During lunchtime, I introduced myself to another woman from the Bay Area. She asked me what I thought of the conference. And we both shared what we thought to be the event’s shortcomings. I’ll tell you guys what I told her.
Yes, it’s cool to make things. As a graduate of an American business school who still feels like I have no real skills, I envy the designers, architects and product designers here—they make real things. When I worked at a tech startup as a data scientist, I spent two years making data visualizations that only live online, digitally. I’m not sure why, but something about making physical objects seems more legitimate to me.
When I heard the FabLab annual conference would come to Santiago, I had to google what a FabLab was. I learned that these spaces have machines that make prototyping much more accessible to the average joe. You can now 3D print, laser cut, or CNC your design at a relatively low cost. (Side note: CNC is a computer-controlled way of cutting material.) You don’t need a crazy R&D budget. In an age where you can self-produce everything from books to records, FabLabs seem like the logical extension of the DIY era. To steal Neil Gershenfeld‘s words, now you can make (almost) anything.
I was interested in the event for two reasons. One. I would love to develop a design thinking curriculum for the public schools I work with. I want to develop a project where students start with an idea and oversee all parts of the production process until they are holding their very own product.
Two. At the beginning of this year, I wrote out my professional goals. One of them was launching a project on Kickstarter. I want to conceptualize something and bring it to life just to see if I could do it. If I could make something that’s completely my own. Selfishly, I want to test my ability to create, because I don’t want to work for someone else ever again. I want to have control over the projects I work on.
And so I wound up here. I spent the mornings taking snap chats of laser cutters and CNC machines in the fair of expensive equipment displayed in the conference’s main exhibition room. I attended lectures on how to bring digital fabrication into the classroom. I met people who call themselves “makers” from all over the world.
But I feel there is something missing. With respect to each of my goals, I don’t know if digital fabrication via FabLabs is the answer I hoped it would be.
Question number one. Can I bring digital fabrication to the classroom in Chile?
The FabLabs network introduced an initiative where they hope to collect and archive successful digital fabrication activities for the classroom. They presented an example: an activity in which students laser cut lanterns for the Lantern festival in Singapore.
Yes, I would love to have my students draw out their designs, laser cut them and build their own lanterns. But in what world will a public school spend its limited budget on access to laser cutting machines? It all just seems super inaccessible.
During the education-focused workshops, we talked theoretically about how to get educators interested in bringing digital fabrication to the classroom. We talked about how to manage classrooms with open-ended projects. But no one really addressed the huge elephant in the room—who is going to pay for this? How can we bring low-cost digital fabrication to low resource schools?
One of the proposed solutions was the concept of a mobile FabLab. A trailer that could be hauled to schools throughout the year. But still—who pays for it?
Question two. Could I make something in a FabLab?
As someone who doesn’t come from the FabLab world, I do feel like this conference has an agenda. FabLab is a brand of maker’s spaces. Not all maker’s spaces are FabLabs. FabLabs are a network of locations that fall under one umbrella. This conference was designed to promote the brand. So they’re pushing it. They want people to start FabLabs in new cities. They want people to learn the technology.
I get why someone would want to own a FabLab. I get why a university would want their students to have access to one. There was a lot of time spent on the research that leverages digital fabrication technology. This is expected. Academics and universities will always make use of new technologies to push their research forward.
But the conference has failed to convince me that your average joe could create something using only the tools in the FabLab. The aspect of FabLabs that is most interesting to me is the democratization. Anyone can make anything. A level playing field. And isn’t that part of the point? Power to the people. I’m not convinced the conference addressed the inclusion aspect.
How do we get inexperienced users bringing their ideas to fruition? How do we further democratize invention? How could be develop tools that allow people to critically evaluate their ideas? How can we encourage makers to focus on humanitarian issues, education, and climate change, instead of making the next meal delivery app? How do we educate people about the capabilities of the equipment?
I am on board with the concept–let’s make things. But let’s open up the pipeline. Let’s talk about how we can open up these tools, not just for academics, but for everyone.