Social innovation in action Part Two: Fab Labs

27 Nov 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 27 Nov 2015

Social innovation takes many forms. One of the most revolutionary is the Fab Lab movement which sets out to transform not just communities, but the entire manufacturing industry.

 There are now 565 across the globe on every continent save Antarctica with two in Northern Ireland, in Belfast and Derry.

Each laboratory is claimed to be able to manufacture “practically anything” and comes equipped with commercially available tools, including a laser cutter and milling machine to carve out two- and three-dimensional parts; a sign cutter for creating graphics or plotting flexible electronic circuits; and electronic assembly tools.

They are free to the public to use and share knowledge from the entire network of users.

This is making equipment and expertise that would be far beyond the reach of individuals, community groups and schools freely available. Now that the labs are in Northern Ireland it also allows people here to learn and build upon work already done by others across the globe.

Amateur inventors with only modest technical expertise can swap ideas with counterparts at other Fab Labs around the world by electronically sharing design blueprints or going to a Fab Lab website that offers project ideas.

The Fab Labs movement was started by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an off shoot of a popular class called “How to make (almost) anything.”  It was designed to provide the means to enable grassroots communities to design and build solutions to their needs which would otherwise cost far too much to fund. It is also an outrider for what many see as the coming transformation of manufacturing, where people can design and tailor their own products rather than buying them mass produced.

This is a truly radical concept which is already seeing some extraordinary results.  DIY manufacturing  allows even the smallest and most remote communities to develop extraordinary products that can transform their lives. And because learnings are shared, others can go on to develop them further.

Open-source software control the devices, machining parts to accuracies that once could be achieved only using equipment costing hundreds of thousands of pounds.

 A remarkable example of this occurred when a group of sheep herders in Northern Norway paved the way for a telecommunications breakthrough.

The herdsman used Fab Lab to design and develop a WiFi network to track their sheep in remote areas with radio antennas and electronic tags.

The idea was picked up by another Fab Lab in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, adapting the system so it would work effectively through heavy rain, smog and trees. It was therefore able to bring high speed internet to a village, hospital and university.

The system requires virtually no maintenance and is being continuously expanded to serve more people, with the kit required to extend it costing between just $50 and $105.It is therefore within the reach of communities rather than being owned and run by giant telecommunications companies.

The technology is now called FabFI and is also being used in Kenya and the USA

Fab Labs are also available for entrepreneurs to build prototypes of their inventions and are extensively used by schools, colleges and universities as a means of promoting innovation.

It is early days for the two labs in Northern Ireland but a highlight this year was a collaboration with the BBC called ‘Make it Digital’ where the power of digital fabrication was demonstrated by constructing a building live in a TV studio, a first for Northern Ireland.

Altogether this could represent social innovation on a global scale: you can share ideas with communities across the planet and, together, invent things that until now would have cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Fab Labs are based at the Ashton Centre in Belfast and the Nerve Centre in Derry.




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