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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.

Beco do Batman, probably the coolest neighborhood in the world.

Beco do Batman, probably the coolest neighborhood in the world.

I first visited SP in 2014 as a tourist. I met up with Edy, Madison’s pen pal (who she’s never actually met in person), and Manu, another international friend of a friend. I remember being impressed by how vast SP felt, but how small the world. Speaking of which, last week I returned to SP in my guise of a freelance journalist to interview people involved in the maker movement. I went to two Fab Labs, a hackerspace, a techno-art studio, and a sort of open source tech shop, and these visits all afforded a glimpse into how these community-driven makerplaces are able to sustain themselves.

Francisco Santos and Kenzo Abiko at Insper Fab Lab.

Lourenço Santos and Kenzo Abiko at Insper Fab Lab.

Let’s start with Kenzo Abiko and Insper Fab Lab. Kenzo and his parents were kind enough to host me when I trundled into the city late last Tuesday evening. Kenzo works as a facilitator for the Brazilian Fab Lab network and helps new Labs startup. And soon he hopes to bring Fab Academy to Brazil.

The afternoon following my arrival, Kenzo took me to Open Day at Insper Fab Lab in the prestigious private university of the same name. The Fab Lab was opened in conjunction with the engineering school, so brand new a lot of the lab equipment hadn’t even been unwrapped. They’ll graduate their first class in 2019. The Fab Lab is free and open to the public on Wednesdays, and when I was there during the semester break, there was only one actual student. For the most part, the student body and the public have no difficulty tolerating each other, but the university is an expensive one by most international standards, and as such the administration has considered eliminating Open Day, on the grounds that the students pay for the machines indirectly through their tuition, therefore they should have exclusive access. It’s their decision, of course, but it wouldn’t be very Fab of them.

Mauricio works on his open source pinball machine.

At Insper Fab Lab, Mauricio Jabur builds a pinball machine. He brings his own materials and uses the laser cutter and other tools for free.

Anyway, the chances of the disappearance of Open Day are slim. I saw how popular Insper Fab Lab was. A father had brought his son and a friend to see 3D printing in action, and a group of young people were constructing Google cardboard goggles. While Lourenço, the on-call Fab Lab “guru,” facilitated multiple projects, Kenzo took a conference call in the room with the unused CNC mill, and I met Mauricio Jabur and Rafael Câmera of Pandora Lab, a local endeavor to bring digital fabrication basics to the average SP citizen. The truth is that most maker content online is in English, so Mauricio and Rafael translate it into Portuguese to make it more accessible. They took some of their inspiration from Colorado’s own Sparkfun, where Madison and I did some light filming way back in 2014. Pandora Lab provides downloadable content and also creates open source kits. During my visit, Mauricio was constructing a pinball machine, and Rafael was helping with a half dozen different things, including showing the visiting kids how 3D printing works. Turns out the father is a venture capitalist and one of Rafael’s greatest mentors.

The Tech Lab in the same building is open only to students, who with Francisco's guidance, built this extruder, which recycles used plastic back into 3D printer filament.

The heavy duty tech lab in the same building is open only to students, who with Lourenço’s guidance built this extruder, which recycles used plastic back into 3D printer filament.

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We didn’t do it.

After Insper and a couple beers at Bar do Juarez in Itaim with Madison’s pen pal Edy, Kenzo and I darted over to Garao Hacker Clube on Kenzo’s scooter. If I ever have reason to live in a massive city like São Paulo, I’ll definitely get myself some sort of motorbike. Effective and efficient urban transport. He filled his tank for ten reis. I can’t even talk about what it costs to fill la Viole up.

Garoa Hacker Clube is everything an underground, subversive hackerspace should be. I won’t say much, but I did get a real kick out of their interior decorating.

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Some very serious business gets done here.

Enter at your own risk.

Enter at your own risk.

In the morning I moved my van and my life across the city to Garagem Fab Lab, where I met Carolina Cardoso, who runs a Fab Lab on weekdays and a farmers market on weekends. Garagem was the second Fab Lab to open in Brazil and the first independent, meaning they exist in their own building, unattached to a university, library, company, or institution. “We have more independence, but it’s more financially difficult,” Carolina said. Last year they successfully crowdfunded to relocate from their dysfunctional space in a downtown collective to their current spot, upstairs from a thriving woodworking studio called Oficina Lab. Active member Rafael Barba built the huge open source CNC mill that both labs use.

Carolina Cardoso is grateful to all the supporters of Garagem Fab Lab.

Carolina Cardoso is grateful to all the supporters of Garagem Fab Lab.

Garagem hosted something like four workshops in the two days I was there, a key ingredient in their recipe for financial survival. I wrote an article for the Floating Fab Lab blog, while surrounded by an Autodesk tutorial. Another workshop for educators on interactive learning took over the same space later. It was elegant chaos all day long.

The next day Kenzo and Carolina passed me on to Lina Lopes from Amazonia who founded Estúdio LILO, a truly independent art & technology studio nestled in the heart of the trendy Vila Madalena neighborhood. Lina relishes her independence and joked at me and Carolina for our attachment to the Fab Lab brand. Lina defies definition, and that’s why it’s so hard to say exactly what Estúdio LILO is all about. They host workshops for kids, have a number DIY kits, an old camera collection, a sewing nook experimenting with wearable technologies, a library, a huge white wall for projections, and a cafe/bar. They’re about a lot of things, also including video mapping and karaoke and open source drones. “We make interactive art for Smart Cities,” Lina said. Radical.

Wearables with conductive thread and Arduino.

Wearables with conductive thread and Arduino boards.

And now they have a laser cutter. I helped the team move a laser cutter from Garagem Fab Lab to Estúdio LILO. Well, mostly I napped on a table, since I know nothing about dismantling large machines, and then I drove. Who could have predicted that the first time Violetta and I would help someone move–after so many others, including Madison, have helped me time and again–it would be in the name of digital fabrication?

Unloading the laser cutter at Estúdio LILO.

Unloading the laser cutter at Estúdio LILO.

At Estúdio LILO I also met Thiago Kunz, another Amazonian. He’s very interested to see the Floating Fab Lab network spread all the way to his home in Belém, in the delta of the Amazon River. He has since relocated to northern Brazil to facilitate the grand opening and operation of Fab Lab Belém.

The final makerplace in São Paulo I went to was We Fab, a playhouse that brings makers and companies together to solve problems. On the day of my visit they were hosting a design bootcamp to create the prototype for an open source audio guide. Participants vote on projects suggested by the group and then spend a day or two creating it. These intensive workshops are often free, and they aim to attract a crowd of makers and fabbers who are interested in working on more complicated problems, i.e. no keychains. At We Fab I caught up with Fabien Eychenne, who writes about once a month for the Makery, a French and English online maker publication. They actually just recently published an article by us about the Floating Fab Lab, “In Amazonia, a Floating Fab Lab wants to connect jungle and technology,” in English or French. Check out some of Fabien’s articles: “In Lima, Fab Labs are the Eldorado of Peru,” “Toward a Fab City in São Paulo?‘ and “Garagem, a Brazilian Fab Lab in Start-up Mode.”

"The fishbowl."

“The fishbowl.” I took many of these photos for @floating_fab. Please follow!

So there you have it, a range of methods of financial survival, brought to you by the university-supported Insper Fab Lab, the independent Garagem Fab Lab, the refused-to-be-boxed Garoa Hacker Clube and Estúdio LILO, and the enterprising solution searchers We Fab. With the university supporting them, Insper is able to have high-end, new, and precise machines, while the independence of Garagem means they keep its own hours and host whatever event or workshop they want. For every Fab Lab and makerplace there is a financial model, and finding it is part of the fun. At least, it should be. I’m living in a van, what do I know.

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