Andrea and I sped west into the blood orange sunset, jagged Alpine peaks clawing the horizon. It took a long time for the sky to lose its visceral glory and a long time for my heart to stop palpitating with the anticipation of once again being surrounded by mountains. I’d arranged this rideshare from Genova to Torino through BlaBlaCar, and when I disembarked his Fiat, Andrea gave me a goose egg from his personal farm, which I later presented to my Couchsurfing host Fabio Manniti like an offering in a fairy tale. If we sat on it all night, maybe a dragon would crack through the shell. We scrambled it with with dinner instead.
Torino was the biggest city I’d been to in weeks. Navigating high rises and multi-lane intersections felt unfamiliar. But I could smell that grounding mountain crispness in the air, even though the city stands a mere 238m above sea level. The Alps wrap a loose arm around Torino, the distant sharp-edged horizon. It’s warmer than you’d expect here; the wind doesn’t blow in cold off the Sea. It feels Roman, rushed and rough somehow. Though Torino changed drastically after the 2006 Olympic Games, some of the grittiness remains. Colonnades and piazzas pepper the city, but gone are the cubic pastel homes basking in the sun. I’m still in Italy, but it feels like I’ve crossed a border or three.
Alright, that’s enough poetic place setting. Let’s get closer. Fabio, whose interests include everything from street performing to renewable energy, accompanied me on this interview. Torino was, and still is in some respects, the heart of Italian industry. However, as manufacturing was outsourced toward the end of the twentieth century, many of the factories were abandoned, leaving rows of ghostly hollow buildings. Fabio and I turned down a street lined by such structures, ditch on one side, broken-windowed, graffitied facades on the other. An unlikely location for a hip, happening hub for digital fabrication, but I believe I’ve already well established the fact that Fab Labs can exist anywhere, involve anyone, and manufacture anything.
Fab Lab Torino was bumping when we walked in. Around twenty students from a local technical school were attending a weekly course in 3D printing, taught in a classroom hooked onto the Lab. Against one side of the workroom stood a table of 3D printers, all of different design. Not one was in use; I’m quickly learning that the novelty of the 3D printer is what often brings people into a Fab Lab initially, but it’s the other tools and the camaraderie that inspire them to stay.
Lorenzo Romagnoli and Stefano Paradiso took us on the tour, first delving into the history of the Lab. Fab Lab Torino was established in 2011 as Fab Lab Italia, the first Fab Lab in Italy. Since their founding, the original three members have watched the movement rock Italy. Fab Labs have sprouted up everywhere, many of them not associated with the official Fab Foundation. In the United States, these informal workshops are called makerspaces or hackerspaces. The Fab Foundation is the organizational totem pole around which the international Fab Lab community gathers. It fosters better collaboration between Labs than unaffiliated makerspaces can achieve, one of the primary reasons MadRim Productions settled on the European Fab Lab movement as the topic for our documentary Self-Made.
However, in Italy, the term Fab Lab seems to have “magical properties” (a phrase borrowed from Enrico Bassi of Open Dot Lab in Milano), with local workshops calling themselves a fab lab, though they’re not affiliated. No one cares–why should they? The bottom line is that Italy, a country slightly larger than New Mexico, boasts something like sixty official Fab Labs. In the whole of the United States, there are about eighty Fab Labs. (Fun fact: There is one Fab Lab in New Mexico.) Please note that this is not a negative comment on the health of the overall maker community in the United States; while in Colorado, Madison and I integrated into the burgeoning maker scene on the Front Range and we both interviewed at spaces on the east coast. In fact, Lorenzo told me he believes the “US maker culture is bigger” than the European, but in Italy “the Fab Lab, in particular, is fashionable.” There are certainly dozens of reasons for this discrepancy, but I believe that in the United States we emphasize competition over collaboration, it’s just part of our culture, and the organized, play-nicely-with-others element intrinsic to the Fab Lab movement doesn’t appeal to the majority of Americans. We’re militantly independent as individuals, and whether this is a positive or negative quality of American culture is something I intend to investigate within the context of our ongoing research.
Still, numbers translate to words: Italy has one of the healthiest maker communities in the world. Fab Lab Italia had to change its name. Three years ago it became Fab Lab Torino and it currently operates out of Toolbox Coworking, a collaborative IT office share. Officine Arduino also uses Toolbox as its headquarters, and pays most of the rent for Fab Lab Torino. In fact, the two operations are barely indistinguishable. Many of Arduino’s employees are Fab Lab members, and the Fab Lab is in a continuous state of manufacturing PCBs for Arduino.
Arduino is an incredibly useful computing platform. Committed to the open-source agenda, the company develops kits that can be purchased preassembled or constructed from scratch. Arduinos go into building simple or complex robots, sensors, 3D printers, and just about any digital fabrication project. They’re very popular in the DIY scene, making electronics more accessible to artists, designers, and hobbyists. The Officine employs about 115 people, many of whom were working upstairs in a crowded room populated by more computers than I could count. “We need more tables,” Lorenzo said ruefully. Since its founding, Arduino has experienced incredible growth and popularity. There are offices around the world; in Torino they’re responsible for the development of hard- and software.
Fab Lab Torino is unique for it nearness to Arduino, and also for its membership structure. While they do charge 50€ for a year’s subscription to the Lab and have an “official list for insurance purposes,” Fab Lab Torino also hosts various informal sub-communities, such as Lorenzo’s Arduino-user group, which pushes Arduino technology limits and then drinks beer afterward. Stefano is involved in the Biohackers, who research “weird and scary things” (Lorenzo’s words) with DNA and bacteria. They recently captured a time-lapse video of bacteria growing in a petri dish. They also determined that cinnamon is much more effective than even garlic at fighting bacteria, so put some of that in your coffee tomorrow. There’s also the Audiohack club, who hack with music, making “noise all night long, every two weeks.” These communities are free to join and they use the Fab Lab to create tools for their research.
Lorenzo and Stefano were eager to take me upstairs. I followed them through the “maze” of whitewashed rooms, unclear where Fab Lab Torino ended and other Toolbox offices began. I suspect the borders are laxly controlled. Toolbox houses at least two foosball tables. On the top level of the building is Casa Jasmina, the result of collaboration between Fab Lab Torino, Toolbox, and Arduino. Lorenzo described the open-source, connected apartment under construction as the “house of the future,” a completely livable space that serves as a test-bed for projects in development. Casa Jasmina will be an experiment with the Internet of Things, an older theory that is now in the twenty-first century becoming a serious reality. Appliances in the apartment will be embedded with Arduino software and sensors, enabling the objects in the apartment to communicate. Lorenzo was particularly drawn by the idea of a “smart fridge,” which would be able to tell inhabitants when a certain item was running low or a spill had happened or something was rotting. The apartment’s heating system could presumably be self-regulating, the washing machine capable of recognizing if you’d thrown a red sock in with your white sheets, and a stove that knows what you’re cooking and never boils over. Cool, right?
American sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling and Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi birthed the idea for Casa Jasmina, named after Bruce’s wife, and contacted Lorenzo last June. They expect to finish renovation by the end of the month, and welcome occupants simultaneously. They’re leaving most of the walls undecorated and furniture minimalistic, presenting the apartment as “an empty container.” They expect the innovative designers and artists that come to inhabit the apartment will leave their physical mark on the space. Engineers and technologists are expected to improve on the open-source smart technology of Casa Jasmina. The apartment will exist as a hub of collaboration, a place where people from all backgrounds can thrive professionally and socially, inspired by their surroundings and their fellow inventive human beings. The proximity of Fab Lab Torino and Officine Arduino (literally downstairs) will play the biggest role in transforming ideas into reality, “turning data into things,” as MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld phrases it. Lorenzo told me Casa Jasmina will serve as “an incubator for connected technologies.” I’m picturing smart couches that know who’s sitting on them and will adjust the firmness of their smart cushions according to each individual’s preference. “The house of the future,” indeed.
The first three years of Casa Jasmina’s operation will serve as a testing period, after which the investment money should be earned back through rent payments and the apartment will be self-sufficient. Lorenzo hopes they will be able to scale the project up after that, perhaps expand the original apartment space or open other similar communal living spaces in the other vacant industrial buildings on the same street.
Our world is changing in fundamental and profound ways. Everyone knows this. With more technology comes more change, which is turn leads to more technology and change. There’s an obvious snowball effect. The planet doesn’t stop revolving, time doesn’t stop ticking, the sun will rise and set. So it is with human innovation. I asked Lorenzo about the role automation will play in our global economy. Presumably, it’s a positive thing if we have robots take over low-income, low-skill jobs, right? The downside is of course unemployment. Lorenzo immediately joked that replacing humans with Arduino-powered robots would in fact create jobs, as “Arduino is demanding” and we’d need “more people to fix the Arduinos!”
In a serious tone, he added that “Arduino is an improvement that provides the tools to understand technology, which is just another language. It’s a facilitator that allows people to get into a tech field and build their skills.” Since automation is inevitable, he hopes “that people will adapt.” A moment later, he asserted, “People will adapt.” And he’s right. We’re an evolving species like any other. This is the world we live in, there’s no retreating from it. Factories are being filled with robots and drones, putting thousands out of work. Luckily, our global society is adjusting. Fab Labs are popping up all over the world, in the most unlikely locations, helping us educate ourselves, helping us master the twenty-first century skills that we’ll need to survive and thrive in a world of constant and inevitable change. We can’t stop learning and improving, and locations such as Fab Lab Torino, Officine Arduino, and “the house of the future” Casa Jasmina are fostering collaboration, paving the way one Arduino-powered robotino at a time.