How is innovation fostering the communities of the future.

FabLabs appeared around the year 2000 as units of production at a local scale with the aim of empowering communities through technology at a grass-roots level. Sixteen years later they have become key in the development of cities and are spaces that promote social inclusion. Within the context of ColaborAmerica, we interviewed Geraldine de Bastion, an expert on information and communication technology and promoter of the social innovators network Global Innovation Gathering, who explained some of the main benefits these new innovation labs carry with them.

From a very humanistic point of view women and men have always wanted to make, to create. This is embedded in human nature”.

-Geraldine de Bastion

Fablabs, makerspaces, hackerspaces and anything that can be seen as an ‘Innovation Lab’ are playgrounds for curious people. Equipped with high-tech machines and professionals, they allow us to unleash our inner child and be creative. But the goal of these places is not just to play. They are spaces that empower citizens to build meaningful and value-oriented solutions to current problems and promote social political and economic inclusion.

Innovation as a global right

Innovation Labs empower citizens to co-create by putting two types of resources at people’s service. One is high-tech machines that allow people to create human-centered solutions for the city such as 3D printers and scans or laser cuts. The other is open knowledge that can be found on online platforms such as Fab Foundation or Thingiverse. The worldwide increase in Innovation Labs since 2006, proves that these spaces are responding to a real desire to experiment and produce more locally.

However, these spaces aren’t exclusive to developed countries. There are amazing examples from cities less known for innovation such as the Woelab in Togo, West Africa. Once a year they host the HubCités Festival that connects locals and experts in the field in order to promote collective intelligence and develop solutions to real-life problems than can be manufactured in Fablabs. According to Geraldine, they “break down the topics to make sure that everybody in their community can really understand and comprehend the concept of smart city to make it relevant to them, and define what it does mean from a citizen’s perspective”.

W. Afate, creator of the 3D printer. Image courtesy of Woelab.

“Innovation Labs create links between two worlds, providing high-tech in resourceless environments”

Another example that shows how innovation solutions can come from the bottom-up and not only from experts in wealthy areas is an initiative in Kenya, where taxi drivers provide mobile chargers of every imaginable phone to customers. Geraldine explained how she sought to bring this concept to Europe, noting that “even if it’s a 20-minute ride, I found it great, so I proposed that to a taxi driver back in Berlin”.

#MakerKT is another project which tackles social issues in a lesser developed nation. Being presented at the first Humanitarian Maker Faire in Katmandú, Nepal, this initiative is about teaching girls how to live more independently, in the household, personal transportation, and in their interaction with the environment. The goal of “#MakerKT is to “spark a maker culture among Nepali women so that they are empowered by the awareness of their abilities” 

What these examples show is that at the end of the day, great initiatives come from citizens and, if they have access to facilities and equipment, it can unleash their power and potential.

Creating value across sectors

Economically speaking, Innovation Labs could also impact production and the creation of value. This has already been demonstrated in several sectors. In the art field, for example, initiatives such as the Indian Startup AuGrav, a textile artist called Francesca or the sculptor Gilles Azzaro are creating pieces impossible to make without machines: “If we can use this new tech to keep innovating and making sure that this craftsman can stay alive, I think it can be very powerful”, says Geraldine.

From Geraldine’s vision of technology, we are however merely at the beginning of the journey which will see the impact innovation labs can have in different sectors.

If you look at the area of mobility and transport, or health, or social interaction and communication, just to name three sectors, there are a lot of interesting projects coming out that really sort of relate to the everyday movement of people within their cities”. Moreover, she adds, “niche communities working in the field are responsible for reaching out and inviting other people to share our vision”.

According to Neil Gershenfeld, Director of the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, a good example of how we can make these spaces of innovation available for citizens at a grassroots level are Ateneus de Fabricació. These are spaces managed by Barcelona City Council and inspired by the FabLabs, which provide high-tech machines and knowledge, with the vision of empowering residents in order to increase opportunities.

“The challenge isn’t going to be the technical engineering, but the social engineering; to maintain the culture of the FabLab network and merge it with the power of public infrastructures.”

Building the identity of citizens

Innovation Labs also help construct citizen identity and create solidarity networks of social protection among citizens.

Examples here would be initiatives such as the Maker Woman Project, run by Trójmiasto Solidarity FabLab, or We make 2016, from the London FabLab. Both seek to empower women, in a sector that is still dominated by men, and in cultures where, as shown by the MakeHers report, becoming a ‘maker-woman’ is difficult since ‘making’ is considered inappropriate for women.

Picture of a workshop at the We Make 2016.

According to Gabriela Agustini, manager of the biggest Makerspace in Rio de Janeiro, “most of the makerspaces are not designed to welcome women and other groups, even if they are open to everyone. Our anthropocentric culture idealizes different positions in society for both men and women, and as women, we are not encouraged to follow science and tech careers.

At Olabi they hire females makers to lead workshops and programs and put a lot of effort in understanding women’s topics of interest to design programs connected to that, such as an arduino workshop for interactive clothes. Together with the Ford Foundation, they have been working for almost 3 years stimulating women to become producers of technology (and not just consumers). In March 2017, they are launching a platform called PretaLab to motivate more black women in the tech field.

The fact that we find female references in the social innovation tech field, such as Geraldine de Bastion or Gabriela Agustini, demonstrates an advancement towards gender equality in what was historically a man’s world.

Fostering the understanding of technology

Innovation Labs not only encourage citizens to use technology but to understand it. As technology has become increasingly complex in the past years, it is rather easy to lose track. Not so long ago, one could disassemble a radio transistor and discover the different pieces, now, even if we use far more sophisticated technology, we don’t always know how it works nor how to fix it. Innovation labs tackle this issue by teaching people how to create technological devices. Here they can assemble their own equipment and even personalize it.

The possibility to customize technology also presents opportunities to people with special needs and disabilities. The Open Hand Project, for example, is a crowdfunded project to make robotic prosthetic hands more accessible to amputees, costing around $1,000. The model is open-source and ready to be replicated in any space of digital fabrication.

We use technology, but we don’t know how it works,  nor which are the broken pieces to make it work when it does not function.

Innovation Labs also offer children an alternative type of education that aligns more with the 21st-century approaches to problem-solving. According to Yabed, director of the FabLab Esan in Peru, “there are certain abilities that children have to learn at school, such as reading or writing in different languages”, but educational programs don’t usually cover upcoming technologies relating to digital fabrication. This is where FabLabs and other innovation labs step in. With a “learning by doing” methodology, these communities offer programs like LittleBits, that makes robotics with a system very similar to Lego, or FabLab Kids, which strengthens critical, reflexive and analytical thinking through the construction of technology.

With great power comes great responsibility

Access to social networks also carries its responsibilities, especially regarding privacy and the public display of information. One must also remain critical of the use of these innovation spaces as places whose mission should be to create human-centered and thoughtful inventions that solve real problems. This is, however, something that is easily forgotten in western countries in particular, where you find people getting side-tracked and printing objects like 3d Yoda Heads for example.

Without a doubt, the evolution of Innovation Labs will have an effect on the development of cities and citizens. As Tomas Diez, manager of FabLab Barcelona, stated once in an interview for Open Electronics: “FabLabs are not about technology, they are about the big impact they are creating in people and communities”. Even if it is early to predict their impact, they have the potential to become inclusive hubs of knowledge and the place for communities to interact, learn and create together.


FabLabs are not about technology, they are about the big impact they are creating in people and communities”.

-Tomas Diez