Fab Labs Channel Your Inner Scientist – IPS

Enrique Gili* – IPS/IFEJ

SAN DIEGO, California, Feb 14 (IPS) – Inside the confines of a modest 275-square-metre office space in this southern California city, the human imagination is running wild.

Fab Labs Channel Your Inner Scientist

T-shirt designer Eric Bidwell fights the power. Credit:Enrique Gili/IPS

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a steady stream of people gathers. “Crispy,” quips Boone Platt, a performance artist watching a laser-cutter come to life. Neighbourhood boys cluster around a PC workstation designing a logo. Young girls chatter in the corner, brainstorming a board game involving space exploration.

It is the first “Fab Lab” on the U.S. West Coast, run by the nonprofit organisation Heads on Fire.

In a room filled with computers and table-sized tech, visitors are busy exploring the boundaries between digital domains and the real world, making use of equipment that puts technology on a personal scale.

Heads on Fire is immersed in the process of bridging digital divide between the haves and the have-nots. Operating under the auspices of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Fab Labs might just help transform rural economies and disenfranchised communities in the years to come.

“We’re putting powerful tools into the hands of the powerless,” says executive director Xavier Leonard.

Leonard, along with programme manager Katie Rast, is the driving force behind the nonprofit. Fresh from the dot-com revolution, the well-traveled Leonard – who spent time overseas developing community-based technology programmes – founded Heads on Fire with the idea of putting technology into average people’s hands.

Heads on Fire launched in 2002, working with schools in underserved communities, introducing technology and multimedia art to kids who otherwise wouldn’t get the chance. The ethnically diverse City Heights community in San Diego is home to immigrants living at or near the poverty level in a city renowned for world-class research labs and broadband connectivity.

In 2007, the organisation changed direction when it was selected by MIT to establish and operate a Fab Lab in San Diego. It is part of an education and outreach programme that puts cutting-edge tools into the hands of technophiles and the merely curious, intended to transform passive consumers into innovators.

Now, Heads on Fire is a place “where we encourage people to come and experiment with stuff”, Rast explained.

Thanks to a 12.5-million-dollar grant from MIT, Fab Labs have been popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Heads on Fire is part of a global network of 30 Fab Labs currently dotting the globe.

The idea is to empower people through creativity and innovation. In the spirit of collaboration and community, experimental fabbers with modest technical expertise can exchange ideas with counterparts at other Fab Labs around the world, swapping design blueprints via the Internet or going to a Fab Lab website that offers fresh project ideas.

The Waag Fab Lab in Amsterdam provides an overview of personal fabrication projects currently underway in northern Europe and elsewhere. The documentation is meant to be used as a source of inspiration and a starting point for new projects.

The enterprise is part of MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms’ firm belief in the empowering idea of personal fabrication. That is, giving individuals the ability to create technology that improves the quality of their lives, which in turn solves local problems at the grassroots level.

Fab Labs is short for Fabrication Laboratories. They combine off-the-shelf, 2D and 3D fabrication and electronics tools with open source software that can make almost anything ranging from intricate circuit boards to pre-fabricated emergency housing. After six years of experimentation, Fab Labs are yielding interesting results.

Projects include work on thin-client computers and wireless antennae for network access, analytical instrumentation for healthcare and agriculture, solar-powered turbines for energy, and locally responsive low-cost housing.

In rural communities in India, for example, students have designed sensors to measure the fat content of milk. The Sami, the nomadic herders of Finland, have built wireless networks to track their reindeer in the sub-zero wilderness far above the Arctic Circle.

At a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in 2006, MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld explained the genesis of Fab Labs. He began teaching a class called “How to Make (Almost) Anything” in order introduce students to the fabrication machines that he and his peers used during their research.

Over time, he discovered that his students were less interested in esoteric research projects than in making practical things. Although Gershenfeld marveled at the ingenuity of his students, he began to wonder how fabrication tools could be applied beyond the cult of lab-coated technologists roaming MIT’s halls.

Explaining that when the federal government gives you millions of dollars, it expects something back, he decided to apply funds earmarked for outreach campaigns to deploy Fab Labs far away from technology and design centres like Boston, and out of the hands of the usual suspects.

According to Gershefeld, the Fab Lab phenomenon subsequently “exploded around the world”, spreading from inner-city Boston to West Africa.

“A kid in rural India needs to measure and modify the world, not just get information on the screen,” he said via telecast.

“The message coming from the Fab Labs is that the other five billion people on the planet are a source of innovation,” he continued. “The killer app for personal fabrication in the developed world is technology for a market of one. And the killer app for the rest the planet is the instrumentation and fabrication device – people locally developing solutions to local problems.”

Meanwhile, however, some express misgivings about the longevity of Fab Labs. Each lab requires 50,000 to 75,000 dollars of equipment to launch, which MIT provides. But after a year or so, each Fab Lab is expected to operate independently.

Heads on Fire’s next great challenge will be to raise funds in the coming year – at a time when the financial health of philanthropic organisations and taxpayer-funded programmes is in doubt.

Much of the time Leonard and Rast dedicate to the nonprofit currently goes uncompensated. They hope their circumstances will change as they solidify partnerships with local nonprofits and small businesses.

The irrepressible Rast seems unfazed. “I’m overjoyed at seeing the lights come on,” she said. “The people that come through the lab and what they create are unique.”

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ РInternational Federation of Environmental Journalists­ for Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).

Source URL: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=45773