A brief history of Fablabs

Oct 23, 2017 · 3 min read

Back in 2009, while attending how to make (almost) anything class, i was often reflecting on the people surrounding me. Such a diversity of people: designers, artists, political scientists, engineers, mathematicians, researchers in social sciences, philosophy...

This unusual mix of disciplines and profiles where a Pixar CGI specialist could be seated close to a NASA lunar program scientist was amazing. However, almost ten years after, i am now amazed by how much the value of what was created during this class involved these three simple yet crucial dimensions:

  • social: our deep creative social interactions
  • cultural: a persistent documentation of projects still online years after
  • technical: the actual existence of technological prototypes

The original idea behind the concept (and name) of Fablabs, similarly involved these three ingredients. The conjunction of, on the one hand, the Digital Nations consortium initiated in 2000 by MIT Medialab’s director Nicholas Negroponte affinity with José María Figueres former President of Costa Rica and, on the other hand, the public funding of the NSF Grant #CCR-0122419, created the fertile soil for the Fablab seed. Different events, conferences would then take place in the USA but also in India emphasizing how the technical part of the Fablab was intertwined with strong cultural production from local communities.

This paper from 2002 co-written by Bakhtiar Mikhak, Neil Gershenfeld & al, explained how grassroots communities would produce their own situated knowledge and technological machinery in the “Fablabs”. The inventory of these proto-fablabs such as the one in Vigyan Ashram in India were composed of three kind of components: scientific tools (microscopes, spectrometers), precision machining devices (mini-mill, vinyl cutter) and also dedicated stackable mini-computer boards (similar to nowadays Linux-powered Arduino or RaspberryPI). ThinkCycle was also supervising the documentation through a specific process involving a camera and scanner intended to facilitate the capture and sharing of projects for others.

In my PhD in 2007, but also more recently in the EHESS journal Technique & Culture, i showed how technique, culture and people are in co-evolution, in a process called “exaptation”, following the term coined by Stephen Jay Gould. The symbiotic co-evolution of social, cultural and technical were definitely envisioned at the beginning of the reflections of the Fablabs. However, so many Fablabs nowadays are valorized in terms of their economical potential (due to their technical inventions) but where are the social (interactions) and the cultural (documentation) value gone ?

Innovation, which is the encounter between an invention and its audience or market does not only come from a pure technical process. Actually, many startups could not have been successful without the social and cultural ecosystem from Fablabs but also hackerspaces, community centers, associations. Investing in this ecosystem as a whole, taking care of cultural and social value, is the necessary condition for a fruitful symbiosis ultimately leading to economical growth; from a fertile soil with deep and rich (grass)roots. A symbiosis of Bakhtiar and Neil visions but also the one of the Medialab, which aims at democratizing complexity while bootstrapping sustainable socio-economical systems.


PS: in 2011, PING and the City of Nantes invited me to give some perspectives on new kind of places. I insisted on the importance of investing in artistic and cultural infrastructure as much as in existing communities while inventing new KPI’s that would show the actual impact of these factors on territorial growth and innovation. This video (in french) shows some inspiring creative places, technocultural cooperatives at the heart of symbiotic innovation ecosystems.



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Researcher. #creativity #exaptation

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