Technology will save us all?

When we signed the deal to set up a fab lab in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, I was excited. They are going to do so much cool stuff with the technology! I had been working with laser cutters, CNC mills, 3D printers and much more for a long time, but always in ‘wealthy’ and ‘safe’ environments. People made cool stuff; skateboards, guitars, little portable speakers… but nothing life changing. Oh boy, seeing all that is possible, this is going to change peoples lives in Tana!

Or so I thought.

One evening, after installing a part of the new lab in an SOS children’s village, I left the compound to go to the hotel. On the curb there was a girl, sitting in the dirt, with two little babies in her arms. Above her head, the spikes of curled barbed wire warned the less fortunate to stay away from the house on the other side. She must have been 14, maybe 15. It hit me all of a sudden that her main occupation that day, and most likely the ones in the foreseeable future, was survival. Her’s and that of the babies, none of whom wore socks, or decent clothing.

I felt so stupid, back in the hotel, taking a hot shower, thinking it was a good idea to install a 40,000.- euro laser cutter in such a space.

Years have passed, and I still think we did not really do the right thing there, but a lot was learned from the experience. And I’m happy to say it did turn out right in the end. They started using the lab to repair electronics on cars, trained young people on CAD to design toys and furniture and even won a prize for a bionic hand they build for a local man, so he could play pétanque again…

It did change me, that lab. I realised technology could really make a difference, but that it needed to be adapted to the local situation, connected with a community, and serve an ecosystem that’s open to it to make it sustainable and durable.

Since then I’ve been in many other places, installed many other labs and machines, and trained countless people on the use of digitally controlled tools. I’ve met people from UNHCR (hearing about solutions that touch well over 800 thousand people) while pitching the idea of a fab lab, which can serve maybe 20 people at a time. And although I’m more mature now in my thinking (or so I’d like to believe) I still believe fab labs, their communities and tools, can improve the lives and livelihoods of people. Also in rural and poor areas.

We will need to develop much more than machines though.. educational resources that are cross cultural, that allow for a continuum even if people have to migrate from one place (and lab) to the other. Communities that span ideologies and different religions, solutions to problems that are technological, as well as cultural.

The nice thing about the fab labs is that they come with a community, made of people who want to do things differently.. be less of a consumer, and more of a creator. And because of the digital nature of the tools we use, almost all of them are naturally open to sharing, collaborating and learning from each other across boarders, cultures and religions.

Which doesn’t mean this is easy, or that we can do it alone. So if you have any thoughts, or know good relevant resources to use, tell us, and share!

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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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