Digital revolution is not a dream anymore, it is already happening and it is happening everywhere. The proof? Check the Fab labs and you will understand that the rules of the game is drastically changing.
Traditionally, people believe that technology is a top-down approach. It means that a bunch of very educated people are sitting in a white room, inventing tomorrow’s technology. Once this job is done, they release the technology that might reach the masses at one point in the future.
Internet democratization helped to develop and spread knowledge. According to Forrester, the global internet population in 2013 reached 2.2 billion people. This is 37% of total world population. So as much people who can have access to knowledge and technology. Next year around 200 million people will join internet for the first time in their lives. Imagine what these people can bring. It is a total redefinition of things. In 2013, there was more content produced and shared online than in the entire history of human kind (McKinsey).
Fab Labs – reverting the innovation process
Technology is a brillant thing if it is shared by many with the purpose of something more than technology for itself. As it is said previously, internet brought people closer in the world scale and knowledge is shared every day. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a few years ago the principle of Fab Lab. This abbreviation means FABrication LABoratory. It is a small local scale workshop offering digital fabrication. From small tools to digital computer controlled devices, you can find everything you need to build what you need to build.
With this system, Technology is just a tool that allow people to create new technology and innovation, first at the service of one person and in a second step to a greater good. So we invert the process that was generally identified as a top-down approach. In this case the process is more a bottom-up ! From the people to nations, companies and organisations.
This initiative was created by Professor Neil Gershenfeld, working at the MIT. He initiated this action of spreading the tools for innovation. Of course today, there are Fab Labs all over the world and its number is growing every year. From Norway, to USA, Brazil, India or South Africa. Here the Ted Talk of Neil Gershenfeld in February 2006.
His speech is interesting as he pretend that from the need of one person, we can help millions. So customization is not anymore a matter of individualism but it becomes the foundation of innovation. By fulfilling the need of a person, we can create new technology or technics in order to help others with their needs. Here is another interesting video that gives you a clear view of a Fab Lab.
3D printing changed the deal
The amazing thing with innovation, is the idea of bringing to reality a dream or an idea. Until now, production or manufacturing was the gap between ordinary people and big companies. Many inventors would be blocked in their creative process because they could not prototype, then going from prototype to testing and from testing to a final product or object. The democratization of 3D printing allows this gap to be filled. In deed with less than 2’000US$ you can buy a pretty good 3D printer with amazing resolution features. Printing a piece can go from a couple of hours to an entire day. It depends on the size and the resolution of the piece. People can accomplish amazing things with it, so dreams become true. Here is a video about 3D printing and how far can we go with this technology. Some of the objects are crucial others more… controversial.
In addition to the 3D printing, laser cutter and many small tooling will complete the workshop, so people have all the machinery needed to accomplish what they need to.
Open-souce: from geek land to everyone
By providing people with the appropriate technology and tools, there is also an important topic of copyrighting and trademarks. How can we open the field of possibilities if this field is limited by property ownership? That’s how Open source software and hardware enter the game. In all official Fab Lab, everything is about open source. For a reminder, open source means that we offer an universal access to technology and things ruled by free license. Any one with the right skills car adapt, modify, use it for his own benefit and for the benefit of all. Behind the open-source approach, there is a philosophy of sharing. The all story of open source started with software. Projects like Unix and Linux became the bases of many project today. It started in a very small area of experts, mainly IT, but now, it has spread all over the place. Projects like Google Android is based on Linux.
Since the open-source started developing in the world, we now talk about the open-source culture. And it is spreading. Since the creation of the Open-source initiative in 1997, from which Netscape Communicator was born (remember that one?), it started growing more and more. Today it is not only about open-source software but also about Open-Source HardWare (OSHW) or material.
How can you keep the spirit of “Open” with open-source software running on non-open-source devices? Complex. With both software and hardware being open-source, this means that every new technology coming from a Fab Lab is devoted to humanity, far away from patents and private copyrighting. And this is a big change.
Customization: from individualism to collectivism
As global economy grew since the end of Second world war, the world went from standardization to customization at all levels. Social speaking, the end of several social references as family, politics, religion, army service, etc.. brought the individual, as a person, to a path of redefining his own life and probably identity. So younger generations do not have anymore a single model in mind, they have the choice of several alternatives. It is all about each one needs or aims.
In economy, and especially during economic crisis, people wishes to get the best product possible every time they invest their money. What does it means “best product”? It means the best product that will fit their own individual needs. And the era of customization started. According to the dictionary, Customization means
“to make (something) according to a customer’s individual requirements. To make or to alter to individual or personal specifications and preferences. ”
The amazing thing about this customization era is that the concept or the main purpose is evolving. Customization was about one single person, one single need. So the goal was to bring satisfaction to an egocentric individualism purpose. Now, we can see that customization in a Fab Lab serves the greater good, humanity rather than individual. Why this change? Probably that the Open-source environment brought this change. So when a engineer comes to a Fab Lab in order to create something that will fit his own need, he might be opening a new field of expertise, creating a new technic protocol or simply contributing to innovation and creativity.
Today MIT has several researchers doing their PHD’s based on discoveries made in Fab Labs. So it is interesting to see how from an individual approach, we support a more wider purpose. Creativity and innovation do not come only from thinking and projecting. It comes now also from making.
The “To Make” culture
Men have always learned from experience. Success and failure are great sources of knowledge. Having a great idea or intuition, can be very frustrating if you cannot experience that. If you cannot materialize the dream. So men tend to make things, create things in reality, so they can accomplish a sort of human satisfaction. And this is still the case, especially in a Fab Lab. There is also an exciting entrepreneurial factor in making things. So the result is not the only interesting point, the “how we do it” it is also part of the journey. Of course, this idea of “Make” goes along with the idea of customization. The self-made or the “Do-it-yourself” trend is stronger than never. So innovation and creativity can rise from experience.
Nevertheless, before a project is really born in a Fab lab, there was someone or some people who thought about it, shaped the idea in their minds and thanks to the right tools would bring the project forward to execution. Fab labs are also great places to exchange ideas and to be part of a global barnstorming network. You can share your ideas and find someone that can help you with the answer. So the making of a project will probably improve technology or technological processes. It might also increase creativity as by materializing something, the result can push you further and you can accomplish a better version of your idea. And this you might not be able to realize it before hand.
Another important topic in this “To make” culture is also the limits we can reach with such attitudes. In deed, can we all try to make everything? Despite the skills requested we can also get into a more ethical point. Can we allow everything on the name of the open-source? Today some people try to recreate projects that normally would take place in high security labs. Some projects like make your own gun can be easily downloaded from the internet. And what about biological projects? Working on virus or bacterias can be a delicate matter outside an appropriate environment.
Communities of DIY people on several topics are growing everywhere and technology becomes cheaper and cheaper, so the results can be amazing, in both positive or negative way. You can visit one interesting and serious website called DIY-Bio about this: http://diybio.org
Fab Labs in Switzerland
In the world there is already a strong network of fab labs. Most of them are official Fab labs, meaning with a link with MIT. Others are more what we could call Fab Lab “initiatives”. If you want to visit and to use a Fab lab, we can only recommend you to chose an official one. Of course you can always visit a non-official fab lab, or even create your own. All official Fab labs follow a precise chart that you can find here: http://fab.cba.mit.edu/about/charter/
Switzerland is a very active country in terms of Fab labs as the list is growing fast. There is a website dedicated to it called http://fablab.ch . You can find everything you need to know about Fab labs. Here is the list of the official Fab labs in Switzerland:
- Fab Lab Luzern, http://luzern.fablab.ch
- Fab Lab Neuchatel, http://neuch.fablab.ch
- Fab Lab Lugano, http://fablab.supsi.ch
- Fab Lab Zürich, http://zurich.fablab.ch
- Fab Lab Bern, http://fablab-bern.ch
You can find more information in the website above or you can connect to the official Fab Lab website at the MIT: http://fab.cba.mit.edu
So even if you do not have any specific project, do not hesitate to visit a Fab Lab, you will find the experience very exciting and inspiring. Do you have an idea. Share it. The more we share, the better.
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