If you want to know what Fab City is really about, the history and thinking behind it, the implications, and some of the directions the community wants to take it, you could hardly do better than this paper by one of the co-founders, Tomas Diez.
He covers a lot of ground, from historical context with colonization, to the Bauhaus design movement and its influence, to the pandemic’s role in reframing some of our understanding of the systems around us, to Fab Labs proving some of their use cases.
Decades become years, years become months; change is happening rapidly, yet operates paradoxically inside the previous layers of transformations. While we are still adapting for the unpredictability of change, there are more revolutions coming, as well as more systemic crises.
One of the most interesting sections is when Diez offers this vision of three digital revolutions, and especially the third, which is ongoing and addressed by Fab Cities:
The digital revolution in computing has been personal, with the development of the PC or the smartphone. The digital revolution in communications has been collective, but on a global scale, with the invention of the Internet and its mass adoption. The digital revolution in manufacturing is communal and operates in a territorial area such as neighborhoods in cities, or villages.
One of the tenets of the Fab Lab movement (and many learning movements and frameworks) is the idea of learning by doing, the paper proposes to take it further by adding impact.
We are aiming to evolve “learning by doing” by adding “learning while impacting”, given the context in which these labs operate, and the opportunities to work with problems that go beyond a technical challenge, but engages with the real world around them.
We often hear about design’s responsibility, of designers not only creating products and services but of the need for them of thinking through the impact of what they create, here Diez follows the idea of learning while impacting with this vision of design that is very systemic and in itself a practice of understanding:
[N]ot design as aesthetics, form or function, but design as the exercise to understand the systems that support an intervention and articulate the needed connecting elements between them in order to achieve a given purpose
In business circles, the idea of “digital transformation” initially meant to somehow transform the organization by applying digital tools. In reality, it was often more of an opportunity, using the moment where digital tools are integrated to deconstruct how the organization works and how it might work better. A process hopefully helped by these new tools. The climate challenge can also be seen as this kind of opportunity, consumption and production need to happen differently, it’s a good time to also rethink multiple aspects.
Changing the production model requires understanding that a transition to a regenerative, equitable, and universal socio-economic model is necessary, which allows incorporating cultural diversity, world views, ancestral knowledge, and an economy of care between people, and with living systems that make life possible.
The paper then goes into some details considering two program Diez has co-created and co-run: Exploring Emergent Futures (EEF) platform inside the Design Products MA program in London, and now Emergent Futures in Barcelona, organized by Fab Lab Barcelona (IAAC) and Elisava School of Design and Engineering. For some, this part might initially prove less enticing than the rest, but it’s actually the section you should pay attention to, because it reframes design further, but also adds emergent futures to the “stack” of digital fabrication: Fab Labs, Fab Academy, Fab Cities, and Emergent Futures.
As mentioned above, multiple existential threats are before us and are both challenges and opportunities for re-invention. To be successful in this enterprise, one must not only contemplate what needs fixing, but also think about what one wants to create, which direction is to be taken, which future the most desirable. This is where design, associated with the creation of emergent futures, becomes essential.
[C]reate new spaces to nurture learning processes in the real world, in which designers teach, learn, practice, research, and transform any given realities, with access to tools for understanding the complexity in which the new design “practice” is already operating. […]
Design for Emergent Futures engages the designer in a process in which one needs to understand an ever changing and complex context and position its practice in alignment with the global challenges of our time and its personal purpose.
The program should also, in my opinion, not only be seen has a specific one, but as a model of holistic thinking and transdisciplinarity, which can be used in other contexts.
[W]e aim for our students to first amplify and then refine their knowledge in the role of technology, design, and philosophy to dissolve the wicked problems of our time, and not solve them at once. […]
Design is an act of making sense of the patterns of the world we understand, in order to influence them to create desirable futures, we give meaning to the world through design. [Emphasis mine]
I kept the sharing of this paper as a topic for just before the Fab City Summit, because it can be read not only as a great presentation of Fab Cities, but also as a way of tying all our posts together. All of them can be seen as dots connected together by this combination of Fab Labs, Fab Academy, Fab City, and the Design of Emergent Futures. The Fab City movement is itself an exercise in futuring, in thinking about, imagining, designing, and starting to bring forth to reality a vision that is appropriate to the challenges, that rights some of the wrongs of the past, reduces inequalities, respects nature, and proposes better places to live in. Tall order, as we all know, but many of the things that need addressing can be examined and solutions prototyped within the movement’s setting.