A Fablab is a place “to make (almost) anything” (Gershenfeld). It is equipped with digital fabrication machines (e.g. laser cutter, 3D router). Technology is important as an enabler. A Fablab works on the principle of “open doors” (analogous to the open source movement). It has a true educational orientation: “Do it yourself” is key at the Fablab. Users actively explore the contents, technologies and possibilities of the Lab themselves at their own pace. This is crucial to be able to live and understand visions and projections of the future that become possible through the Fablab.
A Fablab is per definition open for everybody: youth, students, researchers, entrepreneurs, starting businesses, small and medium enterprises and of university faculty. They all get support from Fablab coaches and from the international Fablab community. These highly competent real and virtual partners and the user-friendly, affordable standard machinery are the key differentiators to the expensive high-tech labs universities and research centres are so proud of.
Fablabs succeed in building the bridges between the engineers of high-tech fabrication and other actors who tend to be rather technology averse. In a Fablab people are at the centre and their desire to design their future. A Fablab supports inventive-creative and aesthetic processes that are so important in research and development.
A Fablab attracts actors from companies and the public at large in a much wider range that universities are used to. For universities, it is a new combination of their core task of education with an innovative concept so it opens up new potentials. At the same time it promises a degree of productivity, which is highly relevant for competitiveness and wealth of almost any country. A Fablab can attract women to engineering studies, and it can convince students in arts and humanities of the possibilities to realize their ideas with the help of technology.
A Fablab has quite some potential when it comes to knowledge and technology transfer. The traditionally sharp demarcation between being an academic, a trade professional or an artist becomes less relevant. We see this as a positive side effect, since innovation always stems from the creative destruction of current boundaries.
All over the world Fablabs have been established at 35 locations in 12 countries. Fablabs work in Boston’s inner city, Amsterdam’s creative quarters, in northerly Norway, in South Africa, in rural India or in Afghanistan. Every new Fablab benefits from access to this international, successful network. The diversity of the Fablab network offers plenty of inspiration how to conceptualize and shape co-operation between important innovation actors who so fare have been acting separately.
In a traditional world, innovative products are developed on the basis of rapid prototyping at R&D departments of privately owned companies or at laboratories of universities and research institutes. Only a small group of experts has the possibility to produce prototypes in short time and using simple means. Fablab practices democratization and demystification of new technologies following some of the most important trends of the 21st century:
- Open source: knowledge about and access to means and methods of production are not any more reserved for a small in-group but are available for everybody.
- Open learning in communities: users can build their expertise around the use of these means and methods of production in open, real and virtual communities rather than in closed training settings. The Fablab is a nucleus for communities of practice that allow all their members to develop mastery, particularly if they share the knowledge and experience they acquire with other members of the community.
- Open organisational formats: Fablabs typically are not purely private or purely public organisations but they build on public private partnerships.
The Fablab model has proven its effectiveness as a driver of regional innovation since 2005 at 35 locations in 12 countries. All the Fablabs succeeded in building bridges between highly qualified experts in technology, design, management or education and a wide range of interested partners – from education (schools, universities, vocational schools, etc.), business (SMEs, entrepreneurs, designers, architects, etc.), arts and culture (artists, musea, non-profit organisations, etc.). The Fablab builds on social interaction. In projects, it brings together academics and practitioners on equal level. It allows academic researchers to interact directly with non-academics and vice versa.
Additionally, the Fablab counters two contradictory trends that are dangerous in a 21st century world. On the one hand, the Fablab is well suited to reach people who became not any more or not at all interested in technology during the past years, e.g. young men who rather study business administration or law instead of technology, or young women who still are not too interested in engineering even if in these jobs require more brain than physical work these days. Die-hard techies, on the other hand, are systematically encouraged to make use of the latest insights of creativity and innovation research: In the Fablab, there is the stimulating power of a diverse community (power of diversity), there is the need to interact with the users of a new technology at an early stage because they are present at a Fablab from the start, and there is the open invitation to use methods and procedures that have been proven successful in R&D processes.
Fablabs have proven successful all over the world; they have spread quickly and sustainably. Every Fablab builds on the experience of the other labs. Within the network of Fablabs, the exchange on business model, programs, and networking is at least as important as technical issues.
Fablabs use the power of diversity and the disciplinary mastery of their academics. The first Fablab was set up at the well-known MIT’s interdisciplinary Center for Bits and Atoms, the second one in Boston’s inner city. They serve youth, tinkerers, inventors as well as companies and students. At the University of Applied Sciences Lucerne the Fablab can be used by all disciplines in teaching, professional development, applied research and research services. Fablab is part of the interdisciplinary CreaLab. This guarantees that the Fablab business model will include formats of interdisciplinary collaboration.