When I tell people I’m researching environmental issues in Fab Labs, there is often a mysterious response: “are you being ironic?” Um, no… why?
I’m not sure I understand this reaction. Is it because people see Fab Labs as just obsessed with gadgets, technology driven, focused only on pumping out plastic Yodas and weird electronic contrivances? Well, that is certainly a visible part of makerspaces, and we’d be right to start examining what we are doing in Fab Labs and why. I know I’m not the only one who’d like to see a way to pop that plastic blob that didn’t work back into an extruder, make a new filament out of it, and feed it back into the printer. If I were a coder I’d come up with a solution that could scan a piece of ply or acrylic that has bits laser cut out of it – already while it is sitting in the laser cutter – and then help me plan a new cut so any small pieces I need can come from the parts that will otherwise go to waste. Maybe this already exists somewhere.
But back to my question: what are you comparing, exactly, if it becomes “ironic” to talk about environmentally-conscious making, especially considering the extreme low volumes of material flow in and out of makerspaces? So desktop 3D printers tend to produce a lot of plastic waste, but does focusing on that allow us to ignore the amount of crap that gathers dust on shelves in discount stores, “dollar stores”, or “pound-saver” or “euro-saver” shops? Or consumer products that end up in landfill – whether it is post-consumer waste or pre-consumer waste that never even gets to the shops? What if the comparison is rather the choice between experimenting with fabrication in a makerspace and spending all day in a shopping mall / shopping centre (to which you drove in your private car, of course)? Or doing a workshop in a Fab Lab where you learn to make your own mobile phone, maybe instead of buying a new one? These comparisons are not entirely fair either, but sometimes I get the impression that some believe makerspaces will take people away from making things with their hands. 3D printing is wasteful because people will just go crazy and print out all kinds of plastic rubbish in some experimental frenzy, just because they can – instead of what – their usual routine of sitting by the fire and carving their own cutlery? Yeah, right. I do still contend that the enemy of DIY and handcraft is not digital fabrication but rather the anonymity and cheap prices of mass produced products – and that has been the case for more than one hundred years. Know thine enemy.
So isn’t the route to happiness for all our camps to support handcraft and DIY via makerspaces as an alternative to consumerism and shopping? And to promote craft and artisan skills in the makerspace alongside the digital fabrication skills? This is already happening, partly via the repair movement, which I will get to in a minute. But before I do, let’s get back to this question of irony, attitudes to environmental sustainability, and makers’ and designers’ motivations.
A rather similar topic is “Sustainable Fashion”, which a lot of my colleagues are active in. They also have to always justify this expression and nod their heads: “Oh, yes, yes, what an oxymoron, ‘sustainable’ and ‘fashion’ just don’t go together, yes, yes.” Meanwhile, they have a more accurate and profound understanding of the term ‘fashion’ and its role as a cultural and social phenomenon – which differs from our understanding of ‘fad’. And they know their enemy is “fast fashion” in particular and not the entirety of the thousands of years of human history related to how we chose to clothe ourselves, represent our identities, our cultures, our social class in apparel.
Let’s continue and imagine that our knee-jerk reaction is still to assume that ‘fashion’ just means trendy, faddish, short-term clothes buying and disposal. Clearly unsustainable, right? Well – doesn’t that make it even more important that we figure out how to make it more sustainable? If it is an oxymoron, or an ironic statement, why does it mean something not worth doing?
If Fab Labs are just techy playgrounds and a breeding ground for 3D printers and their reckless offspring, and considering how fast makerspaces are spreading, the DIY and maker movement getting more media attention, and how quickly digital fabrication technologies are developing, shouldn’t we study the environmental issues in making sooner rather than later?
I follow quite a few of the usual maker suspects on Twitter, and particularly the commercial entities’ tweets tend to confirm that tech driven image of the maker movement. The incessant focus on 3D printing in the mass media doesn’t help. What is easily forgotten, though, is why people get into making in the first place: it is often because they are seeking an alternative to mass production and consumerism – and often this is intertwined with environmental consciousness. Click on this link and see how the P2P Foundation defines the Maker Movement. See? Did that surprise you? Did you know that it is “about reusing and repairing objects, rather than discarding them to buy more”? And now do you understand why I find it puzzling that “environment” and “Fab Lab” should be seen as an oxymoron? A Fab Lab might not precisely be “a philosophical idea about what ownership really is”, but it is definitely about giving people the means of developing – and understanding – their own tech rather than just giving them tech. (See Gershenfeld’s book Fab.)
This ethos of the maker movement seems easily lost in the hullabaloo around additive manufacturing, so some writers do feel the need to remind us:
We Need a Fixer (Not Just a Maker) Movement, in Wired
Design for repair: empowering consumers to fix the future, in The Guardian
When recycling is the second-best option, on BBC.
Repair events are spreading from space to space and city to city, and they are notable because they attract a much wider audience than just the hardcore makers and hackers. Protospace in Calgary offered repair events after the city’s big floods last year so people could salvage their electronics. (I’m looking forward to visiting Protospace next month.)
Helsinki’s Trashlab offers a repair event every month in collaboration with the city library, and this is also attracting larger and larger crowds and a lot of media attention. Today, in fact it will be on a consumer programme on TV (they were filming last week) – later available on Areena (in Finnish, viewable only in Finland). So far I have only had clothes to fix, something I could also do at home, but I bring them to Trashlab because it’s much more fun to darn socks when you can chat to friends. Such activity does not always need digital fabrication equipment but sometimes it might come in handy if one needs to make a spare part or component that is trickier to do by hand or has tolerances best met with digital help.
In Fixing therefore I argue we see all kinds of benefits and issues in the maker movement come together: the problems with consumer products and their planned obsolescence, the value of a shared makerspace where people can come together to socialize while learning something, and the advantages of combining digital fabrication capability with electronics knowledge with hand skills. Most importantly, this is how these heroes choose to spend their time. So what if it is quicker to just buy another replacement product? It is so much more rewarding for the fixer to help someone with their broken product, and test their own skills, and for the fixee to learn how something can be repaired and be able to keep what may be a treasured object. And I believe this time is the most valuable currency. It may even turn out to be insurance against the rebound effect in our quest to dematerialize our economies.