Organic Technology

[Originally published December 2015.]

“Community access to digital fabrication isn’t a vision of the future,” Professor Neil Gershenfeld (USA), Fab Founder and director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, said at a November TEDx talk titled “Programming a New Reality”.

Professor Gershenfeld continued, “A week or so ago I was at the United Nations general assembly. […] This is the biggest gathering of heads of state ever, launching the Sustainable Development Goals, this road map for the planet for the next fifteen years, and what the White House and the UN really wanted was not just to show problems, but to show solutions. […] I was with a colleague, Beno Juarez, who grew up in the Peruvian jungle in the Amazon, and as he described it as a kid, you had three career choices, you could be a farmer, a soldier, or a terrorist, and you got to pick one of them. And he has a wonderful project now, sending digital fabrication tools up the Amazon for sustainability in indigenous communities, and that’s what we showed at the UN general assembly.”

I could pretty much let Professor Neil write this post for me: “We’re running a program called the Fab Academy, where students have peers in workrooms with machines and mentors locally, and then you connect them globally with video and digital content sharing, and so you can bring the campus to the student.”

The Floating Fab Lab team is likewise able to operate because of twenty-first century organic technology. We’re dispersed across the time zones, and the project is brought to us individually. There will eventually be a physical result of our digital labor, and at that time, there may also be a physical migration of team members to the site of the action.

In addition to traditional crowdfunding and grant application, the FLF is relying on the Fab community itself to supply Lab components. Nicknamed “FabSourcing,” this crowdsourcing for stuff is sure to yield myriad materials and machines.

Delia Barriga (Peru) shares executive management with Beno and oversees the financial aspects of the FLF. Delia followed her daughter to a Fab Lab presentation in 2010, where she “first saw videos of 3D printing, and what this change meant for the world,” she wrote me in Spanish. She was deeply impressed at the time, but had no idea the impact the exposure would have on her life. She started working more with Fab Labs, her commitment increasing, until eventually she realized she could make a full time job out of pursuing funding for Fab Labs. She quit working as a corporate business adviser to follow a “vision that transcends the personal, to find the common good.” The funding campaign for the FLF begins in earnest in February.

The Floating Fab Lab relies on the various efforts of its team members, dispersed across who knows how many time zones, but also on nature itself. It’s almost as if it’s inevitable, not a vision of the future, but a feature of reality.


Powered by People

[Originally published November 2015.]

October and November were important months for the glocal Floating Fab Lab team. The project’s focus is shifting from the administrative, planning stage to the application and implementation stage. To that end, they organized a special event in Lima and Iquitos in early November, which several institutions attended, including MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, the Environmental Ministry of Peru, and Fab Labs Costa Rica and Argentina, to learn about the status of the project.

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Citizen Scientists

[Originally published October 2015.]

The Floating Fab Lab is an ambitious project that aims to address local Amazon community needs in a fully sustainable fashion. The project has achieved childhood, a stage it will zip through on its way to adolescence next year.

Throughout the autumn, the Floating Fab Lab team has striven to transition from the planning and administrative stage to the exciting application stage. Everyone has their role. Beno Juarez (Peru), founder and dreamer extraordinaire, has been traveling from Iquitos to Boston, accepting awards from the UN and hosting international interest meetings. More on that in a few days.

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The Conservation Conversation

[Originally published September 2015.]

The following sentence is going to sound absurd, but here it is: The Floating Fab Lab, currently in development, will bob up and down more than 2,000 km of Amazon River, bringing education and access to marginalized communities. That can’t be a real thing, right? It’s straight out of science fiction–or maybe Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

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Let’s Get Corny

Between the two of us Madison and I have visited a lot community gardens over the time zones. But none has captured our imaginations and enthusiasm quite as much as our favorite local Colorado garden. My best friend, Jillian Jackson MPH, happens to live at Mulberry Community Gardens in Fort Collins. She runs programs and harvests out of her backyard, which melds pretty perfectly with her career at the Medical Center of the Rockies with the Healthy Hearts program educating young people about nutrition. Her backyard is a smorgasbord of nutrition and an ideal space for public education.

We have enjoyed our fair share of parties there, too, and they always end in the glow of bonfire and whiskey and friendship. The title hopefully warned you about the vibe of this one.

Mulberry Community Gardens has grown a lot, from humble roots in late 2005 into a full tree of knowledge. When Erich Stroheim bought the property, included 1/18th of an irrigation share. Erich made the irrigation system himself out of PVC piping and small hoses. Lorraine Dunn and several others brainstormed, did the paperwork, and helped him get the garden off the ground. (Into the ground?) Mulberry Community Gardens has always been completely free to visit and use. Jilli estimates “current membership is 20ish people but there are many friends of the garden,” who visit the space intermittently.

Much of the garden is self-constructed, such as all the raised vegetable beds, built by volunteers, and the hoop house on the east end for flowers. The goat hotel (goat-tel) was assembled by Billy Goat moving & storage with a small grant from New Belgium brewing. Additionally, Mulberry Community Gardens members built the outdoor kitchen, the compost corner, and the pergola for the hops.

Louie the goat king with his harem.

“Materials are freecycled, come from donations, and the junk pile tucked near the garage,” Jilli wrote me in January. She shares her home with two roommates, two cats, four rescued goats, and many chickens. The garden grows just about every vegetable you can think of, herbs, flowers, and hops for homebrewing. It also boasts a 25 tree orchard and bees for sacred honey. Jilli’s favorite thing about Mulberry Community Gardens: “Hanging outside drinking beer with friends of all ages and walks of life and getting excited about colorful cauliflowers.” She’s basically the Mulberry Fairy.

Is this real life?

Events at the garden are educational or social, usually both. In the fall, many people of Fort Collins gather to celebrate Heinztoberfest, a homebrew and German potluck, which grows more popular every year. Also around the same time of year, Mulberry Community Gardens participates in the annual Make a Difference Day, a nationwide day of doing good that is celebrated for almost the entire month of October in Larimer County. This past year, more than 1800 citizens from the county completed 94 service projects. The garden also enjoys a close relationship with New Belgium brewing, hosting their employee team building volunteer day. Additionally, they put on occasional concerts every year. Recently they’ve showcased Free the Honey, a band from Crested Butte, and this approaching summer they’ll host a benefit concert with several artists. Also new in the summer: The Poudre School District Gardening in the Classroom workshop will move to its new Mulberry campus.

The crop cycle governs much of their activity, and planting, cultivating, and harvesting always draw people to the garden throughout the year. In the early spring, right around now, Jilli, Lorraine, and their friends are starting to plant and transplant. Later in the spring they’ll complete planting in the ground, and in the summer they’ll plant late season crops as well as launch weeding and weedwacking crusades. The work picks up and ample volunteers arrive to water the plants, clean the grounds, turn the compost, clean chicken coops, collect eggs, and enjoy a beer or four. The garden produces a magnificent plenty.

This urban idealism isn’t without its struggles, however. Jilli cites prey getting after the chickens, occasionally eating them, mostly raccoons and neighbor dogs. And sometimes people pull up crops mistaking them for weeds. At least, Jilli says, they have never been known to run out of beer.

Heinzetoberfest 2016.

Jilli started volunteering at the garden in 2012, and in late summer 2014 she moved in. She’s seen the garden grow as a community presence. “The garden is a lot cleaner and we are accomplishing the crazy goals we used to dream of. Now they’re a reality,” she wrote. “I started as a practicum student for the Colorado School of Public Health, and now I have my own practicum student!”

Jilli loves having a farm in her backyard where she can get fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs. “The space not only grows food but hosts great community events,” she wrote. Each person’s skills can be used. Plus, it’s relaxing and free. “Bring what you can, take what you need!”

Cool peeps at Mulberry Community Gardens.

All photos in this post are credited to Jillian Jackson, Mulberry Community Gardens, Heinzetoberfest 2015 and 2016, and Dave Seal.


Two Virginia Makerspaces

The maker movement is family. Literally. My own mother, Sharon Hodgkins, joined the Staunton Makerspace following my own immersion in maker culture. An engineer in heart and education, she’d never heard of the diverse DIY experiment that is our global accumulation of makerplaces. The concept spoke to her and she set about finding her own local makerspace in rural Augusta County, Virginia.

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The São Paulo Maker Scene

Madison and I have both been to São Paulo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere, and we love it. In 2011 Madison traveled to SP for Carnival with the goal of staying there for two and a half weeks speaking only Portuguese. She’d been studying the language at university, and wanted to test herself. “I planned the first two days of the trip, and left the rest completely open-ended. I made some lifelong friends and managed to survive without speaking any English,” she said.

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The Buenos Aires Maker Scene

Buenos Aires… Where to begin?! This city moves with gentle grace despite its gargantuan size, the third largest metropolitan region in Latin America. It’s calm and quaint in corners, quilted with parks and public spaces, but beware  the buses; they’ll rip down streets no matter how narrow as if the pavement were on fire.

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The Jungle Boat

At the start of May, Madison and two of her fellow Kaospilots joined the Floating Fab Lab (FLF) team on an investigative excursion into the Amazon. They visited two villages near Iquitos, Padre Cocha and Manacamiri in the Maynas region, and set themselves the task of discovering how exactly the FLF will best be able to serve these and similar indigenous communities. A tentative approach is necessary for ambitious, modern projects such as the FLF. If the project busts in delivering education and new technology to people who never even completed primary school, their reception will not be great. That would be scary. It would feel like a cultural coup. And that’s why the FLF is taking its time with investigation, finding the best angle to bring their hopeful project to the world of these indigenous communities. Understanding the context of where they’re going and who they’re helping is key to being able to initiate positive change. The FLF project is undeniably a force for good, but there’s still a right way and a wrong way to go about implementing it. The appropriateness of their goals is important to understand.

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