Fab Labs: Making big ideas possible
Where will the big technical innovations of the future come from? Rather than multi-million dollar labs with state-of-the-art equipment they could come from a network of ideas and a new democratisation of technology.
Empowering and educating people is the aim of Neil Gershenfeld's Fabrication Laboratory (Fab Lab) project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms. At the heart of the project is a new form of multi-purpose fabrication machine that has the potential to make anything. It sounds almost like science fiction, but using a range of raw materials and acting like a 3D printing machine, "fab machines" can be programmed to make whatever its designers desire.
Using open source software and utilizing a network of labs to help develop and test ideas, the fab lab project is empowering people who perhaps before would have been just consumers of technology rather than creators.
"We sent it out to communities and said, 'If you could make anything what would it be?' We also wanted to know if this was a valid means of technical education. We found resoundingly positive answers to these questions," said Sherry Lassiter, Program Manager for the Center for Bits and Atoms.
With Fab Labs in more than six locations around the world, from Norway and Ghana to India and South Africa, different communities have used the labs to address a range of problems, some local and some more universal.
The lab in Takoradi, Ghana has been used by students at a technical college to create an affordable antenna in areas where the Internet and satellite communication is prohibitively expensive. In India, an electronic sensor to test the quality of milk has been developed that could ensure contaminated milk does not spoil larger batches sold to wholesalers by farmers.
As well as tapping into local knowledge and developing technical skills, fab labs offer the development of micro-business models and economic generation.
"Fab labs can be a problem solving tool, but for now they're about education and encouraging entrepreneurism. The long-term goal is about economic empowerment," said Lassiter.
"In South Africa the government saw digital fabrication techniques as a strategy to kick-start that part of their economy."
The project has moved from just a training ground for ideas and a testing of the technology to full realization. At the Soshanguve Fab Lab in South Africa, a local inventor has created a remote switch that is widely applicable beyond the immediate community. A device has also been developed that can convert a TV into a basic form of computer.
For about $15 a keyboard can be made on the fab machine's vinyl cutter, plus a few other components, transforming a television set into a computer that can be part of a local network of around 100 people.
"This is a cross-lab project where all the components have been tested and debugged across the network. The community computing package addresses a big problem across Africa, so we're solving it in five different countries and sharing the information between them," said Lassiter.
Hod Lipson from Cornell University has been involved in another project to develop affordable fabrication machines for people's homes using a network of users and developers. (Read more about the technology behind their fab machine here). He likens the current fab machine project as similar to that of computers in the 1960s and just as revolutionary.
Bottom-up vs. top-down solutions
Bringing technological innovation to grassroots level is an emerging trend that some believe is essential in creating solutions to problems faced in developing countries and spur economic development.
"The Fab Lab project sounds very exciting. The principle of a more horizontal type of sharing, engaging different groups and offering multiple ways to come up with solutions is becoming more common," said Ian Scoones an agricultural ecologist from the STEPS Center.
"There is a broad recognition - from governments to companies and research and development institutes - to get users involved in R&D is a sensible thing.
"Research and development that is top down and driven by scientists who devise big solutions are sometimes very successful, but can be part of the problem. If you only use those models they won't work for all."
Fab labs then have the potential to create a democratisation of technology and economic empowerment, augmenting rather than replacing traditional manufacturing or diminishing the role of scientists.
"There is not going to be one miracle cure from technology for poverty reduction or economic development, the solutions are going to come out of these multiple processes," said Scoones.
What do you think? Have you say on any of the issues raised in this article.
This is exactly what we need in rural areas of Cameroon, like Mamfe , where there is virtually no modern means of communication..
Fablabs are something that can help bridge the technology divide that exists in the developing world. It's a miniature hi-tech manufacturing platform that can be integrated into the rural communities as a form of introduction to advanced technology.
Fab labs are a great project with lots of potential for technological development in developing nations. Particularly, this project is brilliant in that it exposes as false the formerly held view of science and technology as an elitist venture not meant for rural people like us. Indeed this innovation strongly motivates me to embark on research to find the meeting point between technology, arts and development.