Transforma bxl at Fab Lab Summit

9/08/2018

On July 12&13, our fablab manager Vincent attended the cityfab conference in Paris: 2 days of conferences, workshops and meetups, a “cross-disciplinary mix of the best ideas and practices from the Fab City network” (as described on the website). Curious to know more about Fab City and what happened during these 2 exciting days? Here are a few ideas and inspirational thoughts that Vincent brought back with him.

Warning: it’s a quite long post. For my defense: the event was very rich. The text is divided into 9 parts. Feel free to pick and chose, depending on your interests.

To start, I’m going to assume that not everybody knows about Fab City, makers, fablabs, makerspaces, etc. You, reader, might not have a picture of Neil Gershenfeld above your bed (the American physicist and computer engineer who created the concept of fablab at MIT). If you know nothing (or very little) about fablabs, you will find interesting resources on the Fab Foundation website (https://goo.gl/NdA5We). And on Wikipedia, of course, and there are a lot of videos.

Fab City “connects globally networks of hyper-local infrastructures for fabrication, production, and distribution of goods and resources” (https://goo.gl/FGchPx). There is an annual event gathering as many makers as possible. In 2017, it was in Santiago de Chile, and next year it will be in Egypt.

What were these 2 days of “Fab City Conference” about? Briefly, it was about thinking, meeting other people and initiatives and sharing good practices, mainly about the future of cities. We do face many challenges: economical, environmental, societal, and it’s urgent to change.

You may wonder what a bunch of DIY enthusiasts can possibly do about these challenges… Well, makers and innovators, through spaces like fablabs, can help transforming the way we produce and consume. It’s a powerful way of empowering people, citizens, entire communities. It values original creations, recycling and repairs, local activities and open source projects. It also opens new extraordinary perspectives and allows new ways of solving issues thanks to new technologies.

In this context, the “Fab City Global Initiative is an action plan for cities to […] become more resilient through the relocalization of the production of energy, food, and products, and by enabling a global community of designers, makers and thinkers that amplify and multiply the scale of this important transformation”.

The Fab City Summit took place in the lovely and inspiring parc de la Villette (where there is the Cité des Sciences et de l’industrie, among many other things).

The whole first day of conferences was divided in 3 parts :

  • Reversible: is our current productive model reversible? Can we change its logics?
  • Scalable: can we scale up a new urban paradigm or a massive change?
  • Possible: which are the emergent scenarios that we have as civilization?

Obviously, I’m not going to summarize everything or try to be exhaustive. I would rather share some of the thoughts that I developed or to which I’ve been exposed and some of the discoveries that I made (not only during the first day but also during the second one).

Let’s start with 4 thoughts and advice!

1.Primary thoughts on new models for a more resilient and sustainable approach

There are 3 main issues:

  • The way we manufacture products
  • The way we produce food (for people but also for agriculture purposes)
  • The way we produce energy

It seems clear (and urgent) to more and more people that we must address these issues, and that doing so at a local level should be encouraged. Local solutions, against global disorders. It was said (and I share this point of view) that design, production and consumption should be more (if not completely) local. There are a few things we should be more careful about:

–   The material(s) we use should be bio-sourced

–    We should re-use (or even pre-use, as I’m going to discover it on the second day) materials, objects (any kind of stuff actually) because most of our resources are threatened with exhaustion. And therefore it seems crucial and necessary to reassert the value of re-using things, repairing, creating new objects from other stuff we already have… everything but automatically buying new things.

–     There are a lot of urban spaces that are not used. They could be urban gardens for example. It’s going to become more and more important to produce more food locally, and to make the most of the space we have. Actually the city of Paris has announced a few days ago its will to produce locally 50% of what its inhabitants consume by 2054.

–      Circular economy should not be a nice to have on the side of what would be the regular, normal economy.

2. Let’s care for a shared, common and lively city

I liked how Carlos Moreno (moderator of the “Reversible” session, Co-Founder & Scientific Director “Entrepreneurship, Territory, Innovation” Chair, at Paris1 – Pantheon Sorbonne University) underlined the importance of shaping and strengthening a territorial identity, made of a spirit of openness. He valued one’s ability to be open to people’s needs and distresses, and not only to consider their strengths and how they can contribute to change. Sustainability and fair cities are within easy reach if they are truly inclusive.

 

3. Be critical and observant: mind the gap between yourself and the systemic edges

The work of Saskia Sassen (Professor of Sociology at Columbia University) is also very interesting! One of the things I noticed is the importance and the interest of focusing on systemic edges: the areas, topics, people that are doomed, forgotten, invisible. It can be dead lands, or job seekers: we have to fight against blindness and avoid being too lenient. It’s not easy, and it requires paying attention to what we don’t even look at anymore. Let’s be more critical and vigilant.

I’ll get to think about this blindness on the second day, with Lars Zimmermann’s speech about hacking the city.

4. Be more aware of how to produce behavioural change

Saadi Lahlou’s speech (Saadi is the Chair in Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science) was also enlightening, as he explained clearly how our actions are determined by 3 types of actions, like 3 layers always at stake, operating as a bundle.

–   The material affordances: we can define it as the function of an object. Like a chair or a seat on a bus, for example, everybody knows (because of the way it is designed, and because of social habits) that they are made to sit on them. Therefore, when entering in bus, it seems only natural to sit on a seat, and not on the floor. In a way, we limit ourselves.

It might not matter so much when it’s about seats in a bus (and it’s probably better that we don’t sit everywhere), but it’s a shame when affordances of objects blind us and prevent us to image new innovative uses of them (as it will the point of Lars Zimmerman’s speech, I’m not developing this too much right now).

–   Institutions and social regulation. No need to really develop this point, right?

–    Embodied competences: they refer to representations and embodied skills enabling any of us to interpret objects and situations (not only understand but also start taking actions within a situation or using objects).

Therefore, a sustainable behavior is at intersection of the 3 layers.

If you want to know more, have examples and more details, you can watch this video of Saadi: http://mediax.stanford.edu/page/saadi-lahlou-mediaX2018 (and start at 11m20ish).

I liked when Saadi underlined that we should avoid doing things for people. We should rather do things WITH people. Doing “for”, even though it may sound nice and positive, also sounds like taking control, ignoring the other’s point of view and capabilities.

I used to experience this a lot when I was a teacher, with rules or the way we use the classroom. Nowadays, at transforma bxl, we value working with corporates to help them change rather than working for them as if we could work on their challenges without having them fully on board.

I remember that Saadi explained how to set a better environment (of any kind, what Saadi calls “installations”), capable of really supporting people’s activities. It’s all about making sure that for each activity (or each important steps of an activity), we:

  • Facilitate goal reaching: what is it that we want to achieve? What do we want to make better?
  • Address issues with a set of physical design, training(s) of the user or rules
  • Design for resilience (which is actually a synonym of redundancy, to develop habits and feel more comfortable)
  • Negotiate with the stakeholder(s). Again: do/work “with”, not “for”.

To hear more about that, catch the video with the link above at 27m55.

5. Wait… did I say that technology was the key?

Speaking of not being too lenient: Philippe Madec and Sophie Rosso (respectively Professor In Architecture and Directrice Générale at Quartus) warned us against intellectual laziness: we should always focus on finding the right material(s) first, along with the appropriate technique or technology dedicated to an appropriate purpose or function. Using technology is not always better, no more than it is necessary.

They were arguing from an urban-planning point of view, but it obviously has a deeper and broader resonance. An interesting example is the 2226 building (https://www.baumschlager-eberle.com/en/work/projects/translate-to-english-projekte-details/2226/).

6.Time out! Let’s have a look at 3 cool initiatives:

 

  • The Good Tech Lab

The Good Tech Lab was a nice surprise because I found myself in front of a sister initiative: I mean, they started what I really want to do too, and we think the same way apparently. In one sentence, it’s “a research collective exploring the frontiers of technology, entrepreneurship, funding and impact” (http://goodtechlab.io/). For now, they spent a year “researching cutting-edge practices and interviewing pioneers from the five continents” and they are about to publish a report. They haven’t started per se doing something mixing technology, entrepreneurship and venturing, but I’m curious to see what they’ll do next. As for me, I know I’m determined to give a new dimension to our Impact 101 initiative (supporting social and sustainable businesses) to develop Impact101: Tech For Good. At transforma we have now a unique setting of an entrepreneurial ecosystem, a makerspace and a warehouse and logistics services. If we can develop an investment fund or sponsoring, we’ll be able to really help boosting new innovative game-changing projects. I can only recommend this article written by Benjamin Tincq, leader of the GTL: https://medium.com/good-tech-lab/the-frontiers-of-impact-6d6872d1657d. It’s very rich and interesting.

  • The Danish Design Center: how to adopt an open source approach in your company?

Christian Villum (lead of the program and Program Director of Danish Design Centre) came to talk about “REMODEL”: “a methodology where companies can explore open source and merge learnings directly into their business”. They stretched out the design sprint methodology and developed a very interesting few weeks program. Here is an article written by Christian explaining everything: https://danskdesigncenter.dk/en/remodel-design-sprint-format-how-we-work . At the end of this article, you’ll find a link to get all the material from Github, which is cool! There are other nice tools on the website.

  • The “Buy nothing, MAKE SMTHNG!” initiative

The title is enlightening in itself: it’s about promoting the DIY, promote quality time spent with family and friends, value skills and resourcefulness. It can be anything, as long as you make it yourself: “upcycling workshops, urban agriculture courses, homemade cosmetics classes, electronics repair spaces, lectures and even a demonstration on how to make food waste smoothies”. During a week (the MAKE SMTHNG Week) everybody is invited to make and create instead of buying new things and shopping. This year, it should start on Friday November 23 (as a counter event to the famous Black Friday). More information here : https://secured-static.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/code/2017/Detox/StyleGuide/index.html . I like this initiative! As a matter of fact, you may know that our makerspace (cityfab 2) is supposed to be officially opening on November 23. We’ll see how everything goes, but mark your calendar guys, it can be a fun maker week.

7. For a 21st-Century economy: here is a tasty donut

8. The whole city is open source: let’s hack it!

Lars Zimmermann (Artist, Economist, Activist, ect., you can check out larszimmermann.de) was a real dynamo! Almost right away he stated that sustainability was not really a thing (I mean, a successful thing). He phrased it way better than I do, but I can’t remember how exactly.

Anyways, his point was not just to be provocative. It’s sad, but there’s no need to think too much about it to realize that sustainability is indeed not powerful enough when you consider our current economy, our business models, capitalism and the way we consume. Like he said, we come across many sustainable projects or initiatives theses days, and it’s good, but the big societal and economical models are everything but sustainable

What I remember from Lars’ speech, is that we can’t even see the potential of all the things around us. Most of us simply don’t see it, and even if we could, few people actually know how to repair and fix things, how to do DIY, how to twist the use of an object. We see things for what they are (or what we’ve been told they should be used too (or shouldn’t be used to!)).

Lars’ message is that the whole city is full of potential, and that we should not wait for recycling or upcycling, but we should pre-cycling more, or value “pre-use”. That is to say taking an object and using it to build something else, without breaking it (!), so that your object can be used again for its original purpose whenever you want to.

In fact, it even means using things only with two or more positive ideas in mind for their next possible use. Think about using a flower pot to build a lamp, for example, in case you wouldn’t need a flower pot some time. Pre-cycling is about hacking any object, knowing that it can be back to its usual usage. I really liked this idea because it’s a beautiful encouragement to be creative, to change everything anytime, to feel free and resourceful.

It made me think about the great definition of “hacking” that I got from Mitch Altman (a kind of crazy and super nice and inspiring Silicon Valley engineer):

  • It’s about remembering (or realizing) that we are all full of resources,
  • that the world is full of resources as well
  • and whenever we experiment, create or discover something, we should always share our new knowledge with the community

Therefore, it seems to me that it’s essential and beautiful to cultivate this hacker spirit.

Now I can tell that I’m just discovering a very good video conference of Lars, close to what I saw myself… haha you can stay with me now, and check it out later (http://thecityisopensource.bloglz.de/hacking-to-create-the-free-sustainable-circular-city/ ).

You can also check out the https://oscedays.org/ to learn more about the Open Source Circular Economy days.

9. Food in the city, a major concern and exciting challenges for the years to come

I find very exciting the questions and possibilities of new technologies for agroecology and community-based food systems.

I used to find kind of scary the use of new technologies sometimes regarding to agriculture. Especially when it comes to alarming talks or deceitfully revolutionary solutions. Soilless cultivation? Aquaponics? Why not… I mean, it’s old already. Have you ever seen this video? http://www.ina.fr/video/AFE85008362 1959… same fears, same questions we still have nowadays… surely a more optimistic overall tone though, about all the great things that the future holds for us, before the famous year 2000. Anyways, my point is that we shouldn’t praise one solution or one way over another. There is plenty of room for everybody and for new creative solutions! For example:

–  You like cultivating the soil for real, being on the ground? Great, do it! Let’s make the most of our ground, let’s make it better, more productive, and let’s take care of wasted lands, so that we can produce food everywhere (because we can!). We do our best at transforma (you can check out our permaculture project: https://www.transformabxl.be/make/permaculture/, but we’re still improving. Our friends at La Mutinerie in France are amazing: http://village.mutinerie.org/.

– You want fresh food, local, without nasty products in it, but you don’t really have the time to cultivate or you don’t like it that much?

No problem! Technology is coming, and soon we can hope for connected greenhouses or gardens, robots, apps doing anything you don’t want to do and letting you know when your products are ready. Who said you needed to suffer or spend many hours to eat in the end? It doesn’t have to be hard, and people in a neighborhood can produce all the food they need! By the way, it’s also a way to reduce waste: water and food waste. Robots, sensors, they know when to water the plants, how and how much.

We can have plenty of reasons to argue against technology or to dislike some forms of food productions. I’m just saying there are so many ways (and soon even more) that there will have a way for everybody to grow his/her own food.

–   You want to eat bananas all year long (or any exotic fruit) but you live in Belgium? (By the way, living in Belgium (or any country in the North), it’s likely you would have to eat only cabbages for most of the year if you have to stick to normal food production…). Your banana doesn’t have to come from miles away, spend time in fridges and cost a lot of energy. Again, technology can help you growing anything.

To people arguing that it’s not respectful of the seasons and nature… true, it’s not. But it seems to me that the main thing should be to protect our nature, take care of our forests, fields, lands, rivers, seas, etc., do things with more sensitivity and intelligence. But, cabbages 8 months/year? I honestly find it hard to be against being able to grow anything, any time using new technologies and optimizing production and resources, as long as you’re taking care of nature first.

I’ll leave you reader with a few links:

Founded by Peter Hanappe, with whom I was happy to exchange a few words. Check out CitizenSeeds, it’s cool!

It’s still the very beginning of this project, but it’s cool and it can be very promising. And since I was writing about technology, and Rory Aronson is behind Openfarm and Farmbot.

At any level, let’s do our best to make things change and create a more positive impact!

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