The mass distribution of everything
If agriculture once transformed dramatically the way in which humans inhabited the planet, now the monoculture of money is threatening life itself. Our economy assumes that we have a limitless planet at our disposal, so that we can focus on one single objective, no matter what: cultivating money - as much as we can. What makes the monoculture of money possible is, on the one hand, the control over the access to information (the Internet is being hijacked, in case you had not noticed) and, on the other hand, the concentration of the means for production: energy, agriculture and the objects/tools which allow humans to survive, and to better interact with their habitat. The management (hijacking) of physical assets and natural resources is organized through other abstractions, such as legal systems, economic laws and models backed by national governments and corporations. If we were to democratise the means of production and make them accessible to all, and if we were to own - and protect - our digital information, we would be challenging the very foundations of the current economic, political and social structures.
Purpose, meaning and ownership are keywords to keep in mind when talking about the future. The conversation is not really about VR, AI, AR, ML, robotics, quantum computers, automation or synthetic biology. What we must ask ourselves is: for whom and for what purpose are these technologies useful? Who decides what to do with them? And how much do we really know about them?
These are the questions that motivate individuals, communities and organisations to collaborate in proposing and building new ways to own and use technology, and to put it at the service of human beings and the planet, not merely in order to survive, but to coexist in harmony with our living systems. This is, at any rate, the aspiration. We want to invent the future, not so much to be able to predict it, but to make it more accessible, and to meet the main challenges of our times, which are mainly social and environmental. For more than ten years now we have been doing research on the role of technology in society at the Fab Lab network, and developing new programs and projects aimed at developing a new productive and economic model for society.
The first Fab Lab outside MIT was created, more than a decade ago, by Mel King at Boston’s South End Technology Center (SETC), in collaboration with MIT’s Center for Bits Atoms. Mel’s vision was to use the technology that the lab could offer to recover the life of a neighbourhood that had been suffering from racial segregation and economic deprivation for decades, to the benefit of the real estate market. Decades before that first lab in Boston, Jane Jacobs had warned about the negative consequences of mass urban development driven purely by economic principles in New York. She stood up against Robert Moses in one of the most famous clashes in the history of city planning, activism and sociology. Jacobs defended the idea that cities should be devised by its citizens, and that the tyranny of the car and the highways, the removal of community identities that had been built by several generations, the market dynamics and progress were killing the cities’ DNAs. Kids in Boston’s South End were the victims of the new urban model that is still driving city development today. The local community and Mel decided to take action by making technology accessible, so as to build the future of the neighbourhood kids who were being left behind because they did not fit into the “normal” educational system, and creating mechanisms to find alternatives to the jobs that black or Latino kids would usually expect. SETC has been operating for some 15 years now, offering Boston kids free workshops and advice to develop their creativity. Mel’s lab has inspired hundreds of labs around the world, where the social dimension of technology is key. We usually hear that Fab Labs are elitist, or too MIT-centric, or even just a place for nerds, but the world should know more about Mel King, the man who, for the last 50 years, has been organising Sunday brunches at his home, where people sing, discuss and debate community issues, or just get together to read poetry.
But can a Fab Lab help rebuild communities and attract new economic opportunities? Fab Lab Barcelona opened 10 years ago, the first Fab Lab in Europe, located at Barcelona’s Poblenou, a post-industrial neighbourhood with a strong manufacturing and radical union history that used to be known as the Catalan Manchester. There, the local community has been suffering the consequences of the deindustrialization process that hit almost every city during the last quarter of the 20th century, and the devastating economic crisis that has, among other things, jeopardised the 22@ urban renovation plan (developed by Barcelona’s city council to stimulate real estate investment in the area). The 2008 crisis reduced dramatically the options for capital investment in Barcelona, and the real estate market in Poblenou did not boom as expected, even though some university departments did in fact move in, as did a few large corporations that were able to resist the economic meltdown. Then, the neighbourhood began to receive new creative industries - such as design studios, small architecture and design schools, digital production businesses - which, together with art galleries and collectively occupied buildings, began to create a new neighbourhood identity, similar to Brooklyn’s, Wynwood’s, or Mitte’s, the corresponding gentrification-related issues included.
Poblenou is now becoming an ecosystem where different initiatives are giving it a new, unplanned identity which has emerged as a result of the economic crisis, but also as a result of the obsolescence of traditional planning. The neighbourhood has now a private-initiative association (Poblenou Urban District) which groups most of this creative industries, maintains a communication flow among its members, organises events and promotes the area’s potential to the city and beyond. At Poblenou, Fab Lab Barcelona and Fab City found the perfect context in which to settle and build on the future of technology and its potential impact on society. At Poblenou, the recently launched Maker District (as part of the Barcelona Digital Plan) is now looking to add a new layer to the existing dynamics of the neighbourhood.
The Maker District has been conceived as a collaborative and co-created process aiming at building, with the local community and a global network, the Fab City project’s vision, and creating an experimentation playground to design, make, test and iterate new forms of governance, trade and production at the local (neighbourhood) level, using advanced technologies to accelerate the process of making cities more resilient and inclusive. At the city scale, Fab Lab Barcelona is leading the development of the Fab Labs public network: it advises the city council on building the first infrastructure layer for the Fab City, as described in the project’s white paper. The newly named Ateneus de Fabricaciówill then have to choose between two operation models: a) being bureaucratised by the City Council machine, or b) becoming an avant-garde force for innovation in public policy matters. This is, for now, still an open question.
Beyond public intervention in the Barcelona innovation ecosystem, private initiatives have been flourishing and finding their way to create business opportunities in addition to the maker movement in both Barcelona and Catalonia through spaces such as Makers of Barcelona, TEB (very similar to the SETC model in Boston), Tinkerers Lab, Beach Lab, Green Fab Lab - to name but a few. These spaces make technology accessible to people in different ways, by connecting it with existing co-working activities, social action initiatives, or educational programs. There is an interesting model to explore, which we have been proposing to different public administrations, that of the public-private partnerships for the creation of new labs: instead of having the city council trying to concentrate innovation and spending millions of Euros in new buildings, less than 30% of that investment could be directed to private initiatives already happening in the city. These initiatives, in exchange, would offer open school programs and free educational workshops and address unemployment by teaching new skills.
Public and private investment in new digital production technologies in Barcelona is acquiring a larger dimension with the emergence of the 4.0 Industry, which aims to digitise large-scale manufacturing processes. The 4.0 Industry has been wrongly narrowed down to the Internet of Things and 3D printing, which are some of the emergent technologies that will complement manufacturing processes. The new industrialisation of cities must look beyond the techno-centric view and invest in bringing technology closer to people. At the same time, industries should abandon the traditional, extractive model economic approach which makes them “takers” instead of “enablers”, in order to keep being relevant in a context of distributed production. On the other hand, the public sector might want to experiment with less-controlled models for nurturing new business, employment and innovation forms, without having to spend millions in infrastructure, competing with private initiatives. In this sense, the Catalan government is launching the CatLabs initiative as a way to create mechanisms enabling the creation of a larger ecosystem in the territory, and understanding the “lab” idea as a permanent way of operating. In our constantly changing world, innovation is not an option: it is a necessity - to keep on improving on the way we do things and having a role to play in the fluid economics context.
Barcelona has a unique ecosystem that can be used as a prototype for new forms of production in cities, something that is also currently happening in Paris, Santiago, Amsterdam, Shenzhen or Detroit, or in countries like Bhutan and Georgia - all of them places where the Fab City has been adopted and replicated with a local flavour, and is at the same time networked as part of a global community for building a new productive and economic model for the future. With the emergence of new forms of politics in the context of the so-called liquid democracy, we could just be at an interesting turning point for traditional governance in cities which are used to having a strong public presence in almost every sector, only challenged by central governments or large corporations. In a new iteration of democracy, participation should not be merely about giving an opinion or delegating power to elected representatives, but about co-creating and co-building neighbourhoods and cities. The risk here is that, at high-level power struggles (city, region, country, corporations), the other actors (citizens, communities, small businesses) be left to navigate in uncertain waters and ever-changing rules of the game, and the personalisation of power. Without institutional infrastructures enabling new productive city models, we are in danger of repeating the same mistakes the existing extractive, market driven economy has made. But we have the opportunity to test new forms of governance, with all the actors, in a fair and transparent way, using the technologies that can make the transition to a new economy possible – the transition to the mass distribution of everything (including democracy, participation, responsibility and governance).
Tomás Díez is a Venezuelan city planner specialised in digital production and its implications for the future of cities and society. A founding member of the Fab Lab Barcelona at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC), he currently manages the Fab City Research Laboratory and the Fab Foundation European project and several projects with the global network of Fab Labs. He is also a tutor in Product Design at the London Royal College of Arts, where he co-directs the Exploring Emergent Futures platform, and was singled out by The Guardian and Nesta as one of the top 10 digital social innovators in 2013.