Fab Labs: Potential for Sustainable Urban Development

Michel Wilwert

By Michel Wilwert, on February 24th, 2015

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According to the Fab Foundation, there are currently more than 400 Fab Labs (Fabrication Laboratories) worldwide. Most of them are located in Europe and in North America but their number is constantly rising on all continents. Since 2013, there is also a Fab Lab in Luxembourg , located within the Technoport business incubator and co-working place in Esch/Belval. Fab Labs have long ceased to be exclusive technical playgrounds for enterprises, academic institutions and individuals. Cities have recognized that Fab Labs can be efficient tools to support neighbourhood regeneration and contribute to a more balanced socio-economic urban development. But let’s start with the basics: what are Fab Labs? And perhaps more interestingly, what are their potential for sustainable urban development?

What is a Fab Lab?

Broadly speaking, Fab Labs are community-driven IT-based workshops that, apart from technical assistance, offer access to technical tools such as laser cutters, CNC milling machines or 3D printers for local entrepreneurs, designers, artists, students or individuals. Thanks to these tools, users can digitally, and hence economically, fabricate professional prototypes or artefacts for sale either individually or collectively. Fab Labs are more than mere physical meeting places or production plants for innovators. They are platforms for connecting competences and expertise as well as for facilitating the exchange of ideas which may ultimately foster a more technology-driven innovation. They also serve to boost and diversify the urban economy through the creation and consolidation of start-ups.

The Fab Lab community thus largely shares practices and values developed within the Open Source and Open Design communities. Such practices and values promote alternative ways of creating physical goods and innovation systems focusing mainly on learning-by-doing approaches, shared information on technologies and tools, peer-to-peer design or social product development.

“Turning global bits into local atoms”

“We are all inventors, designers, thus makers”, whereas the path from “inventor” to “entrepreneur” is so foreshortened that it hardly exists at all anymore. The Fab Lab philosophy builds upon this principle of democratizing the tools of both invention and production. The gap between inventing and manufacturing a first prototype should become as small as possible. In that sense Fab Labs seek to amplify human potential while providing people with the necessary supporting tools to stimulate creation and invention but also to spread their ideas, building up markets, communities and even movements.

Their aim is to stimulate the emergence of a new generation of manufactures being able to transform “global bits” into “local atoms” while turning the knowledge and experience of open exchange networks on global scale into new regionally customized and locally manufactured products.

 Fab Labs and the city

By their very nature, Fab Labs are deeply urban. As a result of the concentration and diversity of competences as well as the high degree of expertise and the great innovation potential that can be found in urban areas, cities offer a fertile environment for collaborative economies in general and Fab Labs in particular. By bringing the manufacturing facilities to produce whatever people need back to the neighbourhoods, cities can act in an enabling and facilitating way. They contribute to lowering barriers to innovation, design and production of objects, and thus to unfolding citizens’ creativity and innovation.

Fab Labs benefit not only cities’ economic and environmental development…

The underpinning principle of Fab Labs is that they constitute an instrument which aims at creating value in the cities and thus ultimately at boosting and diversifying the urban economy. Using, developing and promoting local competences and resources in order to re-localise small companies and start-ups in the neighbourhoods and city centres with the help of Fab Labs, cities actively support more locally organised, democratic and transparent production processes. Oftentimes Fab Labs also have the positive effect of facilitating the processing and re-use of (technical) objects thus contributing to the environmentally sound development of cities.

… but also their social development

However, Fab Labs can do much more: if well integrated in the urban setting, they can turn spaces into lively meeting points. They also contribute to bringing the functions of living and working closer together thus improving the quality of life in cities. Due to the collaborative and open approach, Fab Labs are generally helping to prevent discrimination, foster equality and empower entrepreneurship especially among the middle classes.

Tools for Sustainable Urban Development?

3D printers or laser cutters on their own may not make cities more sustainable. They are, however, part of something much bigger, that is the idea of converging ICT, ecology and urban planning (cf. Vicente Guallart, 2014) which in its turn can foster greater urban sustainability. In this spirit Fab labs may eventually contribute to bringing some material production back into the cities and more specifically the neighbourhoods, provided that their numbers keep going up. On the other they have the potential to effectively convene currently detached urban functions. Finally, as mentioned above, Fab Labs are essentially bottom-up initiatives where the general public interacts for instance with businesses, entrepreneurs, universities, cities and ministries, thus supporting the multi-scalar participative approach.

Against this background it is surprising how little information is available at present on the relationship between Fab Labs and urban development. Studying the embedding of Fab Labs in cities in general and urban neighbourhoods in particular as well as their effects on community development, for example in the framework of URBACT projects, could give valuable insights on their potential for sustainable urban development and advance the discussion on open exchange networks in general.

 By Michel Wilwert, environmental consultant, Emweltberodung Letzebuerg, and Tom Becker, research associate, Université du Luxembourg

For further reading:

Fab Foundation, http://www.fabfoundation.org/

Gershenfeld, Neil A. (2005). Fab: the coming revolution on your desktop—from personal computers to personal fabrication. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02745-8.

Walter-Herrmann, Julia & Bueching, Corinne (2013) (eds.) FabLab – Of Machines, Makers and Inventors. Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript. ISBN 978-3-8376-2382-6

Chris Anderson (2014). Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Crown Business. 978-0307720962

Photos for the header image:
Lisboa: originally posted here
Paris: By Mitch Altman from San Francisco, USA 
(Paris, July-2013) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Berlin: Mitch Altman via Flickr
All under Creative Commons license.

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