Time to learn new words

“Let’s first focus on IDP’s – perhaps we can produce some WASH items…”

“Isn’t DRC working on that? I think one of the guys at DAH knows.. Let’s check with him first!”

If you don’t know what’s going on here, welcome to the club.

According to UNHCR there were 68.4 6 million displaced people in 2017 – meaning these people are on the move, or in camps – most importantly, they are not ‘home’.

In 2017, 44,000 people were newly displaced every day. And for those of you new to all this (like me) the average time people spend ‘away from home’ (to say it in a nice way) is a staggering 18(!) years. If you are 36 (like me) that’s half of your life. And your entire youth.

I met Ruta for the first time last week. We had a week filled with meetings at Terre des hommes (with people from DAH (what?), migration, juvenile justice, health, and much more. She often offhandedly listed the countries she worked in : Afghanistan (1,286,000), Somalia (825,000), South Sudan (1,899,000), Irak (2,684,000) and Pakistan (249,000)… And yes, those are the number of internally displaced people there.

These meetings were all focussed on discussing what we can do in this context (and actually, many more contexts) with fab labs. – So now it’s my turn for acronyms and terms. I have been working for over 10 years in and with fab labs, short for fabrication laboratories. Spaces filled with laser cutters, CNC mills, 3D printers, vinyl cutters and tools for molding and casting, composite materials and electronics, they are part of a global network of people who try to make more things locally, and be less of a simple consumer. There are projects that change the way we educate, consume, produce, share and more that are all born in these spaces.

So the question Ruta and I are now working on is simple to sum up – What can the tools, spaces and communities from fab labs do in the context of humanitarian work? It’s certainly not a ‘one size fits all’ solution – a humanitarian fab lab in an artisanal gold mine in Burkina Faso will most likely not resemble a fab lab in a juvenile penitentiary in Amman, or be easily compared to a fab lab in Tanga of the coast of Tanzania. But what will reunite them is the digital – the possibility to connect, share and create communities that are not necessarily in the same geographic location. The possibility to not send atoms (things) but bits (information).

We are starting an exciting time – one of research, experimentation and undoubtedly some failures. But also one of smiles, new discoveries (like WASH ‘water, sanitation and hygiene’, I’ll let you fab lab people look up the others yourself) and durable solutions that create local self sufficiency while being globally connected.

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Jean-michel worked as a senior consultant for the Fab Foundation, as a professor of the practice at Tufts University, and manages Fab Connections - teaching about digitally controlled tools, creating and developing fab labs, and making connections between old and new spaces and communities. He lives in France with his wife and 3 kids.

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