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MIT Better World

Neil Gershenfeld with students at Boston’s South End Technology Center: Fab labs sparking a revolution in do-it-yourself manufacturing.


By Eric Smalley

These shops—dubbed fab labs and spawned at MIT—and their brethren are poised to reshape cities economically and socially.

City dwellers making their own furniture, housewares, and consumer electronics is a radical departure from today’s world of global brands and globe-spanning supply chains. And it’s a gleaming vision of a sustainable and prosperous future that also turns the clock back centuries to a time when cities were self-sufficient and people had the means to build what they needed.

In addition to laser cutters and large-scale milling machines, fab labs also include 3-D scanners and printers, micron-scale milling machines and sign cutters, and tools for assembling electronics and programming embedded processors. These are all connected by custom software and materials. MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) set up the first fab lab a decade ago. Since then the technology has spread virally, with several hundred operating worldwide, said Prof. Neil Gershenfeld, CBA’s Director and originator of fab labs.

Do-it-yourself manufacturing is helping cities evolve by sparking local, small manufacturing businesses and teaching young people to be self-sufficient. All fab labs have the same machines and software so projects can be shared and the knowledge of how to use the labs can spread. A Fab Foundation supports the network, and a Fab Academy trains the people.

Fab labs, along with supporting cities in developing countries, have also proved vital to developed cities with significant economic challenges, like Barcelona and Detroit, and in underserved communities elsewhere, like Amsterdam and Boston. Vicente Guallart, founder of the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, set up a fab lab in Barcelona and is now the city’s chief architect. “They’re filling the city with fab labs,” Gershenfeld said.

Barcelona sees do-it-yourself manufacturing, along with urban agriculture and local energy production, as a way to rebuild the city’s tattered economy, said Gershenfeld. “The crucial connection between digital fabrication and the future of Barcelona is technical self-sufficiency,” he said. “The goal is for the city to be globally connected for knowledge but able to locally produce what it consumes.”

In the past, cities were less reliant on trade and transportation networks for their citizens’ basic needs. The do-it-yourself and local movements aim to reduce cities’ regional and global dependencies. “It’s a modern return to an older notion of a city-state,” said Gershenfeld.

Fab labs also contribute to cities’ social sustainability. In Barcelona, where youth unemployment is 50 percent, the labs teach skills and allow people to make things to use or sell. They give at-risk youth fulfilling and engaging activities and the opportunity to develop. They’re doing the same for the inner cities of North America.

The first fab lab was established at the South End Technology Center in Boston by Mel King, former MIT adjunct professor. The lab hosts the Teach to Learn, Learn to Teach program that teaches children to teach each other. A group of fab labs in Detroit run by an MIT graduate also focuses on youth. It “delivers better life outcomes than the social services that were on offer for them,” said Gershenfeld.

Neither urban planners nor fab labs’ developers initially considered the role do-it-yourself digital fabrication could play in the evolution of cities, said Gershenfeld. But fab labs experiences around the world have become an unexpected road map for empowering cities, he said. “That wasn’t really anybody’s agenda or plan, but grew naturally from the growth of the network,” he said. “It’s a fundamental change of the notion of civic infrastructure.”