Fabcity & digital culture places
The Fablabs have been created from day one as places of symbiotic, unexpected and unconditional value creation. Will the Fabcity encourage the emergence of places based on these same values, open to the greatest number and allowing them to appropriate their city in *real* cooperation with elected officials, public authorities but also planners and town planners? This text, written for a round table organized on February 22, 2018 at the Gaité Lyrique, deals of the concept of “Fablabs”.
These manufacturing laboratories are the basis of the Fabcity festival, an event which this summer 2018 will try to link these new types of places to the DIY issues of the city. Thanks to digital tools, whether computer code to control machines or the use of the Internet to network and share information, these places promise to democratize the technical complexity of modern cities by sharing knowledge and objects. Will they be able to enable citizens as a whole to be fairly represented in the planning and programming of cities?
The practices in the Fablabs and the Fabcity are at the heart of what Alain Giffard and Julien Bellanger call the “Digital Culture”, in the sense of the social sciences, an understanding that encompasses both the reflexive and critical exercise of human activities and what they produce (values, norms, institutions, artifacts) as much as the common digital creation of knowledge, value (social, economic, ecological) or artistic works.
Origins and values of Fablabs
As mentioned in this article, the Fablab concept was born in a geopolitical context, that of the digital nations program. This cooperation program was created by Nicholas Negroponte, former President of Costa Rica José María Figueres and global partners in Mexico, Denmark and India. The other project that resulted from this program is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the $100 laptop project, which has grown to more than 3 million worldwide.
The idea of Bakhtiar Mikhak of the Grassroots Invention Group and Neil Gershenfeld with his course How to Make Almost Anything was originally to enable local communities to quickly and easily develop technical expertise in disadvantaged parts of the globe such as India or South America through :
- free, standardized and global technical training
- cooperative governance with a charter
- object replication & documentation in free formats
These three great pillars resonate with older practices such as EPN, ECM, CCSTI, hackerspaces, popular education, institutional psychotherapy and pedagogy, social pedagogy and many so-called active or experimental methods in education (freinet, reggio emilia, waldorf/steiner…), in art (bauhaus, monteverita, blackmountain college…), and even longer ago in guilds of trades (apprentices) or their precursors within societies of mystery in Greece, Egypt and well before in the initiatory and playful practices of nomadic hunters of Siberia.
Popular education (“éducation populaire”), for example with its universities, its colonies and its various associations, is no longer on the rise; however, with principles such as free education, generous hospitality, cooperative management of places or the development of shared technical workshops, this movement has been at the forefront of practices initiating a dynamic similar to that of the Fablabs, promulgating knowledge that is accessible, shared and concretely implemented in a network of places connected by values and co-constructed by their members. Some popular education associations have even developed their own autonomous and free digital infrastructures.
In these contexts, learning is continuous. It is built up individually through self-directed practices as well as collectively through the construction of a social organization (political DIY) and artefactual (technical imitation). In this socio-technical assembly, like Latourian ants, actors and networks of complex objects percolate and crystallize ideas in the form of models and more or less accomplished “demos”. What is important to understand is that it is the precarious balance between these different fluid learning processes that makes it possible to concretely “bootstrap” the body of this place, that is to say to trigger a creative emulation of a spirit, generating an additional soul, different from the simple assembly of the elements that compose it: a sparkling flash ⚡️.
Thus, for many years, the How to Make Almost Anything course site, the instigator of technical training in fablabs, has given a brilliant example of this by continuing to give free and unrestricted access to content, as well as to resources such as the fab inventory (standard stock of parts and machines to populate a fablab), the fablab charter and especially the exercises of the students who take the course. They are a veritable mine of information for DIYers, containing technical treasures in the form of practical documents for building electronic boards, soldering or assembling materials, learning to program or manufacture its own programmer (the famous FabISP).
The document at the origin of the fablabs details itself a whole technical offer consisting of minicomputers opensource called “Towers” and free scientific infrastructures in a similar way to current projects like the Public Lab. These materials aim at the technical autonomy of the members of the place, their emancipation from service offers that would make them captives of a brand and its values. The fablabs were thus born in a context of “soft-power”, “grassroots”, i.e. an attempt by an American consortium to “liberate” small villages from the exclusive use of technologies not only above their financial means, but above all, these technologies were free (as in the “free” internet projects of gafam), asymmetric. Learning technology in fablabs is above all — in the founding idea — learning to chart one’s own path, to build it, then to undertake it with others, at will, by accumulating knowledge together: it is by ’accumulating’ knowledge collectively that one learns best by oneself.
This accumulation also manifests itself in the different electronic modules of Towers that are “stackable” (stackable — layers in the vocabulary tower, kinds of shields). These ancestors of the Arduino cards and the Raspberry Pi are programmable via a development environment provided with them and using a derivative of the Logo language, ancestor itself of projects like Scratch. The idea of the Tower system, is not only to make available electronics to control its numerical control machine, make its own oscilloscope or even scientific instruments to make biology as its own photospectrometer. They are also “fabbable”, feasible entirely in a fablab, i.e. the level of complexity of the electronic components, the size of the tracks does not reserve its manufacture to a specialized factory but can potentially be replicated anywhere in the world (where however it will be necessary to have access to components, equipment and electricity).
Fablabs à la française
Over ten years, the Fablabs have multiplied in France, from the first two associations of Artilect in Toulouse and PING in Nantes, to the Fablabs in universities, schools, companies… The various maps of French Fablabs list about 300 and more reasonably the map of the Fablabs Foundation more than a hundred in France. Some places are also Makerspaces, Hackerspaces, Third Places, Co-working spaces, Living Labs, Art centers or local social animation places.
This multiplication of places is remarkable.
It also calls several questions: to what extent do these places implement the different axes drawn by the Fablab concept? How did these places choose to organize themselves, are they accessible free of charge for all audiences? Do they promote exchanges of knowledge and technical training on a voluntary basis or in the form of a service offer? Do they have managers or are they managed cooperatively by their members? Finally, do they produce objects, plans, demos shared with other places or do they monetize them in a more restricted way? Since some actors have created overhanging networks (fablabs networks, fabcity association), are the members of the fablabs actively involved (in “grassroots” mode) in the negotiation with public authorities and their various stakeholders or are only the “bridgeheads” of networks at work?
It seems difficult to answer these questions in an exhaustive way without devoting studies to them in the field, over the long term.
Which values for Fabcity?
Some academic works have thus focused longitudinally on the French Fablabs, but to my knowledge, they have not specifically addressed these questions in a systematic way. On the other hand, they raise many points of interest such as the organization of places, their service offerings and their ecosystems in relation to concepts such as Co-Working, Neo-Artisan and Urban Manufacturing. Other Think-Tanks work has focused primarily on their economic models and identified them as emblematic places of what is now called the “Industry 4.0”. In this vision, France would be able to compete with countries like China, and thanks to the Fablabs, it would even be “at the forefront of a new industrial revolution”.
We find this vision of the “making city”, the “manufacturing city” or more often the “productive city” in many recent articles written by leaders of urban manufacturing places. They are often designers, influencers and architects, members of the Fablab network, also involved in associations such as Fabcity and also in “collaborative” economy Civic Tech projects or urban planning or development projects with the city involving large land groups as well as industrialists. In these visions, it is “by putting the factory of the future at the service of a circular economy”, or by favouring the “transition to the scale of the actors of innovative production” that we will be able to “transform our way of producing and living in the city”.
We are far from places of emancipation through free learning and ’grassroots’ of the initial vision.
The Fablabs were also built on the promise of shared documentation and the networking of plans and diagrams to build their own infrastructure, machines and physical and digital environment. Do the Fablabs of the Fabcity share these resources freely and openly, and if so, where are they accessible? If we look at some french Fablabs such as the one in the Cité des Sciences or the one in Digiscope or Ping for example, we see that they put their documentation online, particularly in the context of courses and workshops, we can thus find more or less successful projects. It is not the case of all, it is difficult to find easily for example the objects produced in that of Artilect nevertheless one of largest of France.
Other Fablabs, on the other hand, do have documentation but have chosen to “monetize” it, on the basis of a “training” type of service offer. This choice, which can be justified by the economic constraint of restoring financial equilibrium quickly, is nevertheless another way of moving away from the initial spirit of the fablabs, the crucibles where knowledge must circulate in order to accumulate and provoke this effect of mutual training, this symbiosis proper to the founding pillars. The privatization of knowledge thus not only reduces its speed of circulation but also its intrinsic quality, it is rather the multiplication of perspectives on complex objects that makes it possible to acquire a relevant view.
It is not certain that presenting oneself as players in training, based on a model of scarcity of resources, is the most appropriate for these places given the competitive context of this market in France. On the other hand, it is entirely legitimate that these places should not be plundered or phagocited with their own resources and should seek to enhance them in one way or another. There are thus a whole range of other ways of securing and guaranteeing respect for a creative chain, other than simply licensing or selling. France has excellent researchers in this field.
In the same way, restricting access to the general public to small time slots and privatizing the premises to certain large industrial customers seems to be a good idea financially speaking in the short term but risks in the same way reducing the intellectual emulation of the premises and its specificity, the transformation into any training bodies or design offices of the “factory”, “maker” or “neo-crafts” type, are still far removed from the initial vision.
Will the Fablabs of the Fabcity be reserved for young designers and architects looking for places to share their practices, finish-up their charettes for school and learn Rhino and Solidworks™ rather than other software “do-it-yourself” in the spirit of the Fablabs (like the (in)famous cad.py ^^, and free software like Lud, Freecad or Blender)?
If this is the case, where will all other citizens interested in writing their city go, to imagine it — of course with the same designers and architects who are professionals — rather than buying a catalogue version? Will the only choice they have left be to sign a subscription to an ‘urban 2.0 co-living service’ that will support housing, personal data, leisure, health and cultural content? Will there still remain non-ephemeral places capable of what Derrida called an “unconditional welcome”, for those whom Laurent Ott from Intermèdes-Robinson calls “invisible audiences” such as the very poor children, and the people excluded from the “smart city” which, according to Townhall of Paris VP for housing Jean-Louis Missika, will be a city that replaces space with time and deeply-rooted institutions by temporary occupations?
Alternatives do exist though, such as the Société des Ateliers project in Marseilles, the Générale in Paris, which is still standing and open unconditionally, or the Assises de la transition écologique et citoyenne project, which will be held at the end of 2018 in Nice. In this festival there will be cooperative projects involving a diversity of actors in the construction of the city by a hybridisation of know-how and also imagination between citizen inhabitants and professionals of architecture, development as in this Elderly House in Vaux-en-Velin co-constructed by these owners in a reasoned way. We are dealing here with a circulation of trades and people such as we can see in the fablabs, especially between members of different ages: a generous complementarity and concrete projects, where everyone has a say and a bale of straw to bring to the building.
It seems that the initial Fablabs project demonstrated the usefulness and intelligence of places allowing a great diversity of participants, practices and models to experiment. The more these places will be “written in advance” by a limited number of stakeholders with short-term economic profitability and productivity objectives, the less can new types of social, cultural and environmental growth begin, which are the real precursors of sustainable economic growth because they take care of their soil rather than drawing on its resources in a fleeting and drying manner.
It will of course be necessary to create appropriate indicators to show these complex effects of mutualist entanglements and assemblies.
It may also be necessary to think of these models in another way than industrial processes or mechanical protocols, as we often see. Why not refer to natural creation and be inspired by the way plants and animals are in symbiosis with their environments? We could perhaps see more clearly the complexity of rivalry-associations couples, and understand as François Taddéi calls it as “coopetition”, a mixture of cooperation and competition that sometimes best describes these new environments, i.e. symbioses where several models of mutual benefit co-exist and at the same time commensalism and even parasitism.
I have tried to make a small schema of it, insisting on the co-evolution of immaterial cultural and social with those economic:
Promoting symbiosis and fostering the unexpected, through an unconditional welcome seems to be a path to explore to foster places of creation of a common digital culture, a dynamic already set in motion in many places throughout France, especially on the side of places of digital mediation.
Without this necessary step aside, the Fabcity will be content to institute a new generation of actors who will build “creative districts” for the middle classes. Wouldn’t the ambition of the Fablabs be rather to allow citizens to write their own stories in new and welcoming world-cities? In this case, it will certainly be necessary to create new types of non-ephemeral, welcoming and free (at least in part) digital culture spaces with a critical and constructive artistic approach, as it is the case in other major European cities, such as Amsterdam with Mediamatic, while relying on cooperative networks with hybrid organisations.
Is it possible to have a large place of cooperative and perennial digital culture to tinker in the Parisian Fabcity?