Future of Cities: explore the Fab City

Publication Date: 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017 - 12:11pm


Benjamin Tincq

The Fab City, a locally self-sufficient and globally connected city, invites us to explore how digital manufacturing could relocate food, energy and industrial production in an urban setting. It was the central subject of an evening organised by OuiShare on November 10 as part of the Disruptive Innovation Festival on the exploration of the future of cities. In the following interview, Tomás Díez, founder of the IAAC, Fab Lab Barcelona and instigator of the Fab City program, tells us more about this project and his vision for the future of the city.

This article originally appeared in OuiShare Magazine.

Hi Tomas, can you give us a brief introduction and tell us how you ended up launching the Fab Cities project in Barcelona.

Tomas Diez: I am an urbanist and technologist from Venezuela. I moved to Barcelona 10 years ago to work at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC). They were setting up a Fab Lab at the time and I took charge of it, as it was the perfect way to combine my previous education with my interest in cities and distributed production. It also taught me that if we want to change cities, we need to look beyond the design point of view and consider the dynamics at play. It’s not just about putting sidewalks or trees here or there, but thinking about the fundamental dynamics that could transform the way people live in an urban space.

So, Fab Cities are basically a combination of digital manufacturing, sustainable and smart cities, and circular economy, is that right?

TD: Yes, one could say so, but remember that digital production is more than just 3D printing! The Fab Lab is really a base for a larger vision to digitise and relocate fabrication. It’s a playground for experimentation where we can prototype new distribution models and reinvent the relationship between consumption and production. We are mainly researching fabrication models that allow people to make their own things closer to home, instead of buying everything from China.

Fab Labs are not about technology, but are instead about the culture around technology. And they are spreading fast. Today there are over one thousand Fab Labs across the world, together functioning as a distributed production system on a small scale. I can design something in Barcelona, and without using fossil fuel, create the identical product in Cape Town, Wellington or Tokyo.  

“Fab Labs are the cultural agents that will help transform the industrial and fabrication industry.”

Our approach is closely linked to the notion of circular economy, in the sense that we aim shorten and localise production loops. With the right infrastructure and knowledge we could reduce the amount of material that a city imports and rescale globalisation. It also allows companies to create social value and not only profit.

Can you say a few words on the Fab City project that was initiated in Barcelona?

TD: In 2011 we had the opportunity to take our ideas to a more the political level. We proposed the Fab City project, which challenges cities and regions to start building the infrastructure to be locally productive and globally connected by 2054. In 2014 the city of Barcelona opened the first public Fab Lab. The aim was to inspire other political leaders by offering an example.

This year we were joined by Amsterdam, Paris, Santiago de Chile, Detroit and even the kingdom of Bhutan. In total the challenge now gathers 12 cities, 2 regions, 2 states and 2 countries. Of course, being part of the Fab City initiative does not mean you will become one tomorrow. It’s about establishing a roadmap for cities that want to collaborate on building productive and resilient cities and empower citizens through technology.

What are the most interesting projects emerging from the fab city challenge?

TD: We don’t have a flagship project yet, but several are beginning to look quite promising. Products such as the shower loop, an idea initially developed during POC21, are being developed. They could become part of the Fab City ecosystem, contributing to a new mindset and relationship between people and products.

“A Fab City is not a city full of Fab Labs. It’s ecosystem that is varied, coherent and connected”

Another example is the Poblenou neighbourhood, which was recently announced as Barcelona’s “Maker District” by the city council. With their support and in collaboration with Ikea, this neighbourhood was turned into a 1.5km² Fab City prototype. We mapped existing businesses and institutions that align with the Fab City vision, from Fab Labs and makerspaces to restaurants that serve local produce. Soon to come is also Poblenou’s “Super Fab Lab”, which will connect all the individual initiatives of this little productive ecosystem.

Paris and Toulouse are joining the Fab City network. How do you see them contributing to the network with their own features and character?

TD: We have been working on a type of charter that lists the minimum actions required for a city to join the network. Examples are sharing data with the rest of the network, supporting local teams that are contributing to our vision, like OuiShare in Paris or Artilect in Toulouse, and participating in our activities like the annual Fab Cities Summit.  

Lean desk, the original Opendesk, designed by Joni Steiner & Nick Ierodiaconou

The network is meant to spread good practices to cities, but also we hope to see each city develop their own roadmap. We expect the next Fab City Summit in Paris 2018 to show some concrete results that can help us clarify the entire network’s vision and establish a trajectory for the next 10 years.

What do you see the impact being on companies in terms of their business models and supply chain? What is their role in this urban and industrial transformation?

TD: Many large companies today rely on closed off and controlled access to production means and information as their main source of wealth and growth. So, naturally the concept of redistributing access disrupts this business model and poses a threat to several people’s interests.

Today the business model of companies like Ikea and that of Opendesk, a platform with local open source furniture, are vastly different. However, I could imagine Opendesk-like models being replicated by the latter in 5 or 10 years. We have been working together with Ikea to explore potential scenarios like this. Today people buy unassembled furniture in a warehouse outside the city and bring it home to put it together with instructions. Soon people could design their own furniture on demand in micro factories that are located in city centres. This would not only avoid storage costs but allow for personalised and customised furniture.

Other examples of larger enterprises interested in bringing production closer to consumption are Adidas, Nike, Airbus or Saint Gobain. They are especially interested in the culture around the technology as well as ideas on open society, open innovation, distributed networks and blockchain.

I see a convergence with another big trend, the evolution of work as something more independent, platform economies and automatisation through digital technologies.

TD: Absolutely. Many people nowadays don’t want to work as full-time employees anymore. I like to connect it with the Zygmunt Bauman concept of “liquid society”: time, work, family, love…all the structures that we considered to be fixed and to which we hold on to are becoming more and more liquid and fluctuating.

Being able to adapt to these changes means building more resilient organisations and networks. In a way, the Fab City could be considered the productive organ for this liquid life.

Our collective understanding of the circular economy has not yet been entirely explored and we can draw a parallel with ‘a 16th century map’ of the world, more than an exact account of the complete economic benefits. Whilst this map has certainly become more detailed in recent years, territories still need to be charted anew to foresee what a circular economy would look like and how it would function. In this Future Of… series, we aim to highlight the opportunities, challenges and impacts that widespread adoption of the circular economy framework could bring to different sectors, using insights from current trends, policy signals and technological advances.

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