Lab in Focus: Interview with Martina Ferracane from Fablab Western Sicily

Interview with Martina Ferracane — founder of FabLab Western Sicily, researcher and a PhD candidate. FabLab WS in Marsala has a strong focus on kids education and support of the local environment. The Fab Lab was founded about 2 years ago and so far has reached hundreds of students with hands-on workshops as well as introductory courses to entrepreneurship. We will talk about the history of the Lab, their practice in Sicily context and “One school, one FabLab” approach in education. This interview is part of “Lab in Focus” series.

Lab Introduction

Q: Tell us a bit about a story of your Lab

A: The idea of founding a FabLab in Sicily came to my mind 3 years ago after visiting Brazil with the objective to learn about digital fabrication. I was there for 3 months and came back inspired to build a FabLab in my home town in a very Western part of Sicily — Marsala.

Summer School and a workshop at FBWS

Q: What are the main faces of FLWS

A: It’s actually very interesting how our team was formed. I started organizing informally events at school and outside the schools, and quite naturally people started to join the initiative. Some former students of a Lab got very experienced with fabrication so they became instructors in the Lab and now help us running it. Overall, we are about 20 people and our members are mainly working remotely, only 3 instructors stay in a Lab on a regular basis.

Q: What were your inspirations when you started, you mentioned your journey to Brazil, was it your motto in Marsala?

A: Yes, my experience in Brazil was definitely inspirational. In San Paolo, there is the biggest public network of FabLabs in the world, overall 12 public Labs and several private ones. When I was there, I was actually talking with the municipality about their approach, and it’s amazing to see their commitment to innovation. Each FabLab is in a different neighbourhood of the city and they are entitled to respond to these very local challenges. Another great source of inspiration is the experience put in place by a friend in Erpe-Mere (a small town near Brussels). Together with some friends, he created a FabLab in a school. It was fascinating to see how interested were the kids and how quickly they became digital manufacturing experts!

Workshop at FBWS

Global and Local

Q: In your mission statement you say “promotion of creative solutions to local problems”, could you elaborate on that?

A: I think FabLabs are capable to address local problems and find innovative solutions that would otherwise be hard to address with traditional means. It’s about bringing innovation to your local environment. In Marsala, we have many problems connected to education, environment, recycling or agriculture. We want to support the local community by developing, for example, low-cost smart irrigation systems that can help farmers to save water and improve production. Our main commitment though is to address the skill gap at school. In fact, Sicilian schools (but not only) are not providing any classes of coding, 3D printing, entrepreneurship and other important skills of our century. We are therefore addressing this problem by providing workshops and courses to school children of any age.

Q: So you train your students to get these new skills and bring them to very traditional established industries?

A: That’s the idea: how to modernize what is already there, use technology to support traditional occupations. There are lot of fields where they don’t use any digital instruments yet, it’s a long process to get there but it’s a natural development of such initiatives: you end up influencing local traditional sectors and create new opportunities in sectors that have not changed in decades.

Workshop at FBWS

Q: In “Digital Fabrication and ‘Making’ in Education: The Democratization of Invention” Paulo Blikstein says “Students’ projects should be deeply connected with meaningful problems, either at a personal or community level, and designing solutions to those problems would become both educational and empowering”. What kind of empowerment we are talking about?

A: I totally agree. Students today study a lot of theory since they start school at the age of 5 or 6. And until they are 20 or even 25 they do not see the impact of their effort other than with their grades. But making is a whole different story. You can immediately touch the results of your effort, you can shape your environment by creating new things, you can change your surrounding and fix problems with invention. This is really empowering for kids and people in general.

Q: As a person with a lot of international experiences what do you think makes running a FabLab in Sicily or Italy?

A: Mmm… I am very lucky to be able to bring to Sicily what I learned in my experience abroad. It is a completely different way of seeing things and see how things ‘could be’. Often in SIcily people see things as impossible because of the complicated circumstances in which we are. But seeing other successful initiatives abroad gives me strength and inspiration. I admit that changing things here is more complicated than I thought — especially when it comes to education, but this also confirms the importance of this project!

After a workshop at FBWS

Q: Do you see it changing?

I can say — yes! For example, some students of our FabLab have already chosen to pursue engineering rather than more traditional options. Few students so far, but still this is a great achievement. Italy in general is a country full of creativity, people are really inventive, I think FabLabs have a lot of potential in this kind of environment.

Q: So you can say that you witnessed a case of a FabLab influence?

A: Yes, it’s amazing. I’m very happy for one boy I was mentoring. He came to me and said “Martina, I don’t know whom to talk to. I’m so interested now in digital fabrication, but I’m not sure, maybe engineering is boring or too difficult for me”. And now he is happily studying engineering in Turin. Every time he comes to Sicily he volunteers with us. It makes me think it’s worth it, even if only few students change patterns.

Q: How would you measure success of a Lab in a local setting?

A: When it comes to a lab like ours, I would look first of all into satisfaction and excitement of going to school. This is in turn connected to learning of skills like creativity and problem solving, which will be crucial in the digital age. This will be only possible if we manage to provide long term learning and not few courses as we are doing today because of our limited resources. So that would be a long-term goal — giving them space and opportunities to follow-up on their interests and discoveries.

Also, another measure would be how many students decide to study engineering or other STEM areas as a result of the work of the FabLab.

Speaking of local needs, FBWS is currently fundraising for a laser cutter. You can help them out with a little donation here ;)

Tech and Society

Q: And so far who do you think is the first beneficiary of innovation and tools promoted by FabLabs? Is it a citizen or professionals?

A: I think it really depends on a Lab, each has its own target. Some FabLabs work mostly with companies or professionals, in this case they promote rapid prototyping, new materials and new startups. But overall I think FabLabs are very much about improving communities, enriching their possibilities, especially among young your people that have grown up with digital tools but rarely see how they can used to shape their reality. And in a long term this has an impact on the whole country, its economy, sustainability by providing the right skills and tools to people and companies.

But again each FabLab is special. In our program we focus on education in schools, which is a bit rare for FabLabs.

It also depends on a country and culture. For example, in Germany and Nordic countries people are used to study some handwork and manual skills in schools, so it is also more natural for them to engage with FabLabs. People are also generally more willing to pay for workshops in these countries, which makes a Lab self-sustainable financially. In Italy or Spain, it is still rare for people to value the importance of a workshop on 3D printing for example. So the Lab has to find alternative ways to be sustainable, for example focus on offering co-working spaces or partner with a private entity. But I think in the future this might change. I’m sure in some years more citizens will see Labs as an ideal place to learn the skills of the future and will value more the workshops being provided.

Q: If you think about an ideal future of a FabLab, how will it look like? Is it when Labs are integrated to a local life as a part of it?

A: Yes, I think it depends on a city of course. But we probably should start with schools, to have Labs as a school facility and embedded in education. I’m not talking about a subject which is called “Digital manufacturing”, I don’t believe in this. I think it should be integrated to other subjects, other activities. For example, during class of biology, kids can build a microscope and see what they are studying! Or during geography class, they can build VR glasses to explore new countries. You can think of an applications of digital fabrication in almost in every subject. I believe we should have a fablab in each school and this is why I have already presented to politicians in the European Parliament the initiative of “One School, One Fablab”. So far, the initiative received good feedback, but as usual these things take time…

Q: When we talk about new skills which are born in FabLabs what would be your top-3 list?

A: Creativity, problem solving and adaptability. I think these are also the skills of the future, and I am not the only one claiming this. If you look at major report by international organization, these skills are always mentioned. The world is changing so fast that way that it is impossible to predict what technical knowledge or perhaps programming language you will need in few years years. So the best we can do to prepare our school children is to teach is a way of thinking: how to make use of technology, how to adapt, to troubleshoot and to collaborate with each other. These are skills that will be definitely needed in the future.

You can help FBWS to engage more children by donating to their NGO! They are currently in need of a Laser Cutter ;)

Donation page in English and Italian

Lab in focus is a series of interviews with fabrication labs and innovation hubs working with digital manufacturing, technology, design and informal education. Some of the interviewed Labs associate with FabLab ecosystem, others have a broader focus. All of them are united by use of technologies, R&D practices and work closely with local context. Our discussions focus on social potential of Innovation Labs rather than technological — we question how these hubs promote mass technological inclusion. Or in other words, how Labs can assist a social change and build a future where they are seamlessly integrated into community life and infrastructure.

Every dialogue is based on three topics:

Global and Local — we talk about innovation Labs as part of the global maker movement, their aspirations in the local context and how they adjusts to different cultural and economic contexts.

Tech and Society — how innovation labs accelerate technological inclusion, and how citizen-driven production infrastructures are organized.

Theory and Practice — how the concept of innovation hub meets practice, what business models are adopted by Labs and what are the odds to build infrastructures for “making”.