White Paper: Neil Gershenfeld
All the 2007 Principal Voices are submitting a White Paper to the Web site explaining their views at length.
An earlier Principal Voice, Muhammad Yunus, transformed the economics of development through microfinance, making investment accessible to grass-roots entrepreneurs. Rather than big businesses arriving top-down from global corporations or investors, microfinance allows large numbers of small businesses to be driven bottom-up by local dreams and demands.
There's now an opportunity, and need, to do the same for technology. Modern technological infrastructure -- energy, communications, computing, manufacturing -- is today provided largely through top-down mega-projects, developed and produced remotely and then shipped off to solve the world's problems. But advances in those technologies mean that people around the planet can now be equipped to become sources of solutions rather than problems.
What makes this possible is the development of digital fabrication. The transition from analog to digital communications and computing gave us a global Internet linking personal computers. Now research on digital fabrication technologies -- which work in much the same way that your own genes code for the construction of your body -- is leading to the development of programmable personal fabricators that can convert digital descriptions into physical things.
Today's personal computers were preceded by minicomputers, which cost more and were larger and harder to use than a PC. But these minicomputers were used to develop most of the modern applications of computing. Similarly, the capabilities of tomorrow's personal fabricator are already available in a field fab lab. A fab lab that comprises about $50,000 of computer-controlled tools, construction materials, and electronic components can be used to make structures as small as a millionth of a meter and as big as a house.
My colleagues at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and I developed fab labs as a modest outreach project to provide access to prototype tools for digital fabrication. These labs unexpectedly spread to communities around the world, from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to the north of Norway. Read more
They're being set up in these places because of an instrumentation and fabrication divide that lies beyond the digital divide, because of a desire to measure and modify the world as well as access information about it. Fab lab projects are developing antennas for wireless data networks, computer terminals to connect to those networks, solar and wind turbines to generate energy, and analytical instruments for agriculture and healthcare. Fab labs are also attracting and training students, and incubating businesses.
The one thing fab labs aren't introducing is inventiveness—grass-roots inventors can be found all over the world. What they've lacked is access to modern means for invention. To provide that, a Fab Foundation is now being created, along with a partner Fab Fund (a cross between microfinance and venture capitalism that will invest in small-scale, high-tech businesses) and a Fab Academy (a globally distributed educational program connecting students and teachers in fab labs around the world).
The ultimate goal of a fab lab is to be able to make another fab lab, so that access to its capabilities is not limited by the availability of its tools. The real legacy is likely to be these organizations, which are inventing models for education, business and research appropriate for a world where almost anyone can make almost anything, anywhere.
What do you think?
I appreciate the shift you are advocating from macro-top down to a micro bottom-up approach to technological diffusion in developing countries/continents. Yes, people can contribute a lot but one more important factor you need to see is the poor literacy level in Africa. I am not saying you must donate educated people to these countries, but I'm saying considering this in your research could be very important for the success of your project. Added to illiteracy could be problems of language in non-English-speaking countries such as Ethiopia where major languages such as Oromo, Amharic and so on are spoken. I should say your project in Uganda went well. Can I ask if you have you tried it in other non-English speaking poor communities? How about the world information order and encouraging the production of indigenous knowledge?
This is an excellent initiative. Inventiveness can actually come from anywhere. In fact, some of the most deprived people find inexpensive ways to get things done. As an IT professional and project manager, I am fascinated by the idea and could see the vast potential turn ideas into solutions.
The developed countries should help to develop the developing countries by creating and enabling an environment for learning, like providing Fab Labs.
I think Fab Labs are the biggest revolution in the near future and will made its impact across the world.
I read with much interest your article. It is very good to see people as you who put at the heart of their work a better development for all. I would like to ask to you whether it is possible to carry out what you do in my country, Benin, which would make it possible the populations to have access to information technologies.
It sounds like an impressive leap from analogue to digital conversion and representation. I wish for the day when we will be able to represent "human thought" in digital representation without any ambiguity.