At the end of the European FabLab Conference in Aachen, professor Jan Borchers (together with René Bohne our kind hosts at the Media Computing Group of RWTH) at the final discussion round brought up an unexpected question:
Are FabLabs dead?
With the rapid proliferation of all kinds of maker spaces in all kinds of forms, are FabLabs still needed? With the ongoing rapid decline in the costs of machines (a full set of smaller sized FabLab machines, including a consumer ready 3d printer, comes in at around 3500 Euro, and prices are still falling, bringing it within household reach in well developed economies), is there still a need for public access to these machines? This is what Jan Borchers asked.
Peter Troxler then rightly pointed out that the origins of FabLab are quite technocratic, which explains the starting focus of FabLab on the machines (“All you need to make, almost, anything”). Knowledge sharing, preferably in a global network, was always part of the concept, but it came without emphasis on community and network building to support that. Indeed, most of the early FabLab network was not a network at all, but a wheel with spokes and MIT at the center, and it still usually is that way for any country with one FabLab. The European FabLab conference where this discussion took place, as are they yearly Fab conferences, was an accurate example of that same technocratic focus.
To me there are two underserved key parts in the FabLab concept.
FabLabs need to be very strongly rooted locally, and actively work to be locally relevant to diverse stakeholder groups.
FabLabs need to be networked globally, to cater to the mandated easy knowledge exchanges and for other labs to rapidly build upon experiments and designs from elsewhere and create local impact.
And the majority of the FabLabs I’ve encountered are crap at both those two things. Even though for me they are the discerning traits compared to other maker spaces.
We’re bad at finding ways of being locally relevant. Bad at attracting a diverse range of stakeholders for whom the FabLab is a hub and exchange. The financial dependence on public funding, or financial difficulty in the absence of that, of most BeNeLux labs are a case in point. The regularity with which I see commercial questions to those same FabLabs being met with a ‘no’ because they are simply not prepared for such questions are another, one I find particularly shocking as it proves there is demand. A lot are in the habit as well of cannibalizing the free access in an attempt to generate revenue, which by destroying the prime directive of the FabLab concept actually increases the threshold for new makers to come play and experiment and thus serves to reduce the revenue potential, instead of increasing it. Almost none take lateral approaches to generate revenue and be a stable and energy giving node in the local ecosystem.
We’re also bad at globally connecting. Most FabLabs I know are so busy with themselves that they hardly take time to work with other FabLabs, even if they’re neighbours. The yearly, highly tech focused global meet-ups, do not a global network make. The low point I experienced was when a FabLab was in trouble, and when I approached them about it, told me they ‘would be participating in the community again when they had solved their problems’. If there were indeed a community wouldn’t they have known to ask for support instead of withdrawing? There is little to none routine interaction between a wide range of labs, resulting in shared efforts etc. And here I am just talking about FabLab staff not interacting, and not even looking at what actually would be needed: various FabLab visitors using the FabLab network to connect and work with others.
Meanwhile the FabLabs are successful in proliferating across the globe, so much so that the number of FabLabs roughly doubles every 18 months. They are also changing shape from a few big costly ‘flagship stores’ to include a larger number of grassroots smaller labs (reinforced by the downwards price pressure on machines). In that exponential growth lies FabLabs’ biggest challenge: there are now more FabLabs joining the network than currently are in the network. And in the next 18 months that will happen again, more new labs will join than already exist.
Even though that exponential growth will taper off at some point, for now it is the biggest challenge: how do you welcome and engage a majority of newcomers into an existing network and community that is very poorly equipped and developed precisely on the point of network and community building?