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Fab Lab Santiago

I’ve never been to a city quite like Santiago, especially in Latin America. In this city, they clothe their stray dogs with a bright orange vest so they don’t get hit by cars at night. Cyclists zip by on well-demarcated bike lanes. Homosexuality is no big deal, and gay couples walk around holding hands. Street art, skate parks, a dozen universities all on strike for free education–this is a modern, even enlightened, city.

Murals everywhere.

Murals everywhere.

Madison’s Madventure in the Peruvian Amazon proved quite fruitful (more on that in a couple weeks), and she’s since returned to Denmark to finish the semester out with the Kaospilots in Aarhus. I have meanwhile completed the qhapaq ñan, the infamous Inca Trail, which stretches from Quito to Santiago. Of course, unlike the Incas, I started in Lima, flew to Cusco, bused to Arequipa, and then crossed the Chilean border to end up in Arica. In pure Madulthood style, in Arica I spontaneously bought an enormous purple van off three Argentinian surfer dudes who had driven 20,000km from California. Hit the Wave is about “transforming fear into adrenalin, and weakness into willpower,” and with the acquisition of their famous van Violetta, my own mission has morphed: I’ll drive around South America visiting Fab Labs in at least four countries, and then all the way back to Colorado. Freakin’ loco, I know, I know.

My local friend and host Fran poses with her purple bike in front of my purple van.

My local friend and host Fran poses with her pretty purple bike in front of my pretty purple van.

In the excellent company of my boyfriend, iPhone photographer extraordinaire Dave Seal, and two adVANturous Americans from the west coast, Joseph Bulleri and Rocky Burns, we departed Arica for the south, and spent the next week and a half exploring the Mars-like landscape of the Atacama Desert and the crystal clear waters of the Chilean Pacific coast. Rocky had a plane to catch, so we parted ways in La Serena, and Dave and I arrived in Santiago a few days later in time for his flight home.

Just a bunch of silly flamingos: Joe, Rocky, and Dave at Laguna Chaxa.

Just a bunch of silly flamingos: Joe, Rocky, and Dave at Laguna Chaxa.

Time to get serious. With Dave’s departure the holiday element of my journey has ended. Conveniently this coincides with an increase in Fab Labs along my intended route, and it starts in Santiago, which has three official Fab Labs listed on the Fab Foundation website, but actually boasts a couple more, along with STGO Makerspace, the country’s first co-working space.

This past weekend was a very important one for Fab Lat, the Latin American Fab community. The Fab Lat Fest took place in cities all over the Caribbean and South and Central America, showcasing projects, offering workshops and lectures, and inviting participants to contribute to the global conversation of where this movement is headed. Fab Lab Santiago hosted the city’s Open Day on Saturday, and when I visited I found the workshop bustling with activity. Groups of local citizens, many of whom looked like they had never been to a Fab Lab, were attentively listening to the various project leads as they passionately discussed their fields of research, and the laser cutter was receiving so much attention from kids and adults alike that it broke down temporarily and needed to be repaired.

For more photos from the Fab Lat Fest Open Day at Fab Lab Santiago, please check out the Floating Fab Lab's new Instagram page!

For more photos from the Fab Lat Fest Open Day at Fab Lab Santiago, please check out the Floating Fab Lab’s new Instagram page!

I spoke first to Fernanda Vio, project director for Maquinar.io, a platform that connects local Chilean designers to the Fab Lab, where they learn techniques for digital fabrication. The Fab Lab provides the materials, and the designers create products in the Fab Lab which are then showcased on the website. You can either buy the finished product, or for a much reduced price, purchase the template and build the item yourself. I found that in everything it pursued, Fab Lab Santiago was true to open source practices.

Next month, Fernanda will facilitate an exhibition for the designers and their products, which are diverse indeed, ranging from furniture to clothing to home decor and life solutions. A designer in her own right, Fernanda modeled one of the projects, a laser cut necklace made from synthetic felt, as she shared some of the other projects: A wooden laser cut puzzle for young children, where the animal pieces were also simultaneously stamps, and a set of laser cut real leather purses, held together without thread or glue–very simple and classy, developed by the well-known Chilean designer Vera Sielfeld. My favorite item struck me as incredibly clever, a CNC-built kid-walker, which enables parents to help teach their youngsters to walk without bending over.

Lab coordinator Sofia Guridi led me on a tour of Fab Lab Santiago, introducing me to many members including Pilar Bolumburu, who was very busy that Saturday as head of education and workshops, and Fernando Torres, head of engineering projects. Fernando told me the Fab Lab is collaborating with a Colombia-based bike builder to study the experience of Santiago’s growing bicycle community–a key element of the Smart city agenda.

Sofia’s tour continued; she noted that Fab Lab Santiago emphasized design and woodworking more than most Fab Labs. They have three primary focuses: the academic and educational thread, visiting universities and schools and holding workshop inside and outside of the Fab Lab; their internal projects, such as Maquinar.io; and their external projects, which help them financially support themselves. One such state-contracted project is their work with Fundación Vivienda, a program to rapidly build emergency housing on the CNC for victims of natural disasters. Nothing is wasted; any leftover wood from building the houses is used to make furniture.

At Fab Lab Santiago I discovered a population of equal parts men and women, which is rather uncommon in the Fab Lab universe. One principle reason for this may be their emphasis on design. In addition to Maquinar.io, the Fab Lab is also investigating Open Textiles and open source jewelry. Their work with Open Textiles involves aggregating data from other open source projects to build a platform to further research into new textures and techniques. Fernando from the engineering department is helping incorporate electronics into some of the clothes; their goal is to design chic wearables where the electronics–sewn on with conductive thread–are as unobtrusive as possible. In the jewelry line of investigation they’re experimenting with new materials and working primarily with their laser cutter, not 3D printers.

The final project Sofia shared with me was the Sandbot, a CNC they hacked into a 3D printer that can print sand. They went out into the desert to collect piles of sand for the project. “We like to be local,” Sofia joked. Glue is used to hold the sand particles together as it emerges from the extruder. Still in its prototype phase, some of the finished products–small droopy vases–were more interesting to look at than functional. The Sandbot is a very cool project, nonetheless, a perfect example of what a team of people motivated by curiosity and creativity rather than money can accomplish.

Last but not least, I spoke to Juan Luzoro, manager at Design Lab UAI, a Fab Lab inside the Universidad Adolfo Inbáñez, which was established in 2012 in conjunction with the university’s new design school. Juan had many student projects on display, undergrad and postgrad alike. One, “an academic experiment,” is a board game intended to investigate the sudden urban growth–and disintegration–of cities. Another project by a Master in Design analyses the link between artisanal creation and digital fabrication. And one more studies how we can use the material that destroys homes (volcanic rock) to rebuild those same homes. Juan noted how none of the projects would have been possible without the digital fabrication tools available at the Fab Lab. In reference to the latter project he said, “Robots have the ability to do things you can’t, like polishing stone. The robot doesn’t sleep, doesn’t get tired.” Design Lab UAI specializes in commercial engineering, a field that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, a special form of innovation assisted by the new technical advances of the 21st century.

Santiago is a beautiful city surrounded by snow-capped Andes Mountains, but unfortunately that same mountain range contributes to a significant smog problem by trapping pollution in a shroud that blankets the city on most days.

Santiago is a beautiful city surrounded by snow-capped Andes Mountains, but unfortunately that same mountain range contributes to a significant smog problem by trapping pollution in a shroud that blankets the city on most days.

Later this week I’ll be visiting a few other Fab Labs in Santiago, results to be published on the Floating Fab Lab blog. I had a wonderful time at the Fab Lat Fest Open Day at Fab Lab Santiago, and I’m looking forward to learning more during my stay in this exciting, modern city!

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