We Need To Talk About Fablabs

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Fablabs are wonderful things. Places to congregate, learn and experience, they’re a haven for makers. For many, the fablab was the first place where you saw a 3D printer and got the chance to operate one as well. You learned to weld or solder at one and made your first proper thing at one: your own thing. They are guideposts to a past that never was. A past where we controlled, understood and mastered technology. A time when technology didn’t run us, but we ran technology. A time when we could take apart a thing and by looking at it understand what it did.

Just another day at the fablab.

Now technology is obfuscated, smothered behind polymer cases and copper traces. Black rectangles and shiny pins sardined into Horcrux cases by dainty hands. Surgically masked bent over people with white caps must sit through ten-hour shifts wondering just how many pockets the world has. In a disposable technology world where we have drawers of wires with stacks of old phones waiting for a time when we take the effort to discard them, fablabs are truly a hopeful thing.

This is a place where you can master technology. This is a place where you can learn. A place where you can also be creative and find like-minded people. A place where nerds can hang out. A place for the obscure and unknown, a place to discover. Fablabs are unlike any other places. Libraries may never be this messy while “shop class” never had this many toys or this much freedom. You’d have to go to Bavaria for a bigger sausage fest but it lacks the acrid gym smell and machismo of other places where men predominantly congregate. Shut-ins, shut in together. Tinkering through a lazy afternoon or frenetically building a thing that has never been before, fablabs have their own pace. I love fablabs, totally adore them. We should have more of them. They should blanket the earth. I think they could be a real asset in education, think every school should have them. I think universities should battle over who has the best fablab rather than the best football coach. I hope that they’ll play an integral part to the self-development of resource- and technology-deprived people. I hope that they extend the technological life of the superabundant fragile stuff that surrounds us. I also believe that many of the new inventions will invented there. So I totally say this with love. Most fablabs suck. OK, almost all fablabs suck.

Hey dude, did you know that at noisebridge, they can also mine diamonds? [Image: Spitsbergen Travel]

Fablabs are kind of like communism, it sounds like an awesome idea but the implementation blows. Opening hours are horrible, uneven and unpredictable. Stuff disappears all the time, and there are never enough machines. Some fablabs function well, but many are being mismanaged. There’s never that one organizational talent that makes everything clockwork. Just lots of stubborn people who are all good at the same things. Marketing is not well understood, and little effort is being made to promote the place. If the marketing and sales side of things are well managed, then the thing starts to get a rather corporate feel. Rules everywhere and the freedom is gone. This is one of the most extensive problems affecting fablabs. The others are: Brah do you even have a business model?, easy come easy go and when’s the last time you were in a busy fablab?

Between rules and freedom

The ideal fablab would both be pure anarchy and well organized. Simultaneously a cluttered cave and a clean work surface with infinite Wera bits, every Knipex, unlimited flux and all the tools. It would be super safe but not smothered in rules. You’d have a DMG Mori, Trumpf, Haas football field of awesome and all the printers. And anyone could use it all, but nothing would be broken or missing. It would be cheap so everyone could come but have all the latest everything. There would be a convivial animated atmosphere but also absolute silence when you want to concentrate. People would be super friendly but not talk. A fablab is truly a utopia in the original sense. It can not be all things to all people all the time. Depending on your mood you could need completely different modes from it. It has to be a third place but not a well defined one. No one has come up with the perfect fablab since it is so difficult to even define such a thing. Caught between being very top down and rule-based or anarchic it is difficult to find one way of doing things or one culture. The perfect fablab would perhaps even be two joined spaces that are radically different: one a noisy junkyard, the other a clean(ish) room. People also have a limited imagination as to the possibilities and limited understandings of the behaviors one is to exhibit. It is not only that the perfect fablab doesn’t exist, it is also that we’re unsure of what this would be. Caught between radical freedom and regulation a fablab will always be a semi-regulated place which may kindle some to care for it sometimes but not all to love it all the time. Think of the ideal salsa place. You may know nothing about salsa dancing, but you could in your mind envision the perfect salsa place. You could conceive of how the people would act, the furnishings and the noisescape of the site. You could not, however, envision the perfect fablab because this is perennially caught between rules and anarchy.

Easy come and Easy go

Fablabs are often started with a flourish. Optimism abounds and ribbons are cut. The ones that crash the hardest are the ones that got the most money. Educational authorities, governments, universities or idealists pony up cash to get them started. A one-time subsidy amount is used, and everything is shiny and new. But no time or money is spent on the socialization of the fablab. No inspiring projects are initiated to get more people to join or understand. No culture is created. It is a bunch of right-brained people in their playground, forgetting that the left brains have roles to play as well. Promoting the fablab or getting in more people in any way is often not done, either. Contrast this with fablabs and hackerspaces that have to get by on borrowed things and hope. These underfunded spaces have strong cultures and are frugal. Meanwhile many a fablab has lots of shiny machines gathering dust.

When’s the last time you were in a busy fablab?

So, ever been in a busy fablab? Most of them indeed are empty spaces. Ghost rooms with soldering soldiers at attention waiting for their first battles. The lack of marketing and soft skills means that fablabs often stay empty. Since many are subsidy funded there is usually no impetus to do anything commercial to cover costs. If these needs arise, then the place quickly becomes too commercial. Not only that but it does so in an annoying way as well. This ruins the culture and then the original folks don’t show up. If I opened up a gym in my hometown and told no one about it then it wouldn’t be successful. The same goes for a fablab. The most significant problem, however, besides the lack of marketing, is the lack of a business model.

Brah do you even have a business model?

So anyway then the guy says to me, Take another shot, Sven. So what can I do? I down another tequila. I mean I’m a robot I have to do what the man says.

A gym has a membership. This could be $5 or $300 but this is an established thing. Fablabs often don’t. By forgoing the opportunity to ask for memberships up front, when enthusiasm is high, many lack funds to reinvest later. Fablabs have churn, and this needs to be ameliorated by marketing and events somewhere down the line. Wait until it is too late and your organization is lacking, then you will not have the capacity to do this at all. Due to the business model being murky, lots of fablabs try many different things which are just confusing to current and prospective members. Many hackerspaces in Europe subsist solely on the selling of Club Mate or another drink. One guy buys a lot of drinks once a month, and people put in a Euro, and this pays for all of the bills. This is a simple thing to do and for many would be enough. Often, however, skilled business people don’t apply their business skills to solving their own fablab.

I really love fablabs and would be chuffed to see them spread around the world in a continuous all-conquering sweep. But I’m worried. We need to socialize, organize and market fablabs better for them to be more successful. Do you have any answers? Please let us know below.

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