Draft White Paper: Community Fab Lab Experience and Perspectives

Here is a draft of a White Paper I’ve been working on this year.  This is a review and analysis of the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab.  This is a much longer and deeper treatment of the points made in my presentation at HASTAC.

The Fab Lab is something you DO, not something you talk about, so this document is incomplete and will need to be revised in the coming months.

Here is the abstract and an excerpt.  See the draft at the link below.

Abstract

Digital technology is enabling new forms of community, new forms of expression, and changes in the living culture of contemporary life in many ways. One example is the emergence of local community-based fabrication spaces.  This paper discusses one such space is the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab (CUCFL), which deploys a combination of technical, human, and social resources to develop local technological capabilities and opportunities. The CUCFL community is also connected to a network of like-minded Fab Labs and Maker spaces across the planet, as well as global markets and opportunities. These digital connections enable broad knowledge sharing, exchange of designs, and discovery of expertise.

The success of the CUCFL and similar labs depends on a combination of technology, a local community organization, and an open culture of learning, teaching, and sharing. All these elements are critical. These community labs also have significance beyond the local users and specific technologies, they are models of democratized technology, and harken back to earlier humanist workshop traditions, reintegrating technology, art, business, and community.

The paper discusses the technical and social background of personal fabrication, and the emergence of local community maker spaces. Then we consider one example of a local community-based Fab Lab in some detail, and then concludes with implications of this phenomenon.

1. Introduction

Digital technology is enabling new forms of creative and scholarly communities, new forms of expression, and augmenting the living culture of contemporary life in many ways. Contemporary technology enables enhancements to existing techniques, some new methods (such as pattern recognition and data mining), new forms of expression, and the adoption of new approaches to old problems of creation, dissemination, and communication. Many of these ubiquitous digital technologies have reached wide audiences beyond traditional engineering, scholarship, and art, opening the way for “humanistic” practices which are reintegrating with the living culture of contemporary life in many ways.

One such reintegration has emerged around digital fabrication technology, especially in the form of personal fabrication and local community fabrication spaces. This technology is widely viewed as revolutionary, potentially transforming the global industrial and consumer economy. The availability of personal fabrication technology, for design and realization or products, opens the way to the same transformations as seen in the realm of “bits”, now in the realm of “atoms”, including global scale peer-to-peer sharing, and the exploitation of “fat tail” phenomena.

As with any revolution, we will find evidence of it in local communities. This paper considers a local community-based Fab Lab which combines several technical and social approaches to we are developing an approach to fostering collaboration and creativity. The Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab (CUCFL) combines technical, human, and social resources into a community-building process to develop local technological capabilities and opportunities. The CUCFL provides access to a suite of digital technologies access to knowledge necessary to use the technology that were not previously available to people, outside relatively privileged settings such as University labs.

The CUCFL is building a community of makers, dedicated to learning and teaching, with a consciously inclusive ethos. The lab has successfully welcomed many into our community of makers through an active learning environment within a supportive and friendly environment. The volunteer ethos in which everyone, not just a privileged elite, is a creator, a learner, and a teacher has encouraged people to discover just how much they know, and how much then can contribute. The CUCFL community is also connected to a network of like-minded Fab Labs and Maker spaces across the planet, as well as global markets and opportunities. These digital connections enable broad knowledge sharing, exchange of designs, and discovery of expertise.

The success of the CUCFL depends on a combination of technology, a local community organization, and an open culture of learning, teaching, and sharing. All these elements are critical, and to date, have sufficed to sustain the lab. Community fab labs have broader significance, beyond their local users and specific technologies. They are models of democratized technology, which may have profound social, education, and personal effects that change communities, economies, and individuals. Interestingly, it can be argued that a community fab lab harkens back to earlier humanist workshop traditions, reintegrating technology, art, business, and community.

The paper is laid out as follows. Section 2 discusses the technical and social background of personal fabrication, and the emergence of hundreds of local community maker spaces. Section 3 considers one example of a local community-based Fab Lab in some detail. Finally, Section 4 concludes with some implications of this phenomenon.

Download the full White Paper [PDF]

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