Thoughts from MIT FabLab Norway

Some reflections around FabLab business models, the challenges of sharing and what makes a FabLab a FabLab. This is the digested result of many interesting discussions with Haakon Karlsen and other members of his FabLab:

There seems to be one message that is rather unavoidable to receive at MIT FabLab Norway: “FabLab’s are an open network of people who wants to cooperate and share knowledge globally”. I don’t know how many times Haakon has said this in his life, but he could probably never say it enough.

Global sharing and cooperation seems to be as challenging as it sounds beautiful. The FabLab community might already be one of the most successful examples of global cooperation, but there are many obstacles. And it seems like we have only reached a minuscule tip of an iceberg of what is possible to achieve when we truly cooperate. I think there are two major factors that needs to be improved in order to ensure future growth in cooperation. The first is that a FabLab will always need to be funded indirectly from some sort of commercial activity. And secondly, in order to share knowledge, the knowledge needs to be communicated in a universal language that everyone can understand.

I say that a FabLab needs to be funded indirectly, because a workshop and knowledge centre is never 100% open if money is asked in order to grant access. Any sum of money will always exclude a certain amount of members of society. But the housing, tools, and power of a FabLab needs to be paid for, and the FabLab staff needs to make a living. Today there are two major ways of funding the “free and open” part of a FabLab. Government subsidies and selling commercial services in the FabLab. Government subsidies are great for in the countries where this is an option, but is not very suitable for creating a sturdy and sustainable Fab ecosystem. Political climates change, and subsidies come and go. On top of this, it often requires a ridiculous amount of energy and man hours to ensure that subsidies land within the FabLab. Ideally a FabLab should be 100% self sufficient, which leads us to the second way of funding a lab.

If you sell your knowledge instead of sharing it, are you still a FabLab at that moment? And what about when you are being paid by a client to use your own machine, that you ideally should train your client to operate himself? Haakon would say that at that moment you are not FabLab, but a just a lab/prototyping workspace/agency. Which is fine as well, the world needs normal labs too. But how many days in a week does a FabLab need to be open in order to be a FabLab? It must surely be better for a community to have a FabLab one day a week, than no FabLab at all?

I can imagine that it must be more challenging for a one day a week FabLab to nurture growth within its user group and progress based upon sharing of knowledge when the participation is highly fragmented. I think that ideally you would wish for continuity of communications between different users. A very interesting part of innovation is to allow random connections to form, and offcourse the longer the exposure, the bigger chance of a random encounter.

There is also a greyzone between closed and open labs. When a machine is rented out to a commercial client, is the door closed for all other users? There is a good potential for satellite machines and staff that provide commercial services while the core of the lab still 100% open. To build a global community I think it is important that anybody should always be welcome in a FabLab. Even though you might not get to use the machines or talk to your preferred guru. A very good point of the “Fab charter” is that commercial activities should grow outside and beyond the lab, but how to achieve this a major question on its own.

Even if a FabLab is open 24/7, it is no good to the global community unless the knowledge generated is being shared in a universal language. In order to share, you need to document your work. And documentation seems to be the great shame of many FabLab’s. Writing in understandable English is only the beginning. We need sharing systems for not only how things were made, but also how it was designed, pictures of the parts, the assembled result and how the design can be further improved. All this knowledge should be accumulated in one shared library accessible to all FabLab users. Until such a shared library exists, it is important to use tags and categories that enables search engines to bind the content together.

On top of this we have the challenge of closed- and open-source software. Not all FabLab users have the opportunity to buy software for thousands of dollars. And if your work is not accessible to a FabLab user, you are excluding this user from the cooperation. Unfortunately we still miss great open-source software for working with vectors and nurbs. In the meantime, my best suggestion for documentation is to always embed your design in a file format that can be read by software like InkScape and Blender, as well as the original file from your program of choice.

I see two major reasons why documentation is in such a terrible state in the FabLab world. One is that most people find writing boring and difficult, a more serious one is the role of the ego. The ego is an important ingredient in order to have confidence in experimentation, but it is also the biggest sharing brake. I have myself often experienced the emotion of “this is my creation, and if I give it away I will be less special and reduce my chance of financial gain”. But any creation is always based upon the shared knowledge created by others. If you cut that loop, no one can build upon your knowledge again. And it is often so that what you give in life, you usually get in return, but often in an unexpected way. Still we all need to make a living and the challenge is to find a new way of making a living from shared creativity. I think an important part of this will be a shift from financial transactions like ”pay to release,” to transactions like “pay in gratitude” and “pay to enable”. Basically creative services will be paid for ahead or long after implementation, and not upon the moment of completion. Two prominent examples of this is donation based open source development and crowd funding. How to succeed in this in the digitally manufactured world is again an entire question on its own.

It has once been said that communism functions excellent on paper, but terrible in real life. History has shown several communistic regimes that  didn’t exactly succeed in creating equality and sharing for everyone. I think we need to take the best from the hippies, uber geeks and capitalist and somehow enable truly global sharing of knowledge and cooperation. In the coming moths of my FabLab travels I hope to gain a bit more insight into how we can achieve this. Next stop FabLab Iceland.

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