I spent the last few weeks trying to study the current state of the FabLab movement, my goal was to get a deeper understanding of how all these small groups of people agree on building a FabLab, how they organize it and the resources used to get it done.
I learnt few interesting facts that I think might be useful to my project and to those seeking similar goals.
First of all I understood that while the maker movement preaches openness and transparency, very little information is shared about the FabLabs. Even finding one’s location is hard, not talking about information, about organization, funding and rules regulating them.
I think this creates a void, where people wanting to replicate this experience locally, must reinvent the wheel, wasting precious experience which instead should be summarized and made public.
One interesting fact is most FabLabs, at least at the current time, don’t have a fixed location, open to the public at fixed times. They are just groups of people, often kept together as non-profit associations.
These liquid organizations, while for sure composed by innovative and passionate makers, are mostly revolving around meetings, workshops and events where temporary, on spot labs are built with machines lensed by the single participants and self-owned.
I think that finding a physical space and having fixed opening hours makes a difference in transforming a group of hackers in something useful for the society. More about this in the next post.
I must also say that few of these organizations have serious communication problems. When asked about the availability of equipment for building a project, through social networks pages and email, they didn’t even bother to answer.
Maybe the fact that I’m not the “usual” tinkerer, but an IT entrepreneur in his late thirties and a white beard, scared them.
Cryptic websites, not very well organized or mobile friendly also don’t help to spread the message.
Well organized FabLabs
But luckily, several others did respond and where very helpful: I’m pretty sure very skilled and friendly people work in those organizations, and they understand that people and communication skills come first in this kind of projects.
The ones with an actual location for the FabLab are an interesting starting point for my research. They own or most probably have built the machines offered to the public.
They offer a Tutor for those using the machines for the first time, this helps a lot people not familiar with machines and open-hardware technologies. Even if collecting this “expert knowledge” into publicly accessible guides and screencast could be an additional improvement and let people prepare themselves before getting to the lab.
About sustainability, some of them have credit based systems, useful for rewarding tutors helping others and to “meter” resource usage in a well organized fashion. The organization itself is often modeled much after a Collective, the ones I was used to see among university students sharing study spaces and political movements.
Access to more information
I wasn’t able to gather much information about funding sources, but understood that association entry fees, workshop revenue and usage credits bought to use machines are a quite widespread model.
Much more information, in my opinion, can be only discovered directly interviewing the founders, and participating to the activities organized by each. This is one of the next steps of my research.
While I would love to be able to visit every FabLab in the world, it’s impossible to do for me at the current time for resource constraints. A new organization is popping out every day, and the movement is really spread around the world.
The FabLab directory and Online survey
For this reason I’m thinking to build a FabLab directory, where it would be possible to gather info about founders, addresses, facilities and rules of labs worldwide.
One way to build the directory would be conducting a proper online survey, also focused on the offered tools, machines, organization, logistic, learning and newbie support, and how or if the FabLabs achieve sustainability in the long run.
But I’m afraid of the lack of substantial feedback.
Why? I’m not really into the movement yet, and probably reputation matters a lot in the movement. Is this acceptable? Is there any point I’m missing about the organization and resources? I’m going to ask to the Arduino founders and other well-connected makers about support in this process. And maybe also try to conduct a similar survey on makers, possibly at the October Maker Faire event in Rome.
I’d love to hear the opinion of any people involved in fablabs reading this! Please comment or write me directly.
UPDATE: 2013/07/12 @lionzan kindly pointed out that a directory already exists at the (FabWiki)[http://wiki.fablab.is/wiki/Portal:Labs], I’m pretty sure that many FabLabs are not there (i.e. the Pisa one). Furthermore the information I would like to collect goes much more into detail. For sure this is a great starting point. Thanks Leonardo!.