What are Fab Labs, anyway?

If you read this previous post, you’ll know I was in Norway last month at the Lyngen Fab Lab. It was a valuable visit because there I got to know much more about the origins of the whole Fab Lab philosophy and intentions. Of course, the MIT Fab Lab network is informal and organic, so each Lab is unique in its operations, users and stakeholders, funders and revenue model, and goals and objectives. Still — there are certain things that differentiate Fab Labs from other maker spaces, access spaces, prototyping businesses, incubators and various innovation labs.

So what is a Fab Lab?
Let’s start with what it is *not* and dispel some myths.
1.  A collection of 3D printers that people can play with to make useless stuff.
2.  A place where you can make your company’s products for free.
3.  An Arduino breeding ground.
4.  A secret dungeon of specialized technological knowledge and spooky experiments.
5.  An extension of a university’s or school’s wood workshop.
6.  A model that is widely acknowledged and respected as an innovation platform.

Norwegians are so friendly! A morning visitor greets me...

What is Fab Lab Norway, then?
1.  A place where people can come and prototype products for their small business. Make one for free. Make two? Then we start to discuss the price. But we’ll help you the whole way.
2.  A place where students — from school pupils to working professionals seeking further education — can come and learn, either through the video conferencing system connected to learning channels further afield or directly through contact with the Lab’s equipment and projects.
3.  A place where people who are un- or underemployed can strengthen their confidence by fostering their manual and material skills, their technical knowhow and their social and mental capabilities.

Actually, Haakon would interrupt me here and say that it is not the PLACE — it is the PEOPLE.
And he’s both right and wrong, in my view. So it is also…

4.  A collection of PEOPLE who are profoundly connected to their local community (here, teachers, administrators, farmers, tourism operators, etc. etc.) as well as the Fab Lab community internationally, but it is also …
5.  A PLACE that is intimately connected to this soil here and now. Fab Lab Norway promotes understanding of this region’s ancient Iron Age history while at the same time looks to the future and contributes to a regional development vision process. This vision is now about to be implemented: Lyngen as an attractive nature and adventure eco-tourism destination at all times of the year: the “Arctic Alps”.

the beauty of Lyngen in the autumn

And finally
6.  A place and a community that is still struggling with its financing model, which should not conflict with the mission to remain FREE and OPEN; that creates valid scientific knowledge and develops feasible technical inventions for localized needs that are often not recognized as such by authorities; and that provides a platform for truly bottom-up innovation that is also not recognized because it does not fit into any existing innovation policy categories.

Fab Lab Norway
The Fab Lab Norway building, Lyngen

MIT-Fab Lab Norway is a fascinating case study in itself because of its unique conditions and context. This type of Lab — based in a tiny community and with a Director that was already widely connected internationally and deeply connected with his own hometown — has certain advantages right from the start.

But how about a city-based Lab? And a university-based Lab like Aalto Fab Lab? What lessons can we learn in Helsinki?

A city Fab Lab can also play an important social role, sparking off small businesses, bringing learning opportunities to the young and the old, and even bringing neighbours together. But maybe it needs to build these bridges more consciously and strategically. Then again — maybe I’m making the classic mistake of differentiating rural and urban and the challenges are more similar than I think.

Aalto Fab Lab’s Open Days have just begun, so it’s too early to draw any conclusions about user communities or grassroots innovation. Even the Aalto community itself is only now discovering what the Lab is about.
Hey — you didn’t know about the Open Days? Every Tuesday from 12 to 18, in Media Factory in Aalto ARTS Arabia. Come and see for yourself!