number of labs.
Beyond grants for projects, how could Fab Lab Connect be useful to the community?
We would like Fab Lab Connect to give greater visibility to transforming open projects. I’m thinking, for example, of the Flone drone project operated by a telephone and created by a Spanish team, for a very low cost and totally open source and open hardware, or else of the 3D Fa)(a printer developed in an Italian fablab that all the Italian labs are equipping themselves with. We hope it will have a snowball effect, that the first well-documented projects will lead other people to file theirs. May this visibility also be a way of producing collaboration between different fablabs. The other idea, is to take advantage of my contacts in large companies to show them what is happening in this community, and why not, make them sponsors of these projects. We well know that fabbers often have two jobs; one to earn a living and the other to develop their project. We would like them to spend their time on their innovation projects. We also developed a crowdfunding module on the platform that we wish to activate in a second phase to, there again, find other means of funding.
In your opinion, what are the issues the fablabs need to address in 2015?
Firstly, the difficulty of the scale effect: how can certain open and citizen projects, meeting strong local issues, be replicated in other areas and places? Then the issue of collaboration between places: today there are lots of “one to one” and not enough “many to many”. Not to mention the issues around economic models, not only to make labs function, but also to find funding sources for individuals within the places. Finally, a problem about which I care a lot: the place of women in fablabs. We are still in a very masculine world, and need to find solutions to attract more women. Fab Lab Connect is ready to rise to these challenges through collaboration within our Fab community and with external partners.