The new Fab City Hamburg podcast had Tomas Diez, the founder of Fab City, as a guest in its first episode.
I don’t think that maker spaces are production spaces. It’s not just about production, giving the machines to the people, and everybody is a maker. That’s not true. I believe that that’s not going to happen.
Basically, IKEA made you part of the assembly line. You became part of the last step of the industry of IKEA.
You can make fabrication optional. You can say: we can design for you, we can make it for you. But if you want, you can customize it and you can even be part of a production process. That’s the kind of future I imagine.
It’s a collaboration, but it’s not like a 100% altruistic collaboration. It’s yes, I want to collaborate and share this purpose, but I want to make money – and that’s totally valid.
Tomas Diez, founding partner and executive director of the Fab City Foundation.
Raphael Haus: Tomas, people probably know Fab Labs, but what is the Fab City and what are the goals of the Fab City?
Tomas Diez: Fab Cities is an initiative that emerged from the Fab Lab Network. It happens when you mix urbanism with the technologies to transform a productive model society and start to imagine how cities can be transformed by introducing these technologies on a whole new scale. So we have seen the growth of a fab network over 10, 20 years, growing organically into an international network, providing the tools and the technology and the science for people to learn about making things in a whole new way. And we identified the need to scale up what these labs can do, and to not only limit it to the lab itself, but connect it to the local community, connect it to the city, to regional dimension of where these labs are located.
So basically the Fab City Global Initiative is trying to scale up the potential impact of Fab Labs. I’m not referring to turning Fab Labs into micro factories, but Fab Labs being the catalysts for this transition to a new productive model and then support the development of the technology, the mindset in order to adopt this local production, keep the materials circulating locally because they’re heavy, they’re expensive to move and then keep the data flowing globally, which is the designs, the knowledge and the instructions on how things work.
Raphael Haus: You are talking about a whole new way you said. I think often, even for me it was kind of a mindset shift. I had to learn the principles and I think it’s sometimes very different from what you see in the traditional production industry. Can you make that a bit clearer? What is the the core difference?
Tomas Diez: It has many implications, right? The current production or industrial paradigm is based, first of all, on the scarcity of certain supply chains. It’s having access to a supply chain that is special, mysterious, dangerous, it is complicated to extract some minerals, some materials. Tantalum is more difficult to extract than copper. So far today. But it’s basically this extractive mindset. It also needs to be connected with the limited access to the means of production in the hands of industry or the consumerism paradigm that is relying on cheap labor that is associated with these centralized production places.
Within this paradigm, we need to move a lot of things and the raw materials to turn them into products, then turn and ship them to where they’re going to be consumed. So for that you need cheap oil, right? And then in order to keep cheap oil going, you need a certain political system to control these resources. So if you follow where the main materials of the world come to play, the industries, the industries itself and the energy that is fueling all of this, you will find a cycle of recurring antidemocratic regimes like running these resources. So it’s a industrial paradigm that, in my opinion, is linear and extractive. But also it relies on a model in which there is control and an accumulation of the power in a few people.
When we talk about this new paradigm of production, it has huge implications because we’re saying production capability doesn’t need to be exclusive or limited or very special. It can actually be shared with everyone, so we can have the knowledge on how to make the machines that make the infrastructure in order to supply people what they need. It can be open. We can have the open designs of urban farms that can help us to produce food more efficiently, consuming less water, buying less amount of land, for instance. Or we can share the instructions of how hydrogen cells are made, that doesn’t have to be a secret of the industry protected by a legal team in order to maximise the expectations of that. So we’re really saying we have open knowledge, we have open networks, there is access to open hardware tools. What if this is the way to go to a new productive model that first of all creates less compromises with the natural resources that we consume? It creates better relationships between people, which is not relationships of exploitation and and still allow us to find another purpose to live. Which is kind of leaving this endless machine, feeling like a hamster and trying to feed someone else, accumulation need.
It is actually you being the master of your own destiny in some way, or people or communities, not depending on where you are. So I think that’s what a vision of a productive society can bring. We call it Fab City because a brand helps to articulate it, and it kind of combines the history: you start from the Fab Labs, from the fabrication production technologies that can transform the way we live in cities where most of the people live right now in the world.
Raphael Haus: So a friend of us, Andrew Lam from Internet of Production Alliance, said: We want to go from mass production to production of the masses. Is that something you are also referring to?
Tomas Diez: I don’t share that approach too much. I don’t think that maker spaces are production spaces. The way that we are articulating this within the Fab City ecosystem is, first of all, this is not just about production. Give the machines to people like crazy and everybody is a maker. That’s not true. I believe that that’s not going to happen. What I believe strongly is that we have two starting points that we need to keep in consideration. One is science and technology. We cannot disregard all the advances that we have made in science. It can really help us to live better in this world. And right now what we’re seeing is that science is working in some cases only for economic reasons or financial purposes. So we need to remember that science is here to help us live better. The other fundamental root of everything what we’re doing is life, right? It’s how science can support the life on this planet, which at the end of the day is what gives us a great habitat to live, great nutrients to eat, which leads us to better health. It’s very simple. It’s using science to nurture life, which at the end of the day creates a better experience in the 80 or 100 years that you are alive. It’s very simple. So I would root this in science and life. And you know, life includes also lives in a very broad sense.
It’s not only technology that we need, we also need a cultural knowledge and how that cultural knowledge, especially from ancestral people, can connect us to life in in different ways. So this marriage is super important. Start from that. And then I believe that not everyone needs to make. I think we need to change to live a regenerative life. Now you can be a consumer. But imagine that if the materials you actually consume capture carbon in the life cycle. They add nutrients to the soil, they capture microplastics in the ocean and take them away from our food chain, for instance, so that you have shoes made out of an entire new material. That when you actually throw them in your garden, they really become compost, and then you can grow lettuce or whatever that you want to eat. I was talking the other day with someone with a very capitalistic mindset. He said, you know what, in the US people like to buy hats in the baseball games. We need to make hats in the Fab Labs. Well, no, it’s not really like that. But actually, if you find a business opportunity, yes, let’s make a business, with prototyping something that can go to industry, right? But I still believe that we need the industry. So we’re not replacing the industry. We are evolving the industry.
But instead of being made out of material that never degrades it is actually a carbon capture hat. Imagine if we have so many people buying hats in baseball games. Each of them is capturing some carbon if you wear the hat. Now it has a lifecycle of six months, the industry wants to keep you consuming, right? But then the problem is that if things are made to last how can industry keep people consuming in this cycle of consumption? Look how contradictory it sounds. In every cycle of consumption, we are capturing plastics, carbon pollution from all our natural ecosystems. So this is a whole new approach to regeneration of the planet that I believe is not just about make, make, make. It’s about thinking holistically of the implications of a distributed model of production.
Raphael Haus: Then you’re really thinking of the way we design, thinking circular, coming from Fab Labs where we have a space of innovation and trying to use that to evolve industry with that.
Tomas Diez: Yeah.
Raphael Haus: Sounds fascinating.
Tomas Diez: Yeah. And you know, we did this exercise with IKEA, right? And we told them – that was the Made Again Challenge in Barcelona in 2015 or 2016 –, we told them, look, we want to prototype what could be the future model of IKEA. IKEA has democratized the assembly line, right? It’s not democratizing design. It’s democratizing the assembly line. So basically, IKEA made you be part of their assembly line. You became part of the last step of the industry of IKEA. They have warehouses outside the cities where you pick up the flatpack furniture and then you spend time in your house, which is valuable on assembling the furniture of IKEA. So you are working on the assembly line, like the fourth assembler in the early ages of the current industrial paradigm. But then we were saying, what if you can evolve all this?
Instead of having warehouses outside the city, you have clean factories inside the city, they manufacture on demand products that are co-designed by your consumers, and they only use local materials. It means you have smart factories on demand that are producing things that people are needing. And then you can keep that going, right? Then you have the materials that maybe come back. So a sofa, it goes to someone who wants to change it and then it goes back to the material library at the local level. Then it is taken into a part because its design is modular, and you can make use of one part to make a future chair. You can then take one of the fabrics and dissolve it into some kind of new nutrient, and then you use it to grow food in in the restaurant across the street.
So we were saying this is the production paradigm that we imagine for the future of IKEA. So they still have access to infrastructure, they manage it, but the relationship with the customer is a bit different. The customer ends up being like the co-designer and the co-founder. You can make fabrication optional. You know, you can say we can design for you, we can make for you, but if you want, you can customize it and you can even be part of a production process. I mean, that’s the kind of future I start to imagine.
Raphael Haus: So that’s the way we use the word prosumer, that is someone producing and kind of consuming?
Tomas Diez: And production doesn’t only mean a hammering, it means also you can customize things. Even the car industry is allowing customers to customize things. And Nike shoes is one of a clear examples.
Raphael Haus:* Let’s switch a bit more to the boring topic of infrastructure, because in Hamburg we were thinking a lot about infrastructure, a digital infrastructure. You came up with this idea of global flowing bits and local circulating atoms. We want to make sure that this global flowing bits work as best as possible. The other day I talked to your colleague Kate, and something stuck in my head, that was: we are not doing platforms. So I think you’re experience something and you also have an idea behind it or a strategy. And it also has to do with the many cultures so that you don’t want to say: we know how a platform works, we bring in the platform and the whole world needs to work in that structure. But we haven’t been able to talk to everyone and we haven’t been able to understand cultures in different regions of the world. Is that the case?
Tomas Diez: Actually, I think the physical infrastructure is such a big part of this. If you think about the infrastructure, it has been an infrastructure to move atoms. Right? We have the aerospace industry that advanced very rapidly. The automotive industry, one of the most advanced in the 20th century. Big investment from governments in building railways, airports, ports, advancements of marine shipping. Building a bigger canal in Panama, in Nicaragua, for instance. It’s tried to move more things more rapidly. I believe that the 21st century infrastructure needs to actually go in a different, completely different direction, that is flexible factories, it is material digesters at the city scale, it is energy production at the local scale, it is food production at the local scale. This asset, the infrastructure in which big government can invest needs to go hand by hand with a digital infrastructure that supports the movement of bits. And that is where I believe that we have a lot of limitations at the moment.
I’ve been involved in the development of digital platforms, to allow people to connect with each other. Like fablabs.io I co-founded with John Reis, an amazing programmer from the UK. We very naively thought that this can become the platform of the Fab Labs for projects. People talk to each other and projects are documented. People talk to each other and they will accelerate the Fab Lab evolution. It did it in some way because it allows us to be registered, recognised by each other. People started to talk in the forum. The project documentation didn’t work as expected and then the whole platform idea like one platform rules them all started to be like kind of obsolete. What I see then is that there are many other platforms that are doing a fantastic job within their own communities on either helping designers to serve their products in a whole digital way. Either connecting designers with local manufacturers, mapping manufacturing capacity of a region like networks, etc., and also like a project documentation project, or design online. So I believe that the role of the Fab City Foundation in the Fab City Global Initiative in relation to this doesn’t need to be like: let’s try to own everyone. That we are the platform to do all of these.
Instead of that, I’ve been pushing more for the fab chain idea. The fab chain idea is using the potential of blockchain technologies that goes beyond creating crypto assets and creating more speculation, but actually it’s about helping a new governance model, trusted certification, a kind of orchestration of cooperation at scale that I believe can bring together and connect all these platforms under very, very clear rules of engagement in which no platform is taking the other one – I believe many of the platforms are having that mindset. That’s really not healthy. It’s toxic, but actually creating the rules of engagement for doing our purpose right and knowing that if you are participating into this platform ecosystem, you know what you are giving and what you are getting somehow or at least what are the rules that define that.
So my advocacy in relationship to platforms is not creating more platforms, but helping platforms to being connected and being aligned. That, again, gives more economic opportunity for each of these platforms, that mobilizes us on a totally different scale. I’m kind of 99.9% sure there won’t be the one platform which would be a very digital capitalism mindset. It’s interesting to see all these people reaching for open production and distributed manufacturing and collaboration, and they’re trying to be the market owners of a platform ecosystem – and that’s toxic. We should really be careful about preaching this and supporting these efforts. Our declaration of intentions is what we want to do with working with you and other people in developing this platform ecosystem and create a clear message to the world what we want to do with our digital infrastructure.
Raphael Haus: This is very interesting, this declaration of intentions. So we can find people in specific focus areas and hook them on. And then we have people on the blockchain level or the community level, on the economic model level. And all these people with the same intentions can connect. That’s awesome.
Tomas Diez: I’ve already gone through a few of them, like the British plastics community which has not only documented machines but also a bazaar. They have a marketplace now and you have the services of each of the precious plastic nodes. I met this platform in Barcelona and in the south of Spain. It’s called Faberin (https://faberin.es/). They do two things: They connect designers to a marketplace for designers similar to Etsy, with craft oriented, very unique designers, young designers, and they connect them to customers and they connect them with manufacturers. Regionalized manufacturing, that’s fascinating. And they want to make money. It’s perfect. And I think they still play a role in this platform ecosystem.
There are other platforms that are working on the product documentation, Thingiverse or Hackaday have an immense amount of people documenting and publishing projects. I’m sure that people would like to see at least their efforts being recognized when someone else downloads a copy. One of the secret designs that is applied to something else becomes a product, made to create this kind of a chain of value distribution when there are these added contributions to projects that already exist. Fablabs.io is a platform that helps you to connect with the specific nodes of production where you identify people with the skills and bring it also to the mix. A designer needs to prototype something with someone in the Fab lab. In the fab lab you can do the prototype. Then with make works you have access to the manufacturing capacity at the regional level and then you sell it on Faberin.
This kind of things are micro transactions between platforms that we can program, we can definitely embed. First of all, we can declare the values that we want to embed in this kind of transactional approach to collaboration. But it’s not like a 100% altruistic collaboration. It’s yes, I want to collaborate and share this purpose, but I want to make money. And that’s totally valid, that we should incentivize people. We need to create economies because if we share the same purpose with them and they’re doing well, if their business grows, then they’re going to be attracting more people that are like-minded and it will be demonstrated that these alternative models of production are viable and can generate wealth.
Raphael Haus: What about this commons-oriented nature of cities?
Tomas Diez: I understand people that come from a more theoretical background, like the commons approach of Elinor Ostrom, and recognize our common goal. I believe that one of the things that we should learn is that you cannot put ideology on top of practicality. I think that’s something that we tend to do, especially in the European context. I can say it’s like a decent ideological layer, this moralistic approach, certain things that sometimes stop delays, it slows down innovation. And I think that there are ways of not being sacrificed by a theory or a certain set of values, that values need to evolve. Society keeps evolving. We cannot really anchor ourselves in one way of doing things. What we have learned also is that hybridization brings a lot of benefits.
So it would be a commons capitalism, you know what I mean? Like it can be a profitable commons. You know how the profit is distributed. I understand that within the model, and it sounds great in theory. But when you go into practice, we need to recognize that we are negotiating with a world that exists. And you cannot say: no, because I’m the good person, I read a lot about this, I know the truth, you all need to change to this – and if you don’t change, you are my enemy. I think that we need to accept that this is a constant negotiation, especially in transition moments that are full of paradoxes. We’re recording an iPhone, right? And I’m wearing Nike’s, I don’t know. But if we put ourselves into these fixed ideologies I don’t think it will help to advance. We need to be flexible without compromising on real values and real ethical principles. And our purpose, first of all, the purpose.
Raphael Haus: I talked to Thomas from Jogl.io which is a giant lab. He said it’s all about impact. So you want to have impact. You don’t want to have ideologies.
Tomas Diez: It ends up with something that’s been said yesterday in the innovation panel. However it works at the end of the day, it is not: let’s kill the orangutans in Borneo, of course there are some principles. I was talking about the fundamental principles of life preservation. In order to get there, it’s not going to happen from one day to another. And people’s mindsets don’t change from one day to another. I also learned in this event that it is very new to this context in Indonesia and in Bali. It was very difficult to explain what’s going to happen. But I was sure that the moment that people entered and saw what’s happening, they would finally understand. Like, why you didn’t tell me?! But this is what I’ve been telling you for the last six months.
So we need to put ourselves also in demonstrating. If you want, you have a theory that works and you want people to know about it and you want to prove that it works. Build it and make other people experience it. And that’s the way to convince others, not trying to control their behaviour based on what someone else says their behaviour should be. I think that’s a good example. We need this kind of spaces, it could be an event, an educational programme in which we create the environment, in which we start to experience ourselves and get the idea of how this thing works. That there’s a very important role of prototyping, prototyping at neighbourhoods, prototyping in small communities. These new models of production can give very, very good insights.
Raphael Haus: I have a last question, which is: what makes the Fab Network qualified for being a leader in this transition?
Tomas Diez: I never saw the Fab Network as a leader of this transition. I see it as a catalyst and an enabler. Again, I like what is happening because it’s not something where I just need to sit down on my desk in a forest and write it down and create the most complicated theory in the most complicated language – to pretend that I am very sophisticated and advanced and nobody understands what the world is going to become. As many big thinkers have done in the past. I’m just saying, what fascinates me about what is happening is that I’ve seen this thing growing.
When we opened Fab Lab Barcelona in 2007, it was Fab Lab number ten in the world. Now there are 2500 Fab Labs. I did the Fab Academy Alpha version, being a student of Neil [Gershenfeld] from Barcelona, taking the MIT class how to make almost anything. I went through this process and the understanding that I experienced myself is the importance of being exposed to an environment in which you can make things and you can have access to other people that know how to make things. And you teach them, they teach you and you learn from the environment as you learn from a book, from a tutorial that you follow in YouTube, creating this experience, right? So I see this being creative, being growing. I see every favela as an opportunity for this learning experience to happen.
And now I see even more potential of trying to expand it and to not limit it to the lab, but to take it out of the lab and to make it happen in neighborhoods or communities. It’s more a community scale on which you have the lab or other projects working together on this. Let’s deal with the waste at the local level. What we can do is deal with certain food supply chains. Let’s identify how we do with our materials that we need. As I say that, I’m talking about a few thousand people and then I see the lab can start to activate this process, but then it’s going to to grow so big that it’s going beyond the labs. The success of all of this is linked with our disappearance. That means that when we don’t need Fab Labs in the world no longer, then it’s because the vision has been accomplished.
Like you don’t have to look for Internet cafes, right? Internet cafes, that was 25, 30 years ago. How many are left? You know, they were in the world. Very few Internet cafes. And now the Internet is everywhere. Similarly, I believe that the disappearance of Fab Labs is the success of a change of paradigm to a new production, a productive society, and therefore the disappearance of Fab City itself. You know, we exist only because we have to exist, but we are not working on making our existence perpetual. It’s more like we are working on our own disappearance. Hopefully before 2054.
Raphael Haus: Thank you very much. Tomas Diez: Thanks so much.