Why fablabs could be the transition tools of France’s regions
Published 2 June 2017 by Yann Paulmier
In France’s deindustrialized areas, such as Picardie in the North, could fablabs be useful for social cohesion and returning to work? There are leads, says Yann Paulmier, cofounder of La Machinerie in Amiens.
Amiens (Picardie, northern France) and its surrounding area are rarely featured on French national media. These past few months, however, this was the case on several occasions. First, with the success of a documentary film by Amiens native François Ruffin, Merci patron! (Thank you, boss) released in 2016, which followed the story of a family in Poix-du-Nord who were victims of the local factory closing, spotlighting the regional issue of deindustrialization. Later, Amiens came to the foreground again during the presidential campaign, when the media focused on the closing of the local Whirlpool factory, portraying the city and its pool of employment as the symbols of ruthless relocations and the industrial crisis.
Beyond these highly mediatized events, this issue has been ravaging our region for decades. Every day, we hear about relocations and factory closings. In the early 2000s, the Amiens metropolitan area lost 500 jobs when the Magneti-Marelli factory closed. In 2014, the closing of the Goodyear factory resulted in the loss of 1,200 jobs. Today, almost 600 jobs are directly threatened by the closing of Whirpool. Between 2008 and 2014, Greater Amiens lost a total of 4,200 jobs, dropping 3.3%. This included 3,000 industrial jobs, or -14%!
Trauma of social plans
The figures are impressive, but they hardly reflect the local residents’ trauma from a series of social plans, increased relocations and decaying abandoned factories that have become eyesores in the landscape. In just 30 years, a culture, a lifestyle, a psychological world has been swept away. Up until the 1980s, the factory was a cardinal point of life in these areas. For better or for worse, it was the past, present and future of the entire population. Since then, the blows of globalization have destroyed all that was familiar to them. The only question left in the minds of those who are still employed is “For how much longer?”
With an unemployment rate of 11.9% in the last quarter of 2016—almost two points above France’s national average—and a large portion of jobs related to administration and public services (45% of jobs are in public service, education and social action, according to France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), the Amiens metropolitan area is facing the major challenge of a necessary and profound transformation of its economic fabric.
Marked by both the legacy of its industrial past and its former status as regional capital, Amiens has long been protected from the economic hemorrhage that has drained surrounding areas. But the industry is irreversibly sinking. After the two regions of Nord-Pas de Calais and Picardie merged, many corporate administrations and headquarters relocated to the northern capital of Lille. With both these sectors on the decline, those which provided the most number of jobs, it is all the more urgent to reinvent a regional economic model.
Fablabs to the rescue?
Our structure is based in an area that embodies the urgency of our country’s economic, ecological and social transition. Without overdramatizing, we truly feel like we are undergoing a “social state of emergency”. We are trying to tackle this transition to the best of our ability, using digital tools. This endeavor imposes a number of challenges: invent new jobs, transfer new skills, find new ways of restoring social relationships and being inclusive…
Taken individually, our activities are diverse: physical coworking space for entrepreneurs, freelancers, telecommuters; access to digital fabrication tools to help build skills, realize projects, start up an activity; common space for testing commercial activities; support for the digital transition of the economy and regions; support for entrepreneurship…
But taken as a whole, our initiative aims to respond to the need for emerging local activities and employment across the region. Tools for sustainable development, a functional economy, the sharing economy and an increasing number of tools allow us to imagine ways to respond collectively and locally to the social needs of the region. Unlike large digital platforms (Uber, Airbnb…) that only offer individuals micro-activities and contribute to their isolation, our ambition is to use cooperation, commons and social innovation to build the tools that will help us regain control of our local economy.
One of the first difficulties in launching a project is finding the tools and means for prototyping, testing and producing the product or the service conceived. Based on the concepts of commons and collective property, La Machinerie offers local entrepreneurs a coworking space, machines, tools (fablab) and the necessary resources (training and consulting) to learn how to start up their activity. It’s one of the fundamental conditions to encourage the development of local production: “Made in Amiens”. Throughout the region, there is a desire for local production, especially via short circuits. Fablabs can serve as an infrastructure for this development.
In a world where companies and jobs are rapidly evolving, access to knowledge and lifelong training are vital. For this reason, La Machinerie must become a University of Making. “University” because access is universal—anyone, big or small, regardless of their level of experience, education, background, can come and learn. The only conditions required are to be willing and to respect the common rules. “Making” because project-based training and learning by doing are at the heart of our approach to education. Teaching is based on techniques, using machines or achieving a goal, because our objective is first and foremost to offer anyone the means to act, realize their projects or convert to a new activity.
Making is good. But making together and in response to social needs is better. In this respect, La Machinerie assumes the role of social innovation laboratory. Using tools such as our Starter project incubator, as well as methods and an environment that favors cooperation and building together, we cultivate social innovation projects that serve the region: digital training for seniors, local products delivered to companies, tangible interfaces to learn computer programming… the list goes on. And most of these projects are shared in open source in order to be adapted and distributed elsewhere.
“Made Local” workshops, university of making, social innovation laboratory, there are many leads for structuring the social utility of fablabs for the region. Each situation is specific, each initiative must adapt good practices developed elsewhere to pitch in to local development.
There are two pitfalls to avoid. First, fablabs and other third-spaces are only one part of an overall policy that must provide a space for rural areas that have become victims of globalization. Making them the new “miracle tool” would only hurt them further. Second, there is not just a single model to be replicated and distributed throughout the region. The key to a successful regional transformation will depend on the involvement of local actors. It’s according to their needs and ambitions that we can hope to develop a sustainable model at the local level.
Yann Paulmier is cofounder and entrepreneurship project leader at La Machinerie in Amiens