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fab8nz Conference

This article originally appeared in Object magazine issue 63. A list of all articles from fab8nz is available here.

Since first appearing at MIT, the global network of Fab Labs has grown steadily to, at time of writing, number 135 around the world. With increasing rates of expansion, this network is now perched on the precipice of an explosion. In the lead up to fab8nz, the eighth annual conference, forum and symposium in Wellington, New Zealand, the first of a planned 130 Labs opened in Russia. At the end of fab8nz, Wellington’s own, and the first in Australasia, was inaugurated.

But this is only a tiny snapshot of the planned developments. South Africa and Barcelona each have three new Labs on the way, taking their totals to ten and four respectively, and Israel are on the verge of opening two, one each for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

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On 2 November, ANAT (Australian Netowrk for Art and Technology) will open Australia’s first Lab in Adelaide, hosted by the Adelaide College of the Arts and funded by the South Australian Government. A dedicated space for small-scale digital fabrication, Fab Lab Adelaide will have two days of Open Lab sessions each week, becoming a place where creative of all ages and interests can begin to turn their ideas into reality. And the list could go on.

But what is their future, beyond their increasing ubiquity? What purpose can these labs serve for designers, craftspeople and the community as a whole? At fab8nz, these questions, and more, were raised amongst numerous updates, workshops, demonstrations and talks.

Three topical talks led the first days of the forum, focusing on open design, sustainability and the city, and the possibilities of different approaches to fabrication.

Alx Schaub, manager of the Waag Society Fab Lab in Amsterdam, and Deanna Hurst, course director at Rotterdam, opened the week with a discussion on open design. The pair preferred this definition from the Open Design Foundation: ‘Open Design is design whose makers allow its free distribution and documentation and permit all modifications and derivations of it.’ The talk progressed into the inherent problematic elements of this design movement, not least of which, as noted from Droog Design, that end-user generated design could see the world flooded with ugly products. And interesting fear, though with beauty in the eye of the beholder, can audience empowerment in the design process really be that negative an experience?

Perhaps a greater question goes to the heart of the professionalisation of design—how can a designer functioning in an Open Design landscape create a financially sustainable practive? (For more on Open Design, read this article, originally a breakout in the magazine version of this article.)

The lead in on Thursday was a presentation from Tomas Diez of Fab Lab Barcelona, supported by the Institute for Advanced Architecture in Catalonia. Currently with one Fab Lab, Barcelona has a plan to become a ‘Fab City’, developing a network of Fab Labs in each community, capable of empowering local residents to design and create locally and for themselves—he sees that the citizens of a city can become a distributed resource, effectively a factory.

Tised to these plans is a sustainable ethos, highlighted by the Valldaura Fab Lab, a ‘green’ Lab slated for a large city park. Developed in collaboration with Spanish energy company Endesa, Valldaura Fab Lab will use renewable energy and utilise material harvested from surrounding woodlands and felled as part of their forestry management practices. (For more on Sustainability, read this article, originally a breakout in the magazine version of this article.)

Later in the week, Diez also spoke on formal education initiatives being instigated by the Fab network, specifically the Fab Academy. While various Labs have a multitude of formal and informal educational offerings, ranging from certified courses to drop-in workshops, The Fab Academy is being developed as an extension of the ‘How To Make (Almost) Anything’ class at MIT.

The Fab Academy has been running for a number of years, with 2009–10 being the first truly international class, boasting 8 participating Labs and 35 enrolled students. In 2012, 21 Labs are participating, with 70 students expected to start. Due to the increasing number of interested students and their disparate locations, the Fab Academy has organically evolved a ‘supernode’ structure—where once everything was coordinated out of MIT, seven Labs are taking the mantle of being regional champions of the Academy, facilitating lessons both physically and digitally, providing support, and feeding back to the Academy HQ. (For more on Education, read this article, originally a breakout in the magazine version of this article.)

The Friday morning session began an exploration of collaboration between disciplines and the potential this can have for fabrication and design more broadly. While speaking specifically about pen-on-paper flexible electronics technology, Analisa Russo from the Materials Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois opened up a number of conversations about the intersections that can appear when combining the traditional work of the machines with the creativity of the population—when the tools stop being a workshop and become a Fab Lab.

Saturday workshop Interactive Ecologies—part of the open-to-the-public Fab Camp—explored the intersection of craft and digital fabrication technology. Workshop leader Tanya Marriott, a lecturer in animation at Massey University, sees the possibility of the technology for artists and designers as immense. Her interest is in seeing how digital technology can be used appropriately to complement existing analogue skillsets, not replace it.

While not a project of a Fab Lab, her 2007 work for the World of Wearable Arts, Wooden Lace, explored the possibilities in digital fabrication using similar technology as might be found in a Lab. The work consists of stitched-together plywood pieces with an intricate pattern etched into the surface using a laser cutter, taking advantage of the different colours in the layers of the material. To achieve this, Marriott would have otherwise had to master the art of marquetry, and then spend an agonising amount of time, a super-human effort, achieving the finished product. Instead, she created this improbably dress by combining the best of digital and analogue.

Designer Jens Dyvik, who has been undertaking a world tour of Fab Labs, has fully embraced the digital landscape, though is very much driven by a user-centric ideology of ‘how people relate to the stuff the purchase.’ He continues ‘How do you link dialogue and communication, and the actual making?’

When at the Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Fab Lab, helping them to build their own furniture using the fabrication technology at their fingertips, Dyvik designed the Layer Chair. Whilst at the Waag Society’s Lab in Amsterdam, he was asked to recreate the chair for them to use. From this, he developed a parametric, personally customisable version that has since been rendered in cardboard by students in Sevilla, Spain.

This parametric design is available online as part of Dyvik’s belief in open design, in line with his desire to connect people, technology and design. And while, as part of his travels and in lieu of a traditional Masters, he is constructing a film exploring how he, as a designer, can make a living out of open design, the engagement with the community he experiences whilst pursuing the ideas is, to him, invaluable.

The people he works with, and begin to instruct in Fab Labs, ‘become a resource. Even though they’re enthusiastic amateurs, they’re this crazy pool of knowledge and I go from being the teacher to the student.’

But the potential of open design, international collaboration and digital fabrication is experienced very differently in the more grassroots Labs of Africa. South Africa has a network of seven, government-seeded Labs aligned to country imperatives of job creation and education, specifically youth technical education to combat the disproportionate number of 18–24 year olds currently unemployed.

Kenya, by contrast, is a purely independent and community Lab, operating in a very different paradigm to South Africa. Kenya is specifically focused on technology for community empowerment, with projects either started by or for the community. For example, the Lab had been having trouble with hot water, and devised a very simple hot water heater—ostensibly a metal box painted black on the inside, with a glass front and copper piping running through it—that is capable of boiling 2.5 litres of water in fifteen minutes, using only the power of the sun. Similarly, they developed new wood stoves to provide for more efficient cooking in areas where there might not be electricity. Some of these have been distributed freely to those most in need, while some are sold to provide an income.

Professor Gershenfeld, in his 2006 TED Talk, noted that we’ve had a digital revolution, but we don’t need to continue having it. It’s done. We won.’ In the same way that the development of production line manufacturing didn’t do away with the traditional crafts, or destroy the inherent value of the handmade, the digital revolution hasn’t removed the need or worth of analogue activity. Instead, it has opened up new possibilities for digital collaboration, empowered education and innovation around the world, and has the potential to foster a more sustainable manufacturing future.

‘When it comes to creativity,’ Dyvik says. ‘Talent and brain potential is not the major problem.’ Instead, he identifies creative blocks that exist in the minds of the public, where they don’t believe they have the ability to create. What he has witnessed time and time again in various Fab Labs around the world is the removal of those blocks once people are given the opportunity to play. And that empowerment of community to play, create and innovate is where the true value of this growing network lies.

fab8nz provided an opportunity for the Fab Labs around the world to come together in a similar fashion, sharing stories and ideas, working together on projects, and finding inspiration from the work of their international counterparts. And in keeping with the idea that, above all, it should be fun, the final event was the World FAB Cup, where participating Labs brought intricate flying machines from their home countries in the Massey University Great Hall—though of course, with the technology at their disposal, these were no simple machines. But multi-rotored and micron-thin technology aside, the Cup brought the teams together, with many great innovations and collaborations to surely come out of it.

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