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FabLabs: let’s move forward!

Digital technologies have the potential to lead the way to a better future by helping us in our attempts to make sense of the world around us, learn through research, solve local problems and share knowledge. Through data collection, collaborative platforms, low tech engineering etc. digitals tools may empower citizens to bring changes in health, education, environment, entrepreneurship, and many more! However, digital technologies are still too expensive, poorly documented and often too complex to be accessible to all.

In the last decade, collaborative places such as openlabs, fablabs and hackerspaces have been created to give people access to machines, technology and advice in order to develop scientific, technical and research projects.

OpenLab_panoramique

They are collaborative learning spaces where skills, knowledge and competence are co-constructed and shared, and where learning by doing, interdisciplinarity and mistakes are considered as part of the learning process and valued. These spaces are also considered as a disruptive innovation, in the way they gives an access to a product or service to a wider portion of the population that didn’t have an access because of a lack of financial ressources, or competences. Now people can  prototype and produce rather than consuming, they can take over technologies to solve local problem and take entrepreneurial initiatives. Some believe that Fablabs can even contribute to more participative democracy, by harnessing social mixity, reinforcing social link and empowering citizens.

But these structures are often too expensive to set-up and they are anchored in a specific ecosystem and territory which hinders their access to a wider audience, such as students, rural or low-income populations. Moreover, it seems that, in Europe, these collaboratives spaces are mostly used by males with basic previous technological knowledge and skills. Anna Waldman Brown, Head of the Practical Education Network (USA) explains that:

We need to evolve towards spaces that are more  inclusive and diverse many recent studies show that the makerspaces demography is dominated by rich and educated men, but there’s a growing resistance from women, minorities, and underpriviledged makers”

According to a report written by Fabien Eychenne for the Fing (Fondation Internet nouvelle generation), the Fablab that will survive tomorrow are the one who would have managed to 1) build and maintain a diverse community 2) efficiently share knowledge and 3) insure diversity. This report also suggest that Fablabs may just be a moment in different histories,  an element of a wider ecosystem known as “Future Labs” composed of living labs, bioharckerspaces, media labs… that all have in common the will to get innovation out of R&D services and specialized laboratories and make it accessible to the citizens.

In short, this ecosystem is not stabilized and leaves some room for innovation, and questioning. Indeed, Fablabs have the potential to make research, science and technologies accessible to all, but how do we make fablabs accessible to all ? “Mobility!” said MIT. Since 2007, the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a FabLab in a trailer that tours the US. The projects inspired other initiatives worldwide: in DenmarkNetherlands, South Africa

Going towards a diverse public by meeting the people in the street, where they live, study and work might, progressively, have an impact on society’s capacity to make technological culture its own. The next step would be to encourage research that study such impact and promotes more initiatives like the MIT FabLab Trailer.

MIT FabLab Trailer
MIT FabLab Trailer

 

Written by Margaux Calon

Margaux graduated in History of Innovation at Paris IV-La Sorbonne and defended a master research thesis on “Science popularisation in the press for children, 1830 – 1930”. She travelled around the world of science communication as an intern for a year before entering a MSC Science Communication at Imperial College London. She’s now a community manager and science communication officer at the CRI.

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