As part of a guest lecture on supporting knowledge work in complex environments and creating circumstances for community building, I worked with a group of students ‘concept and product design’ in the last month. We used FabLab (I’m a board member of the Dutch FabLab Foundation) as a case.
I asked the students to come up with both on- and off-line elements to help strengthen the global network of FabLab, and stimulate community forming.
Dutch FabLabs as Accelerator
The Netherlands has a large density of FabLab initiatives (3 operational labs, about 5 in various stages of development, all within 2.5 hrs driving distance). This gives us unique opportunities. Globally the FabLab network is highly fragmented. As FabLabs are started, especially if its a completely local initiative, they are focussed on bootstrapping themselves into existence, not on connecting to the outside world. The high density of labs in the Netherlands allows us however to connect people and FabLabs much more easily. First having a number of FabLabs within close vicinity allows experiments in community building basically ‘locally’, without the need to do everything at a global scale immediately. Second the high density creates an ‘acceleration room’, it is the ‘city’ in the FabLab landscape, allowing quick iterations of those different experiments in community building. Successful community building efforts can then be offered to other FabLabs worldwide, or attract attention by themselves from the wider FabLab network.
Existing Building Blocks
Of course there already all kinds of things going on. To name a few:
The Dutch FabLabs are building a sharing platform, allowing different FabLabs to interact and share both content and user accounts easily;
FabLab Academy is being set-up, which is a collective educational programme coordinated by MIT;
There is a (almost) yearly FabLab conference, the next one coming August in Pune, India;
A number of FabLabs use a collective video-conferencing system.
Challenges
There are also challenges that will play a role when scaling up efforts to the global FabLab network:
Because FabLabs work locally, they are all firmly rooted in their own context, character and language. While this is a rich source of diversity, making global sharing of knowledge and designs more valuable, it also means there is little in terms of shared language, shared branding and iconography;
Access to enough bandwith or even internet itself is not guaranteed for each FabLab. This may imply having local copies of e.g. information, with periodical synchronization, or at the least more asynchronous communication;
FabLab challenges conventional notions of production. It brings industrial machinery in the hands of individuals. The ‘otherness’ of the concept is a source of attraction but may mean it’s actually harder to explain to others, before you have ‘proof’ of what it can mean.
Showing Students the FabLab Concept
Students trying out FabLab
Suggested Ideas
Most of the students handled the assignment well. What turned out to be very important is that a group of them visited the FabLab in Utrecht, Protospace, to experience first hand what a FabLab is, as well as see the machines and video conferencing equipment working. Those that visited Protospace did a whole lot better than those that didn’t.
Some of the ideas that were generated:
– Global single sign-on for FabLab users;
– FabTube, video tutorials;
– FabCases, instructables;
– A credit system (valid in every FabLab, you get credit for sharing things e.g.);
– Cases, workshops etc. with local companies;
– FabTalks, TED-like talks streamed on video;
– Fab Awards, yearly awards for great FabLab projects;
– Consistent use of recognizable visual elements throughout;
– Text only version of information, or stand-alone wiki’s on a stick;
– FabLab staff presented in person on websites;
– Connecting FabLab staff worldwide on shared expertise;
– Have a person in each FabLab focussing on/stimulating sharing with the FabLab network;
– Connecting those sharing-focussed people;
– Build contacts with local companies, higher-ed institutions, schools for workshop etc;
– Fab Elections: people nominate projects. Yearly award session in different FabLab each time;
– FabBook, a yearbook with sections by each FabLab. Some page maybe a design e.g. Book can be on reading tables, and on USB-sticks;
Concept Design Students
Students generating ideas
It’s a nice mix of both on- and offline elements. For the most part they can be implemented among the Dutch FabLabs first, without making later wider roll-out difficult. Especially the book and the credit system are interesting, but when put together in the mix of other things suggested. We’ll definitely start working on these ideas after the summer.