Think Globally, Fabricate Locally

A conversation with Neil A. Gershenfeld and Vicente Guallart

Growing numbers of people live in cities and are increasingly connected, but only productive societies will be able to decide their future. A plan has been implemented in Barcelona to place technology within everybody’s reach, allowing the community to work together. Neil A. Gershenfeld, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and director of the Center for Bits and Atoms. Vicente Guallart, for his part, is Chief Architect of the City Council and founder of the Barcelona network of Fab labs.

Mr Gershenfeld, you claim that the digital revolution has not come out yet to the physical world. We are going now from programming bits to programming atoms. We have reached the first stage of the digital revolution, but we have yet to move to another level. Where are we now?

Gerschenfeld: ‘There is a very precise historical analogy that shows where we are now. As computers evolved, we first had mainframe computers, followed by a secondary stage with mini computers, and after that came the ‘hobby’ computer, and finally the personal computer.

So that was the history of digitising communication and computation. We are retracing that history now for fabrication in different stages, so in an initial stage you would have the main frames of fabrication, that is, the big machines and factories. We are in the minicomputer era of digital fabrication. So the fab labs work today like the minicomputers, and the minicomputers were the moment in history when the Internet was invented. Now fab labs are working on machines that make machines, so fab labs make fab labs (those were the hobby computers) and the research we are doing is leading up to the personal fabricator. That is still a research project – one machine that can make anything – but the historical lesson is: ‘You didn’t have to wait 20 years from the invention of the PC before you could start using the internet’. So the revolution is here today. There are still many years to work on the technology, but the revolution has already arrived.’

Mr Guallart, in your book The Self-Sufficient City, you make a striking assertion: ‘The Internet has changed our lives, but it hasn’t changed our cities, yet.’ How will the digital revolution change the way we live now?

Guallart: ‘The architecture of cities is the last to change when society undergoes a transformation such as the one we are experiencing now. We usually build our idea of society according to the technologies we have at hand at a given time and place. In the 21st century we are all globally connected, and thanks to the Internet we have gained access to all sorts of information generated around the world. This information will enable us to produce our own goods in a self-sufficient way. We are not there yet, but we will be able to produce locally only if we are globally connected. So, we sense that a big change is looming on the horizon, but it hasn’t happened yet. We see that we live in a different way and use technologies in a new way, but the way that cities work with the idea of fabrications, the way we produce food, the way we recycle materials… All these point to a larger change, so we are waiting to see the technologies that will transform our cities. For now, we can see that the way we move around and the way we produce energy is going to change in the near future.’

Vicente Guallart

Gerschenfeld: ‘Today our cities import goods and produce trash that we can only partially recycle. We are still immersed in the PITO model (Product In, Trash Out) but we are moving towards a new model in which the flow of information will be the key. The DIDO model (Data In, Data Out) will enable information to flow so that production can be based locally. If we decrease the flow of matter, the flow of information will increase.’


How is this change going to come about?

Guallart: ‘In the city of the near future, all houses and businesses will necessarily be connected to the Internet. The city of the future should be a metropolis of neighbourhoods, where everybody should be able to walk to work or have a bakery or a swimming pool or a fab lab within walking distance. Barcelona is implementing a plan to have a fab lab for every district and thus create a public network of fab labs in order to make technology accessible to everyone.’

It has been said that the first fab lab at MIT appeared as if by accident. How did it come about?

Gerschenfeld: ‘From CBA and MIT the answer is very narrow. We had a big grant from the National Science Foundation and they asked us to show the social impact of the research and we had no idea, so we just set up a lab as a requirement for the grant, and then they have been doubling it for ten years since. Barcelona has been one of the earliest and biggest and most important labs for this history because the city has a fabulous tradition of design and 50% youth unemployment. There is this great knowledge base, and then there is this broken economy. What is happening here in fab labs in Barcelona and in this international meeting is really profound – it is actually creating a new economy that challenges the fundamental assumptions about how the economy works and so on, all over the world, and Barcelona is a real leader in this. Digital fabrication leads to personal fabrication, which is leading to a new economy.’

Neil Gershenfeld ©Jean Baptiste Paris

Vicente, how has the MIT lab shaped Barcelona’s fab lab? What sort of inspiration…

Gerschenfeld: ‘Well, let me correct the question. We started it at MIT, but Barcelona’s lab is bigger than MIT’s. The notion of fab labs has been invented by the world. MIT was a little seed and we are still involved, but what goes on in fab labs is the result of a global community collaboration.’

Guallart: ‘In our case, Neil has always said that MIT is a safe place for strange people. So we are some of those strange people that engaged in thinking how to invent the future. I have some previous experience with digital production, but we realised that if we were not able to work in collaboration with other people, we would never be able to produce anything and would be reduced to consumers. We created our lab, and our Master of Advanced Architecture arose when we could work with Neil to create the Media House Project together. The idea of a fab lab is having a community in which you can share ideas and solutions while you use the same kind of technology, and from that point of view we are trying to learn as much as we can from MIT. We come from the Cistercian tradition, which springs from the Middle Ages, when monasteries replicated each other. We decided to replicate ourselves in other laboratories, here in Barcelona, but also in Lima and Addis Ababa, so we can become a kind of proactive partner with the fab academy in order to make the revolution possible.’


Fab labs in Africa. Valentina, an 8-year-old girl in rural Ghana, can do something by herself that we currently need different people to assemble… Now three students at MIT are scaling innovation done by an 8-year-old in Africa…

Gerschenfeld: ‘The bigger lesson is not the students at MIT, which after all fits a few thousand people. They are bright and inventive, but they are only a few thousand, whereas in the planet there are a few billion.What is driving the lab story is that you find exactly the kind of profile of bright inventive people in rural African villages or above the Arctic Circle. The existing advanced education industry does not reach the brain power of the planet. So it’s not changing MIT, but scaling MIT. We are finding people all over the world but there is no place for them, and this is the gap fab labs are trying to fill.’


So what can fab labs do for democracy today?

Guallart: ‘We are in a global crisis that affects both the way we work and the way we organise ourselves. We are moving towards a world in which people will live mostly in cities and will be more and more connected, but in the future only the countries and cities that are productive will be able decide their own future. This is why the city of Barcelona has decided to create a plan similar to the one that was developed 100 years ago with the libraries. Recently I was at the Boston Public Library, and at the entrance there is a motto that says ‘FREE TO ALL’, which is an invitation to open the knowledge of academics to all citizens. Until now, technology was closed to universities and we have decided to open it to everyone. This is why in Barcelona we are developing a plan to set up a laboratory in each district in the same way that we have libraries, schools, health centres, etc. We work to make technology accessible to everyone, we create a network that allows the community to work together… and this is fundamental to grant people the right to decide their future for themselves. Today many people are calling for a revolution, but we are already making a revolution, empowering the citizens, allowing them to have the tools to connect with other people and to share knowledge. We also want to empower cities, because often cities have collapsed, not only economically but also intellectually when confronted with the question,

‘What to do next?’ In the 50s, after the Second World War, the economy was being pushed forward by democracy, mostly in America, and we were all growing together. Today, though, the money is coming from places that are not very democratic, like China or Russia or the Middle East… so we need to invent other ways to manage the economy in order to empower and to connect economic growth to democracy.’

What are the current main obstacles that make cities resistant to change, or contrary to the emergence of new cities? It seems that the logic of big companies is that people are meant to consume rather than to create technology…

Gerschenfeld: ‘No, that’s not exactly the problem. Remember that when the personal computer appeared, the leading computer companies all failed because they considered PCs a toy; they did not see them as a threat. In the same way, big government or big business are not threatened because they see fab labs as toys; they don’t understand them. The biggest challenge for fab labs is not confrontation but organisation: building an organisational capacity. What Vicente and his colleagues have done is profound. They have essentially taken over running the city to build that capacity. There aren’t direct obstacles… The hard part is to build the organisational capacity to support this revolution. So we had to spin off a fab foundation and a fab academy to help support this growing network, andprojects like the one Vicente is leading in Barcelona are building the civic infrastructure. It’s a real invention: he is inventing new ways to organise the city around a new notion of infrastructure. And so that’s the limitation, sort of inventing a new city, because if anybody can make anything, how can you live, work and play?’

In an article published in Foreign Affairs in 2012, you said that the hype for 3D printers can be compared to the interest that newspapers showed for the microwave oven in the 50s, when it was seen as a substitute for cooking. Now we know that microwave ovens have improved our lives, but that we still need the rest of the utensils to cook. The fab labs would be the kitchen and the microwaves would just be the 3D printers.

Gerschenfeld: ‘The research we are doing at my lab at MIT is to take all the tools in a fab lab and merge them in a very deep way, fundamentally structuring the properties of materials. Today, in a fab lab like the © IAAC

Architecture Institute in Barcelona, the 3D printer may actually be the least-used tool. There are bigger machines that involve much more complex processes. Right now there is a bit of hype in the media about 3D printers, but it is silly because the articles are written by journalists who don’t even actually use them. There is a revolution today, which is digital fabrication, which means turning data into things and things into data, and the 3D printer is a small corner of that big space.’

In Barcelona, we have marked 300 years since the siege. You might have seen the show M.U.R.S. by La Fura dels Baus. The idea of the siege is relevant to the rise of fab labs since you aim to create cities that become more self-sufficient, as Vicente Guallart’s book title points out. If we are to be under siege, we should be prepared to produce our own goods…

Guallart: ‘The original title for the book was The Connected Self-Sufficient City. The ideal is not to be isolated. The way we are connected with others is different from the way we were in the past. The question is to empower local production. Basically because we must do it in order to be leaders of our future, but we will only be able to do this if we are connected to the world.’

Gershenfeld: ‘Barcelona is under siege today. The economy is broken; people far away take your money and your jobs. You are under siege. It’s today.’


How do you envision the city of the future?

Gerschenfeld: ‘Think globally, fabricate locally.’

Guallart: ‘The city of the future will be multi-scalar, because the city of the future will be a network of cities. We will all be connected, and this implies that we will live in different places at the same time somehow. The city of the future is a metropolis of neighbourhoods. The future is not having a rich centre and a poor periphery, but a city in which many neighbourhoods are empowered and have the right facilities in order to be able to produce nearly everything.’

How many things are you wearing that you have produced yourself?

Gerschenfeld: ‘When you came to this interview I was working on the internals of the software that controls the machines that make machines – the engineering processes. One of the things that most excites me is the workflows, so I am wearing this laptop. The software in here is what I make. I am more interested in the workflows in the lab rather than the products of the lab. So that’s what I wear.’

And you Vicente, what are you wearing that you have produced yourself?

Guallart: ‘What I wear is myself…’

Gerschenfeld (interrupting): ‘No, no, I can answer for you. It’s the city. Look at this hall, look at Barcelona full of fab labs. I think the answer for Vicente is he is wearing Barcelona.’

This publication was written by Bernat Puitobella and originally appeared in New Amsterdam Magazine #8. You can access the original publication here

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