“The Fab Lab program has strong connections with the technical outreach activities of a number of partner organizations, around the emerging possibility for ordinary people to not just learn about science and engineering but actually design machines and make measurements that are relevant to improving the quality of their lives.” [MIT Center for Bits and Atoms] Moreover, each Fab Lab is connected with others around the world, sharing ideas and experiences. Every Fab Lab user is required to document how they created products so that their inventions may be replicated anywhere around the world.
Yesterday afternoon, I visited the Fab Lab at Century College in Minnesota. A Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory) is a small-scale workshop with an array of computer controlled tools that cover several different length scales and various materials, and is the brainchild of MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld. The facility, faculty and institutional support for the initiative is amazing. Loaded with 3D printers, laser cutters, and other rapid prototyping and small-scale fabrication tools, allows uses to make “almost anything.”
My take on Fab Labs is that they provide school students and other members of the community with valuable expertise and resources to transform their creative ideas into tangible products … and, hopefully, meaningful outcomes and innovations. Since the Fab Labs blend social and fabrication technologies, I feel that school systems should consider either investing in the concept for every school, or collaborate actively with an institution that already has a Fab Lab.
Last November, I also had the privilege of visiting the Fab Lab hosted by the Waag Society in Amsterdam (the video in this link is worth watching). A couple of the key differences is that this Fab Lab is open to the public (at a cost), but is also integrated with the other services provided by the Waag Society (i.e., Creative Learning Lab, incubators) and its use is eligible for subsidization by the Dutch government through innovation grants.
An observation from my whirlwind tours of both facilities is that is the Minnesota-based Fab Lab seems to produce things that already exist, whereas the Dutch Fab Lab produces many new creations — things that have not existed yet. The question on my mind is, why is there a creativity gap? Is it a cultural phenomenon? Or, is it structural:
- Is it because our education system is no longer producing many creatives (focusing instead on creating functionaries)?
- Is it because the Dutch have access to a broader support system that draws creatives to the Fab Lab?
Or, is something else happening?