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People and Projects

My favorite element of my research has been meeting the people. Typically, when you travel you go out and see a lot of cool buildings, play the tourist, take a pile of selfies, but you don’t interact with the locals. This time I’m skipping the cool buildings, I don’t have time to be a tourist, and I’m lucky to have Research Assistant Jon, who has very long arms, along on most interviews to snap photos for me while I take notes. (Side note: Italians love to take selfies, so all I have to do is smile, look in the right direction, and wait for the photo to appear on Facebook.) I’m meeting and engaging locals, the fascinating and driven people involved in Italy’s Fab Lab culture. Last week we visited Opendot Lab in Milano and I finally met Luisa Castiglioni, with whom I’d been communicating by email for months. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Enrico Bassi, the Lab coordinator.

At Opendot Lab in Milano.

At Opendot Lab in Milano, half of which is a design school.

Just days earlier, Lorenzo Romagnoli of Fab Lab Torino had told me an amusing anecdote about himself and Enrico. They were both founding members of Fab Lab Italia (now Torino), and they needed a pair of scissors, a simple tool present in every grade schooler’s pencil case. They were surrounded by computers, a laser cutter, mills, but had no scissors and therefore no method to complete their project. Lorenzo groaned with laughter as he told me the story, and wrapped it up with a lesson about “awareness of which tool is right for the job.” This is the second time I’ve heard about someone in the Italian Fab community and met them shortly thereafter. At Fab Lab Olbia, we heard about Giacomo Falaschi, inventor of the open source Falla 3D printer, and we met him days later at Fab Lab Cascina, and witnessed his tinkering process.

It seems like everyone involved in the Fab Lab movement in Italy knows everyone else. One of the first conversations we had at Fab Lab Cascina was about who else we were going to visit. “Oh Luisa? She’s really cool. Say hi for me.” “Definitely go to Trento, their Lab is in a museum designed by Renzo Piano.” “Who will you see in Venezia?” At Fab Lab Torino, Stefano Paradiso instructed me with a grin to ask Opendot about the “Fab Lab fights in Milano.” They all know each other, and what’s more, they all respect each other.

Why is Italy’s Fab Lab culture booming? Why did it explode faster in Italy than in any other country, and how has it maintained such velocity? As Enrico says, “Italy is crazy about it.” When posed these questions, Enrico inhaled deeply, thinking. “I think there are two reasons for the adoption of Fab Labs,” he said. “One is positive and one is negative.” He started with the negative: “Desperation.” Italy has rampant unemployment, especially among youth, and exports are low. There is a “negative mood” permeating the country, and the Fab Lab movement has “introduced a positive approach.” Fab Labs are cheap to join and use, if not entirely free, and can restore self-respect to individuals and communities. Just because you’re out of work doesn’t mean you’re worthless to society. At a Fab Lab, a person can create anything with their brain and their hands, which is an incredibly powerful feeling. Agency and value are ultimately cultivated within, and that’s the key to the positive reason “for fabbing.” Additionally, Italy has always had a “tradition of a few people [working together] doing big things.” Jon asked about Ferrari, and Enrico agreed that was a good example: a small company, very community driven, that produces some of the best automobiles in the world.

A member of Opendot Lab works on soldering a circuitboard.

A member of Opendot Lab works on soldering a circuitboard.

Fab Labs are inspiring a new philosophy of manufacturing, and though it’s still early days, the more momentum the movement garners, the faster the philosophy will take over. “We cannot continue working in the same way, we’re looking for alternatives.” Fab Labs tap into people’s creativity and passion. Enrico said that a “mental switch” happens to people after they’ve been using a Fab Lab for some time; they suddenly start thinking, “I don’t want to buy that, I want to build that, or fix that.”

Opendot hosted a workshop around Christmastime for locals to build a scooter themselves for their children.

Opendot hosted a workshop around Christmastime for locals to build a scooter for their children.

The CNC at work.

The CNC at work.

Enrico told me, “Sustainability is based mainly on culture.” Though Opendot (and most of the Labs I’ve visited thus far) have no recycling process in place, Enrico encouraged me to think about the alternatives, the sustainable positives: time usage and the objects that get repaired or upcycled. Labs often accumulate a fair amount of waste plastic, mostly failed 3D printing projects. At the Loveland Creatorspace, an active makerspace in Colorado, members collected these falsely warped objects in a “box of shame.” At the moment, there’s no adequate method for recycling these plastic hunks that is both time efficient and does not degrade the quality of the plastic. If a spool of plastic has even one abnormality, it can ruin an entire 3D printing job and waste hours.

Additive manufacturing, such as 3D printing, generally creates less waste  than subtractive manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing, such as 3D printing, generally creates less waste than subtractive manufacturing.

Sustainability is something every Fab Lab would like to claim, and it’s something many are actively working toward, but it’s not the primary focus of the majority. Madison and I need to rebrand our documentary. It’s becoming increasingly apparent to me through this month of research in Italy that Self-Made is not “the story of sustainable industry.” Self-Made is the story of people, projects, and possibility. The people who collaborate across the kilometers, the projects that affect entire communities, and the possibilities of our changing global economy. What if instead of buying things we created things? The twenty-first century is ushering in a new required skill set for survival. Technology is not something we can ignore or afford not to understand.

It’s easy to ask the usual questions, what’s your membership process, what courses do you offer, how many people use the Lab? But less simple is to delve into the philosophy of the movement. Enrico gave me that opportunity. He candidly called himself a “bad manager” because in his heart all he wants to do is make and experiment, not manage. Every single person I’ve met within the context of my research has been positive with a vision for global change. They know what they’re up against (fear of technology plays a huge part, especially in Italy), but they’re not to be discouraged.

Mir looks on as Enrico lights the Lab's stove for coffee.

Mir looks on as Enrico lights the Lab’s stove for coffee.

I may not be roaming through Italy taking selfies with exotic architecture in the background, but I’m doing so much more. I’m engaged in some of the most illuminating conversations of my life. People, projects, and possibility. That’s what it’s all about.

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