Imagine the city of the future. For most people, it’s a monolithic behemoth of steel and glass that stretches into the heavens. A mechanical leviathan in which we the living mill around and entertain the dalliances of human existence as technology makes toil a thing of the primitive past.
This city of the future is well known in popular culture. It was born in dizzy science fiction daydreams, but it was conceived in the gritty realism of the industrial revolution. New technology and automated manufacturing processes allowed factories to produce commodities in abundance, and the western world chose to buy instead of build. Mass consumption became the law of the land, and our cities have reflected that ever since. Before the revolution, towns would rely on their own labour for the goods and services they needed. Once fulfilled, they could turn to trade with neighbouring villages for the items they lacked. That self- sufficiency has since all but disappeared, as today, our cities are home to millions of people, but what they consume is produced elsewhere. Products go in, waste comes out. Houses were once constructed with materials that were brought in and assembled by artisans; today, you can have your entire house 3D-printed on demand and delivered on the back of a truck. Life can be bought wholesale. But what if modern technology could reverse the trend it started? What if it could lead us back to a new industrial age, and bring production back into the cities? If citizens were made makers once again – what would such a civilization look like?
3D For beginners
In 2002, a team at the Center for Bits and Atoms at M.i.T. launched a project to put the new technology of digital fabrication in the hands of those who stood to benefit the most from it. The technology was still in its nascent stage, and had been reserved for privileged institutions like M.i.T, but the team saw the potential for a grassroots project that could benefit communities where machinery and materials were either impossible or difficult and expensive to acquire. in such communities, technology like 3D milling machines could mean a world of difference, and so they composed an affordable digital fabrication starter pack that could produce virtually anything, from design through manufacturing to analysis and debugging.
The setup was dubbed a fab Lab and the first trial run was at the The Costa Rica institute of Technology. Here, students targeted problems faced by the local community, creating customised solutions, amongst them a wireless environmental sensing module for use in agriculture. To boot, the fab Lab also allowed them to build products from materials indigenous to Costa Rica, like banana leaves and water lilies, untethering their production from expensive imports. A second fab Lab opened in the Indian village Pabal with equal success, fulfilling the project’s aim of implementing a grassroots approach to digital fabrication; both communities attained a newfound level of independence in the shape of creative freedom and lowered costs. The output from these labs was mostly tools meant to aid locals in their work. Increasing the size and range of capabilities might see the labs undertake large-scale projects of infrastructure, putting towns at the centre of their own development.
Labs soon sprang up in places as diverse and far-flung as northern Scandinavia and central Africa, creating a global network that today comprises over 500 labs in close to 80 countries. As the labs share a common DNA in the form of software and machines, ideas and knowledge can easily be exchanged and transferred digitally, creating a network where know-how is spread globally, but goods are produced locally. The fab foundation was founded in 2009 and symposiums and conferences are held annually. here, ideas are shared and new initiatives spring forth. One of which may be the next step towards a 21st century maker-movement.
21st Century DIY
Barcelona has as the first city tried to incorporate the fab mentality at a municipal level. With the fab City project, ten fab Labs free to the public are set to open in locations all over the city, allowing citizens to make first-hand acquaintance with the technology. Taking its cue from the old proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime,” the project hopes to educate a fab-literate population, and to democratise digital manufacturing to a point where the city can sustain itself.
The ideas of fab City can be seen as the antithesis to the future city discussed at the beginning of this piece. Making everyone capable of producing for their individual needs would do away the wasteful consumer identity that has befallen most modern city dwellers and put the individual back at the centre of production. One would even expect the city structure of Barcelona to be altered, as city planning takes its cue from the people that live in it, making each district a direct representation of the local community’s mentality and outlook.
But as the people behind the project have maintained, the end game isn’t to have fab Labs move factories back into cities, but instead to make every home a factory. The possibility of the technology becoming ubiquitous isn’t a daydream – a recent example is likely no more than a few feet away, sitting on your desk, or nestled in your pocket.
Once a cutting-edge gizmo that took up a small warehouse, the computer has today shrunk in size and grown into a stalwart of society. Every household is likely to include several, and they’ve become part of our lives to the point where life without them seems near impossible. Perhaps digital fabrication will come to occupy the same place of prominence, a 3D mill sitting comfortably on everyone’s desktop, meaning quality of life isn’t restricted to the size of one’s wallet, but the extent of one’s knowledge.
That digital production is here to stay is not in question – the only question is to what extent it’ll bleed into the public domain. Will we embrace a modern spirit of Diy and become craftsmen once again? If yes, what the city of the future will look like need not be idle speculation – we need only imagine and will it to be so.