Float like a Fab Lab, sting like a Honey Bee
From a floating laboratory in the Amazon rainforest, to a 250-mile, 8 day walking tour of India’s rural hinterlands, different ways of engaging with grassroots and inclusive innovation are flourishing.
As digital fabrication technology gets cheaper and interest in the ‘maker’ movement rises, spaces are being created in FabLabs, makerspaces and hackerspaces to give public access to combinations of new and old tools.
In late 2014, an international network organised a series of talks around the world about building a laboratory that will float down the Amazon river.
The Floating Fab Lab will take technological tools — for bio-hacking, digital fabrication and eco-production — on the move through a region marked by diversity of wildlife and human culture.
The first Fab Lab was born more than a decade ago in Boston, USA, arising out of a programme at the Centre for Bits and Atoms at MIT, and a course called ‘How to Make Almost Anything’, run since 1998 by Centre Director Neil Gershenfeld. Since then, Fab Labs have aimed to engage people in digital fabrication by offering them access to digitally-controlled tools — including laser cutters, 3D printers and microprocessor assembly tools. Since the idea’s early beginnings, though, it’s been adapted and applied across the world, from Accra to Barcelona.
In the Amazon, the Floating Fab Lab project is motivated by the region’s unique set of resources — both natural and cultural — and the environmental challenges faced by the people who live there. As well as providing locals with new tools, it will act as a floating R&D centre to explore alternative forms of industry and development. Being sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the Amazonian communities it encounters will be vital if the Floating Fab Lab is to succeed. These communities haven’t asked for the Fab Lab, after all — but they may embrace the chance to refashion the tools and techniques it brings to their own ends.
There are now around 440 Fab Labs in 33 countries around the world, not to mention countless hackerspaces, makerspaces and other spaces where people make stuff together. It’s about community, experimentation and fun — for instance, the Birmingham makerspace fizzPOP describes itself as “the garden shed workshop of your dreams”.
The ground for these initiatives is fertile. Digital technology has become cheaper and easier to use. Cultures of free and open source software and hardware have inspired people to share, copy and adapt materials and ideas. The Maker movement, which brings in traditional crafts alongside digital techniques, is well-networked and growing. The internet and cheaper travel has made networking across continents easier than ever. The makers’ practical, self-organised spirit also responds to the failed economic models exposed by the global financial crisis.
To be sure, these different strands have come together now, to create an exciting moment for grassroots making. But the roots of the current flowering go back further than you might think, linked to movements in different places and at different times.
Pull back the focus and a rich picture of innovation emerges — appropriate technology and the Social Technologies Network in Latin America, the People’s Science Movement in India, the Honey Bee Network in India, and the movement for Socially Useful Production in the UK. Despite huge differences in aims and methods, a common thread is to put technology, tools, ideas and experimentation in the hands of the people.
Though it’s tempting to lump all of these things together, there are big differences in their funding, political stance and willingness to engage with the corporate world or governments. While Fab Labs have been about bringing tools to the people, the Honey Bee Network is more interested in heading out and exploring what ideas and inventions are already out there.
Even calling these things ‘grassroots innovation’ or ‘alternative innovation’ might be a problem. For one, it puts them into a box which might make it harder to present them as a real challenge to mainstream innovation systems. For another, though, many of them connect with standardised and mainstream networks in one form or another. The Honey Bee Network, for example, aims to allow farmers to commercialise their ideas by connecting them to bigger supply chains. FabLabs can act as incubators for commercial ideas. Hackerspaces creatively appropriate laser cutters and other similar tools that were originally meant to automate labour. These connections aren’t a bad thing - in fact, they can lead to more interesting possibilities, but it is only fair to give them due recognition.
The STEPS Centre is documenting these different forms of innovation and experimentation, comparing approaches and styles across time and space. From rural India to Buenos Aires to Amsterdam, looking at how people share and create ideas in different ways can tell us something about what works and what doesn’t, why some ideas go mainstream and others don’t, and how these movements could link to bigger transformations.
“New technology does not have to destroy jobs”
London, 1981. With unemployment reaching one in eight workers, and manufacturing in steep decline in the city, Londoners voted an avowedly socialist Labour council into power. The leaders of the Greater London Council (GLC) wanted to challenge the free-market right-wing agenda of the Thatcher government nationally. They created a Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB) committed to job creation, industrial democracy, and socially useful production.
Amongst GLEB’s first acts was the creation of Technology Networks. These community-based workshops shared machine tools, access to technical advice, and prototyping services, and were open for anyone to develop socially useful products.
Technology Network participants developed various prototypes and initiatives: electric bicycles, small-scale wind turbines, energy conservation services, disability devices, re-manufactured products, children’s play equipment, community computer networks, and a women’s IT co-operative.
Prototype designs were registered in an open access product bank freely available to others in the community; and innovative products and services were linked to GLEB programmes for creating co-operative enterprises. Similar workshops were created in other Left-controlled cities in the UK.
Two decades before the first Fab Labs came into being, were Technology Networks anticipating their approach?
In fact, the story goes back even further. Six years earlier, Mike Cooley, one of the architects of Technology Networks, had been involved in a radical experiment that would shake up one of Britain’s best known manufacturing companies, Lucas Aerospace.
In early 1975, workers at Lucas Aerospace learned that their management, responding to economic crises, was planning to cut jobs. In January, at a meeting of the Lucas shop stewards combine committee, 60 delegates from 13 factories discussed what was to be done.
In drawing up their Plan, shop stewards at Lucas turned initially to researchers at institutes throughout the UK. They received three replies. Undeterred, they consulted their own members. Over the course of a year they built up their Plan on the basis of the knowledge, skills, experience, and needs of workers and the communities in which they lived. The results included designs for over 150 alternative products.
Half of Lucas Aerospace’s contracts served the military — and so were publicly funded — but the activists argued these funds could be better spent on more ‘socially useful’ production. Their ideas included products like a ‘road-rail vehicle’, a kidney dialysis machine and a hybrid car.
The Plan included market analyses and economic argument, training proposals, and suggestions on how to re-organise work into less hierarchical teams to build bridges between the practical knowledge on the shop floor and the theoretical knowledge in Lucas’ design shops. The aim wasn’t only to design new products - the workshops and projects were meant to create solidarity between workers, and encourage debate and activism about what technology should be for and what direction it should take.
The Financial Times described the Lucas Plan as ‘one of the most radical alternative plans ever drawn up by workers for their company’ (Financial Times, 23 January 1976). It was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
Concerned that their work would fail in isolation, Lucas workers organised road-shows, teach-ins, and created a Centre for Alternative Industrial and Technological Systems (CAITS) at North-East London Polytechnic. Design prototypes were displayed at public events around the country. TV programmes were made. Activists connected with sympathetic movements in Scandinavia and Germany.
Committees of shop stewards at other companies, including Vickers, Dunlop and Chrysler, met to develop their own plans in the face of redundancies. In West Germany, the metalworkers union drew on the Lucas experience to inform Alternative Product Working Groups in a number of firms, including AEG and Krupp. The movement for ‘socially useful production’ connected to the new social movements for peace, environment, community activism and feminism. It also aroused interest from activists within radical science, centring around the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science.
In the end, the Lucas Plan was rejected by the management and the government of the time. But for a while, it looked like another way of doing things might be possible, led by ideas from the shop floor and by different values and priorities.
Technology Networks and the movement for Socially Useful Production may not have succeeded in restructuring the economic and production systems of the time. But they did contribute pioneering work on participatory design and debates about human-centred technology — ideas which have become important parts of mainstream design today.
‘Looking for the oddball’ in rural India
On 7th and 8th March 1998, a group of farmers met in an orchard in Junagarh district, Gujarat, to discuss how to promote and share ideas about organic farming.
Two months later, on 15 May, a group of farmers, villagers and researchers set out on a walk from Junagarh to visit other villages. They walked 250 miles in 8 days. The walk took in 47 villages in temperatures of up to 43° C.
The Junagarh farmers had connected with the new Honey Bee Network, an initiative which aimed to document and recognize traditional knowledge and innovation among the remote communities of India.
The 250-mile walk was a Shodh Yatra (‘journey of exploration’), the first of many in Honey Bee’s history. The walks are powered, in part, by a relentless energy and faith in the value of home-grown knowledge to help poor communities, and a desire to document and spread the ideas, crediting their inventors and connecting them to wider research, business development and testing.
According to Anil K. Gupta, the Honey Bee Network’s founder, “The Yatris look for the oddball — anybody doing something differently — and try to understand the logic behind it.”
The knowledge may be local, but the ambition is big — there’s a national foundation to link the innovations to markets and science, and Honey Bee has collected over 10,000 examples of traditional local knowledge from around the country.
Honey Bee is careful not to exploit these ideas — instead, the aim is to provide farmers with support and assistance to connect to wider networks, always crediting by name the originator of the idea, and producing literature in local languages.
They range from simple techniques or uses of plants, to new inventions: in animal breeding, agronomy, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, electronics, building, chemicals and plastics, handicrafts, and the use of local plants and forest produce. These might be as simple as planting coriander around the edge of a field, which attracts pests, or longer processes like developing new varieties of groundnuts. Other farmers have used specially-adapted Enfield motorbikes for agricultural work.
Relatively few of the inventions end up being commercialised, but that’s not the point — the network also exists to foster mutual sharing, co-operation and open learning among farmers and others. Honey Bee has dramatically raised the profile and credibility of grassroots ingenuity. It’s also started a worldwide search for ways to develop, encourage and learn from it.
What have we learned from these examples of innovation at the grassroots? Workshops — from those in 1980s London to hackerspaces, makerspaces, Fab Labs and the like — can be laboratories where technologies can be pulled apart, remade and tested in new ways. The Honey Bee Network, for its part, shows the hard work involved in covering the physical distances between communities in rural India — and the more metaphorical distances between farmers, scientists and governments who might take some persuading to recognise the farmers’ ingenuity.
These grassroots and hybrid forms of innovation, the spirit of openness and collaboration between cultures and countries, are challenging the way we think — not only about what it’s possible to make, or even about the way technology should be developed, but about the relationship between people and technology itself.
They challenge the institutions that are meant to support innovation in society to open up to different approaches and values, often with non-commercial or socially useful goals — and remind us that elites, corporations and experts don’t have the monopoly on deciding how we use technology and how it affects our lives.
Opening up this conversation isn’t down to grassroots networks and workshops on their own. They are no silver bullet. But they are doing it in increasingly networked, novel and ambitious ways — perhaps in a building, village, town or city near you.
The STEPS Centre’s project Grassroots innovation: historical and comparative perspectives examines the recent history of inclusive innovation and the present-day programmes and social movements which promote it. It looks at possible strategies and approaches to support and harness inclusive and grassroots innovation.
Future work at STEPS on this theme will look at the roles which grassroots access to tools can play in opening up pathways to increased environmental sustainability and social justice. Whether through entrepreneurially developing the tools originating amongst grassroots groups, as with Honey Bee, or providing high tech tools to groups, such as with FabLabs, an increasingly interconnected world is opening up new movements of tools across different innovation settings. In what ways are tools as helpful and empowering as advocates claim? Or do the ostensible possibilities actually mask concrete design choices that force certain kinds outcome? It is time for a fresh look at tools in grassroots development, one attentive to the politics of technology.
This article was written with help and advice from Adrian Smith of the STEPS Centre, and draws on research by Adrian Smith, Dinesh Abrol at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Elisa Arond at Clark University, and Mariano Fressoli at CENIT / Centro STEPS América Latina.
The article was amended on 30 June 2016 to correct the spelling of Neil Gershenfeld’s name.