4 -min. read

In 2018, democracy exists as a concept only. The bleak state of global inequality is unprecedented. 0.7 per cent of the world’s adult population control 46 per cent of total global wealth. That’s $280 trillion. The world’s 3.5 billion poorest residents each have assets of less than $10,000 – a repellent imbalance that has corrosive effects on a just society, something that’s playing out daily in front of our very eyes.

The world is blighted by looming catastrophes, and, in many ways, capitalism is at the root of them all. But what if there was a way to reverse elitism of mass-production; to put the tools of the planet’s most advanced factories into the hands of hobbyists or artists, budding inventors or aspiring engineers; to create virtually anything in a tiny space with minimal investment? Without the greed and exploitation intrinsic to capitalist modes of mass-production, there is hope for the 99.3 per cent.

Hope has a name: Fab Lab, a community-based space that gives individuals access industrial-grade tools for digital fabrication of anything from circuit boards to housing. It’s a knowledge-sharing network of open-source software and programmes that provide support from behind the scenes.

Fab Lab Barcelona, via Facebook
Fab Lab Barcelona – via Facebook

In Designing Reality, a book co-written by Neil Gershenfeld, Alan Gershenfeld, and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, the brothers outline what they call a “third digital revolution”. The first, in their eyes, saw the internet transform the way we communicate, while the second took computation from personal computers to smartphones, together changing the world irreversibly. This third digital revolution is where the Gershenfelds see technologists bringing “the programmability of the virtual world of bits into the physical world of atoms”.

Leka Barcelona, photo © Javier Callejas
Leka Barcelona – photo courtesy of Javier Callejas

Says Tomas Diez of the Barcelona Fab Lab, which is leading a global Fab City movement: “we need to reinvent our cities and their relationship to people and nature by relocalising production so that cities are generative, rather than extractive; restorative, rather than destructive; and empowering, rather than alienating.” Alongside the mayor and the city’s chief architect, Diez is leading Barcelona’s pledge to be self-sufficient within 40 years; to replace its global supply chains with sustainable local production; to become a city capable of making what it needs when it needs it.

It’s a rousing prospect, and the potential implications for Fab Labs in the developing world give great promise for a more equal global community. With the first one founded in 2003, exponential growth now puts the international total number of Labs at 1,266. Noting that the total was doubling each year, Fab Foundation leader Sherry Lassiter has predicted that these sorts of facilities will double roughly every year and a half, which means there could well be in excess of a million Fab Labs by 2030. Since the very concept of smartphones might have seemed incomprehensible in the mid-1900s, it is not inconceivable to suggest that, by the mid- to late-2000s, fabricating practically any consumer product could be democratised to a personal level.

Neighbouring the Barcelona Fab Lab, in the city’s districte de la innovació, a long-standing local restaurant has been remodelled as a blueprint for the sort of impact that the third digital revolution could have on our society at large. One hundred per cent made in Barcelona. Open-sourced from interior design to its recipes, Leka’s new identity has been conceived and fabricated by the Lab, its origami-inspired ceiling installation available to anyone with access to the tools necessary to recreate it, its flatpack furniture replicable in Labs from Afghanistan to Vietnam.

Leka Barcelona, photo © Javier Callejas
Leka Barcelona – photo courtesy of Javier Callejas

The benefits of literally printing out an entire restaurant are profound, and offer valuable insight into how the potential of this fabrication revolution can be harnessed. From Alaska to the Amazon, Fab pioneers are working amongst indigenous communities, employing advanced technologies to ensure the survival of ancient practices in self-sufficiency. They’re even in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where the Lab has created everything from drones to solar vehicles, as well as sensors for precision agriculture. The power to create necessary tools beyond the constraints of globalisation cannot be ignored.

“A Fab Lab today fills a room, weighs about two tonnes, and costs about $100,000”, explains Neil Gershenfeld. “That includes 3D scanning and printing, large-format and precision machining, computer-controlled lasers and knives, surface-mount electronics production, embedded programming, and computing tools for design and collaboration.” That’s $100,000. In the budgets of many hospitality groups, that’s a drop in the ocean. A Fab Lab situated in a hotel could, in theory, print out its own restaurant, its own cocktail bar or listening room; it could fabricate in New York tools developed in its Singapore property – zero miles travelled, and local communities engaged.

Fablab Saigon, via Facebook
Fablab Saigon –  via Facebook

As we strive for peak sustainability, heightened social responsibility and local awareness, and as society craves true democratisation of industry, fairness and equality, what could be better than being the author of your own destiny, the overseer of your own supply chain?

In 1965, Digital Equipment Corporation introduced the PDP-8, a pioneering ‘minicomputer’ that was the first to use integrated circuit technology. Back then researchers talked effusively of a future when computers like these would be connected, enabling anyone, anywhere, to access, manipulate and share information with anyone, in any place, at any time. What they described as ‘the internet’ seemed, at the time, like a plot line from a science fiction novel. If the physicality of fabrication can go the same way as data did, then the human race has the opportunity to write its own storyline. The time to embrace the future is now.


James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.

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