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Fab City: The global project that is developing a local future

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Long read

Georgina Wilson-Powell

15 January 2017

Imagine a future where your furnishings and clothes are made locally by artisans and makers who live on your street. Your food is grown a rooftop away and your energy is created by your immediate neighbours. For Fab City this hyper-local future is not a fantasy, it’s the way to make cities sustainable.

Locally productive, globally connected. Those two tenets are at the heart of the open source network that is Fab City. A collaboration between the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, the Fab Foundation and 12 cities (plus two countries and several regions), the Fab City vision is simple - for their members to be 50% sustainable by 2054. How they get there, that’s the fun part.

Let’s start with some simple numbers. By 2050 70% of us will live in a city. 75% of our carbon emissions come from urban areas. Our cities are getting bigger, the globalised world more complex as we’re increasingly trying to balance interests and factions that in the face of climate change don’t add up. Deep down we all know something fundamental has to change, but rather than this be a scary thing, Fab City are embracing the opportunity to redefine what it means to live and work in a metropolis.

Going circular

At the heart of Fab City’s vision is the idea that the global manufacturing network doesn't make sense, commercially or sustainably. It’s disrupted our relationship with how things are made and with how food is produced. Its idea for cities of the future is that they become local production hubs - manufacturing things, food and energy. The only commodity moving between them? Shared knowledge. Rather than imaginging the city as one large factory or Victorian-style mill town, residents would be encouraged to store energy through rooftop panels, tend and use integrated vertical gardens and have local libraries of things - which could be powered by digital fabrication and 3D printing. Think more a medieval system of artisans creating products or offering services next to the people who need them, cutting out transportation emissions and costs and more importantly reducing waste (the phrase a ‘high-tech Middle Ages’ has been bandied about online).

“We operate with a concept called ‘data in-data out’ – which refers to a vision of cities being less dependent on shipping physical items to each other but sharing data,” explains Christian Villum from Danish Design Centre, one of Fab City’s project co-ordinators. ”If you think about it, the current model for manufacturing is pretty insane. Shipping items two or three places around the globe and clocking up carbon emissions has a huge impact. The vision for Fab City is that a city would become a self-sufficient factory to the largest extent possible and make sure the solutions and the data is shared by other cities.”

Rather than imagining the city as one large factory or Victorian-style mill town...think more a medieval system of artisans creating products or offering services next to the people who need them

Fab City’s thinking taps into wider conversations had by many economists, industrialists and environmentalists who believe that industries should look to become circular economies as soon as possible - ie find ways to ensure there’s no waste at any point of their manufacturing cycle. In Fab City’s project, these circles would be city wide not world wide.

The network has recently worked with IKEA who are looking to follow this model and shift manufacturing to localised centres, where products are made on demand possibly even collaborating with local designers.

The maker movement

While many might not be aware of it, the global maker movement is continually thinking, tinkering and testing new tech that can change parts of our lives - from small hacks to redefining whole industries and it’s this network of makers that the Fab City project draws inspiration from. 

Fab Lab 2
“The technologies being created and developed in Fab Labs have the potential to radically change how many industries and manufacturing processes work”

There are just over 1,000 Fab Labs all over the world. You or I could pop along and use their machines to create prototypes of just about anything. At Fab Lab London for instance there’s everything from 3D printers to sewing machines, tools to lasers, with experts on hand to guide your creation.

“A Fab Lab is similar to a maker space but the while the latter often caters more for an exclusive audience, perhaps a university or a research institute, the Fab Lab is open to anyone. Anyone can go along and learn about new technology, 3D printing and more. Plus all data is shared, so knowledge can be scaled up between the labs across the world,” explains Villum.

“The technologies being created and developed in Fab Labs have the potential to radically change how many industries and manufacturing processes work, which helps us to get big business to see that a circular or sustainable economy can be profitable, not just in the future but now.

Fab Lab In Action

The possibilities of 3D printing are being explored in Aalto FabLab in Finland

These ideas bubbling away in Fab Labs all over the world, continually feed into Fab City’s overall vision and are being tested by its member cities to get real time feedback on how they can help hit the city to meet that magic target.

“One of the Fab Labs in Barcelona, which was the first city to pledge to be a Fab City, is concentrating on biodiversity,” says Villum. “For example, it has found a moss which can generate a current when it’s left out in sunlight. The technology has been worked on by Fab Labs in different countries and between them they’ve built a small USB charger that is powered by sunlit-moss and will charge your smartphone."

So what makes a Fab City?

12 cities, including Amsterdam, Shenzhen and Detroit, have all pledged to become Fab Cities. They have some major pillars to tackle - moving to a locally based manufacturing eco-system, using less and recycling more, using distributed energy production, developing urban permaculture, creating closer collaboration between local governments and civic groups and educating people for the future.

Fabcity Barcelona Poblenou Prototype

Barcelona's Poblenou neightbourhood is ground zero for testing many of Fab Lab's local production strands

The network has developed a credible index to measure the various verticals of doing all this, from public transport to air pollution and ranks the cities in real time on how they’re achieving. In a nutshell, the index defines this project, which is highly data and design driven.

“We have a strong design driven way of doing things which means rather than fleshing out everything and spending years and years getting the whole process perfect before anyone uses it, we are much keener on putting things in motion and getting cities to join and pave the road as we drive forward,” explains Villum.

Barcelona, the ground zero of Fab City, is already trialling various technologies and new manufacturing ideas in the area of Pablenou, a one kilometre square ‘playground’ that is moving to a production on demand model and the entire neighbourhood is trying to produce only what the neighbourhood needs. There are community vegetable gardens, a 3D shop and various maker-spaces to keep production hyper local. The successes and failures are relayed back the network in real time.

Rather than seeing the future as a frightening alternative, they’re taking the best of the past and combining it with something new to make something stronger

“What has impressed me most about Barcelona is that the small community there have managed to get the backing of the mayor and the city government and scaled it up into something way beyond their own capability,” says Villum. “In Amsterdam, they have taken the existing structures of libraries as places to find knowledge and made a plan to make them where you can create knowledge as well, turning each library into a maker-space where the local community can come and learn and use new technology. Rather than seeing the future as a frightening alternative, they’re taking the best of the past and combining it with something new to make something stronger.”

But it’s not just cities who want to become sustainable. The regions of Kerala in India and Occitane in France have also signed up as have Bhutan and Georgia. Bhutan is currently the only carbon negative country in the world, something many cities and countries aspire to.

Making the future work for everyone

It’s not enough however for city governments, mayors or even Presidents to sign up to targets way in the future, amidst presentations and promises. For cities and societies to change, everyone needs to be involved - from the construction worker to the hacker - and in Fab City’s vision the city can no longer be a place of passive accommodation. Instead people need to be involved in small scale local industry, urban farming and re-evaluating their relationship to their local environment.

“It’s a change in mindset which is happening gradually already. What we want to create is a framework that allows citizens to step into a more active role,” says Villum. “Fab City won’t be a perfect path forward to unite the world but it will aim to get as close to that as possible by ensuring there are no divides or exclusions, as a society we need everyone to be involved.”

Fab City won’t be a perfect path forward to unite the world but it will aim to get as close to that as possible by ensuring there are no divides or exclusions

Education is obviously key, re-shaping curriculums to keep up with technological developments in coding and making. As is providing collaboration opportunities for all ages, where new technology can be explored and embraced in a positive manner, rather than be viewed with scepticism and suspicion. Fab City hopes to help local governments and cities provide training frameworks and creative opportunities that inspire people to get involved in the future of making and growing.

“There’s a lot of concern in large groups of citizens about the technology change that is coming towards us,” says Villum. “Obviously we’re talking about automation and AI at the moment, even 3D printing is causing a lot of concern among those who feel marginalised or left out of the future. Education and learning to master new technologies is something that will help bridge that gap. We have an opportunity through the maker movement and the proliferation of physical spaces to get people learning about new technologies.”

While it’s certainly a grand vision of a utopian, neo-medieval future that sounds too good to be true, much of what Fab City envisages already exists. Where it is pioneering is bringing the different strands together and using a global network of knowledge to solve local problems. Even if half its strands are successful, our cities will be more sustainable and better placed to face the challenges ahead.

Want to get involved in Fab City?

Whether you’re a maker, hacker, coder or civic manager there’s a way to get involved through various Slack groups, forums and events. None of those things? Doesn’t matter. Help refine ideas and submit news and find your local Fab Lab to start learning more.

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