More on MIT-Fablab Norway

Last year I was blogging for Aalto University’s Living+ site (connected with the World Design Capital events), and I wrote this post on one of the first Fab Labs ever created, the one in Lyngen, Norway. (See this one too.)

Earlier this year a fellow Fab Lab researcher was also there, and she wrote about her experience and interview with Haakon here (in French).

I’d like to reproduce the text here in English; the translation is imperfect and stiff in places and may contain errors. I’ll correct them as I find them!

See the original site for nice photos as well as the links (I didn’t include the links in the translation):

and see more images here: under ‘juin 2013’

(extra note made on 2 Oct: Camille says the Strabic site is temporarily down but back up soon)


MIT FabLab Norway: where it all began

MIT FabLab Norway is one of the few FabLabs in the world to include the MIT acronym in its own name. Its birth in 2003 involves a motley evolution of a farm at the edge of the Lyngen Fjord, engaging leading researchers in engineering from Boston and local and rural development of artificial insemination techniques on sheep. Let’s return to the early hours of MIT FabLab Norway with Haakon Karlsen Jr., one of the pillars of the movement.

Above the Arctic Circle

Getting to MIT FabLab Norway requires a long journey from Oslo to Tromsø and finally Lyngen. It is a great, long chalet, on a large plot whose entrance is flanked by two flags: those of the region and the United States. It is surrounded by smaller buildings for accommodation. Each year about 600 people pass through the door of the FabLab.

When we arrive, around 21.oo, it’s raining lightly. We put our bags in the entrance of the FabLab, take off our raincoats and shoes, and meet Haakon Karlsen Jr., his wife Gunn and the little dog Junior. Two other women are in the kitchen and out of the oven has just come a huge plate of fish caught that morning in the fjord. Without further ado, we are asked to sit for dinner. Haakon is seated on one of the chairs designed specially by Jens Dyvik, a globe-trotting young designer who recently did a world tour of FabLabs doing projects here and there.

Haakon is a gentleman in his early sixties. He was born here and, after training as an engineer, spent his youth working with sheep insemination in the region of his family farm, which is located just down from the FabLab. He’s an unmissable figure in the region; he has also been successively a teacher and farmer. He owns several houses and land at the edge of the fjord. For ten years he’s been a pillar of the FabLab movement whose contours he’s contributed to drawing in collaboration with MIT.

The vast vault of the FabLab gives the effect of a strange chapel, in which we talk softly, silence is allowed, and the sound of the wind is heard blowing gently outside, where the light in summer never fades.

“The first FabLab in the world is here!”
Interview with Haakon Karlsen Jr

Strabic: Let’s go back a little before the creation of the FabLab. What determined your involvement in this project?

Haakon Karlsen Jr: It all started a little before the year 2000. There were many diseases and it was necessary to boost growth in some herds. In 1994, the Norwegian government was asked to establish a laboratory for artificial insemination of sheep, deer and goats. With some farmers and shepherds in the region, we got surprising success rates of up to 94% instead of the usual 10%. We quickly realized this was due to two farmers we were working with who knew their animals well and knew how to inseminate at the exact moment of ovulation. To succeed, it was necessary to know when the females were in heat. I suggested that we imagine for ourselves a technical tool to measure hormones.

It was the meeting point between a pragmatic necessity on the farm and your engineering skills …

Yes! We tried to detect different hormones to see what could be learned. We finally developed a small machine that captured the temperature and sent a message to warn the farmer about the time of ovulation. It was based on the female brain activity curves. Then we created a program to educate shepherds about the tool. Later, with farmers, we thought about a possible use for the rest of the year. So we put an accelerometer in our little machine to capture the movements of the sheep. To test this feature, we created a system that calls home after fifteen minutes of inactivity for the sheep, saying, “I’m dead”. We then put in a GPS, which allowed us to get the geographical coordinates of the sheep sent to the farmers. The Electronic Shepherd project was born as well: it helps locate flocks of sheep in the mountains to protect the animals from wolves or unstable ground.

The FabLab did not exist yet, but you had the electronic equipment?

We worked in the laboratory, on the farm. It had everything to do welding … That’s where we got the idea for the sheep phone. But it was difficult to get the signal from the mountains to the farms. We worked with Telenor (a Norwegian telecommunications company) for one year.

It was with this project through the National Science Foundation Grant that MIT spotted you …

There was an innovation competition launched by MIT globally to develop local projects. MIT sent some of its best teachers to Norway to find a suitable cooperation project. They found us through Telenor, who told them: “There is this crazy guy lost in the fjord who devised sensors for his animals ….” We enjoyed a great year of cooperation with MIT in 2001 and we were invited to Boston to present and develop this project …

Who was part of the project team?

Jurgen my son who works at the firm and myself. It was fantastic, but after years of collaboration we had to terminate the project. We had a discussion at MIT in Boston and we decided to do something to further enable this kind of adventure, something we would call … a FabLab. A Fabrication Laboratory. The decision was taken on 18 October 2002, I remember. We first decided to launch three FabLabs. One in Pune with a man named Kalbag, from Vigyan Ashram, south of Mumbai, and another in a poor neighborhood of Boston called South End Technology Center, with Mel King. And the third here in Norway.

What was the project, when you first spoke of what a FabLab could be?

At first we did not really know what we were doing. The definition at MIT was “rapid prototyping”. But since then, things have changed and other places are born with other definitions. In my opinion many FabLabs now exist that just have the name FabLab … My definition? “A global network of people who want to work together and share their knowledge.” That’s all.

Who was at the table when the word FabLab was spoken for the first time?

In my memory there was Gershenfeld, Kalbag, Mel King and me. Mel King is an old fellow who was a professor at MIT and Kalbag was an old Indian who had many projects in the community. He came into contact with MIT through links with the Indian government. A bit like here, he had created a local system for watering different plantations and was spotted by MIT. Melvin King is a very special man, who has been fighting for human rights. His FabLab has an interesting history. It was located in a very poor neighbourhood of Boston. Mel had pitched many tents in the city, he called it “Tent City”. After a few years of struggle, Mel King and his followers won the battle and built apartments for the poor, who still live there. This is a fantastic man who is 94 years old now.

Advancing in time gradually … How did the complete installation of MIT FabLab Norway come to be on this land?

In 2004, we built this house. All equipment came from Boston, free. Why here? Good question, ultimately. We must ask Gershenfeld or Sherry Lassiter. Initially, the Lab was down on the farm. I am not an architect, but I made all the plans. When the house was built, we installed all the machines here. Then MIT sent other machines and some students. Neil came, his wife, his twins, as well as Sherry Lassiter and Amy Sun. Engineers, researchers, who were there to install the machines with my son and me. It was great.

How long did it last, this first introduction? How did it go?

At first they stayed three weeks. And they came back several times. They then went elsewhere, to go to other places. They travelled a lot. Everywhere. But they always say: the Norwegian FabLab is really special. It was not only done for MIT students, it was a very big project, to see how we could change the world …

FabLab as a “community centre”

Haakon now believes his FabLab is more of a “community centre” than a place for prototyping: “It has even held a wedding celebration!” The layout of machines, tables and workstations in the main room of the chalet can be seen immediately. All technology is now on the periphery of the place, on the sides, along the walls. In the centre, a large meeting table and videoconferencing, a huge fireplace, several dining tables and chairs occupy the space. The open kitchen is itself important. Haakon jokes:
“When Neil Gershenfeld of MIT came to see the finished chalet and saw the kitchen, he told me that it was useless, that I had made a mistake, that it was not planned! The result proved that I was right. A FabLab is people, not just machines.”

Coffee, various teas, muesli, biscuits – and aquavit – are available. There are plenty of tables, some of which are there to accommodate any visitors who want to stay in the area for a few days to go hiking or other outdoor activities. The FabLab at the moment is a kind of lodging as well as a place for prototyping and manufacturing. This is precisely what guarantees a good part of its funding.

When FabLabs go green

Symptomatic of the state of friction between the rural and technological worlds, the huge digital milling machine is not in the main FabLab chalet: it was installed on the farm. It is hidden behind a door in a small shed at the back of a cluttered barn, from whose ceiling a wooden kayak is suspended.

In winter, when the sheep return, they rub against the milling machine in a great disorder. The milling machine does not give the impression of being used regularly. Access is difficult, the room is not arranged. Although Haakon does not confirm it directly to us, this machine is fairly representative of the level of daily activity in MIT FabLab Norway. It is mainly in the Boot Camps that are held or during the international workshop sessions that this place is really effervescent.

A video shows precisely what the FabLab is like in operation: one sees particularly Gershenfeld, perched on a mezzanine, slumped on a bench working with his computer on his stomach.

There is also Tomas Diez and Alex Schaub, from FabLab Barcelona and Amsterdam Waag FabLab respectively, isolated in this large wooden temple in the fjord and conducting several projects.

The rest of the time is definitely more like the days that we have experienced: the machines are stopped, Haakon is sometimes at home and sometimes in the FabLab at the computer, and people come to drink coffee, keep abreast of the status of the herds, or fix something.

In some respects, Haakon Karlsen’s story may seem far removed from MIT’s official version. At Fab9 – the large annual meeting of FabLabs held in Tokyo in late August – we were able to interview Sherry Lassiter about it: “Haakon is a great storyteller, what he says is not false but he surely has his own way of presenting things.” The FabLabs, in the narrative of their genealogy, appear as objects with multiple versions and multiple interpretations, in which the heroes are not necessarily the same …

Article written and interview conducted by Camille Bosqué.


One thought on “More on MIT-Fablab Norway

  1. Hi, David, thanks for the comment! I have heard about that space and it’s wonderful to hear about your experience. I also hope the Fab Lab network will start spreading these positive stories even more. -CK

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