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Pin c-2013-kohtala sustainability-fablabs
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Pin c-2013-kohtala sustainability-fablabs


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  • 1. Participatory Innovation Conference 2013, Lahti, Finland 1SHAPING SUSTAINABILITY IN FABLABSCINDY KOHTALAAALTO UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF ARTS, DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE, HELSINKI, FINLANDCINDY.KOHTALA@AALTO.FIABSTRACTThis paper presents a narrative case studydescribing interactions in one Fab Lab in Helsinki,Finland. The intent is to reveal how (or if)sustainability concerns are socially shaped withinan organization in the same way participatoryinnovation can be shaped. The contribution of thepaper is two-fold. First, it augments understandingof environmental impacts and attitudes in FabLabs; secondly it describes how peer learning isencouraged in Labs, thereby setting the stage forparticipatory innovation in what is – in essence – anovel infrastructure for product development. Thepreliminary findings suggest pathways that canlead towards participatory invention or innovationas well as environmentally responsible practice.INTRODUCTIONFab Labs (‘fabrication laboratories’) offer access todigital manufacturing equipment in spaces whereindividuals can design and fabricate their owninventions and products. Since establishment of the firstthree Fab Labs in 2002 (an outreach project of MIT’sCenter for Bits and Atoms), the network has extended tonumber in the hundreds. Each Lab is unique and retainsits own profile with regards to associated institution(university, research institute, private organization, etc.),funding and revenue model, target users, and so on, andtherefore the network (which was not begun with theintent of establishing a network) is akin more to abazaar than a franchise. Nevertheless the attempt ismade to retain common equipment and operatingprocedures across all Labs so that projects and learningscan be shared throughout the network. Unlikeprofessional product prototyping services, theequipment in Fab Labs tends towards the smaller‘desktop’ variety. Users therefore operate the equipmentdirectly and without mediation of a technician except ininitial training when needed. As will be elaboratedbelow, this is one key aspect of the culture of peer-to-peer learning deemed desirable. Another distinguishingcharacteristic, laid out in the Fab Lab Charter(, is that Labs mustbe open (at least in part) to the public and not restrictedto specific users by paid membership or other criteria.The Charter entreats users of the Open Access days todocument and openly share their projects. This therebyforms another key element in the collaborative, openclimate of any Fab Lab.Bringing digital manufacturing capacity to the level ofthe individual is regarded by some as potentiallydisruptive (e.g. Lipson and Kurman 2010). Disruptivetechnologies combined with practices and valuesaligned with empowerment and peer learning means theFab Lab model could well be a stepping stone to morewidespread implementations of distributed production –as an alternative to, or alternate form of, massproduction. This has clear implications for participatoryinnovation research and knowledge building, asrevealing how collaborative actions and cooperativevalues are shaped in Fab Labs is transferable to othercontexts. Moreover, if sustainability-oriented values andpro-environmental behaviours can be shaped andencouraged in a similar way, long-term implicationsinclude the ability to promote more sustainableoperational models for Fab Labs and maker spaces infuture.In the author’s doctoral research, environmental, socialand economic sustainability are inevitably intertwined;nevertheless, the focus level is on environmentalsustainability. More importantly, the focus remains onhow the actors themselves define or addresssustainability, how they prioritize their decisions, andhow they take up or ignore constraints imposed byenvironmental impact – especially in a context rife with
  • 2. 2 Participatory Innovation Conference 2013, Lahti, Finland and complexity concerning appropriate use ofmaterials and energy.LITERATURE AND METHODSThe literature on Fab Labs remains scant as it is arelatively new focus for study and researchers often relyon reports and studies published online for easy access,in accordance with principles of openness, rather than inacademic journals. One of the first accounts by thefounder of the Fab Lab network Neil Gershenfeld(2005) explores the nature and implications of personalfabrication. English-language overviews and surveys ofLabs are also beginning to appear (e.g. Eychenne 2012).Much of the emerging conceptual work (such as vanAbel et al. 2011; Bauwens et al. 2012) is indebted toBenkler’s notion of “commons-based peer production”(Benkler 2006) and investigates the realm where digital-based, distributed peer production enters the materialworld.Environmental issues in maker spaces are also rarelyaddressed in academic journals. Studies tend to focus onthe technologies and processes, thereby usuallyimplying digital manufacturing more generally andenvironmental engineering-led impact assessments (e.g.Franco, Lanzetta and Romoli 2010; ATKINS Project2007).Regarding the phrasing adopted in this paper, i.e. the“social shaping of sustainability”, this hasconventionally been addressed in different (normative)terms, such as how consumption patterns are affected orbehaviour changed in consumer, marketing as well aspolicy research (e.g. Stø et al. 2008; DEFRA 2008) andchange management in organizational literature (e.g.Daily and Huang 2001). Alternatives to theseapproaches, which may be more appropriate to therather odd ‘prosumption’ middle ground where FabLabs sit, focus on practices and social groups rather thanindividual behaviour or purchase patterns (e.g.Hargreaves 2011) and end-user (and/or lead user)involvement as opposed to employee/employerrelationships (e.g. Rohracher 2003).Given this background, the latter perspective thatacknowledges how actors shape the meaning ofartefacts and technologies (as in Williams and Edge1996; Bijker 1995) serves to position the research. Inthe present article, nonetheless, the objective at thisstage is to describe and reveal rather than, as yet, deeplyanalyse or make clear links to the theoreticalframework.Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted by the author inthe founding phases of a new Fab Lab in 2012 and thedescriptions in this case study are based on a large partof this data (i.e. about 160 audio and video recordings,six semi-structured interviews, photographs andfieldnotes). The intent was to capture what actorsactually do to both establish and use the Lab to fulfiltheir objectives. One key aim was to identify thebarriers and drivers to recognizing and prioritizingsustainability issues (or, more widely, how‘sustainability’ was represented).In this paper, the circumstances are described especiallyfrom the Organizers’ point of view. Their dilemmas,motivations, successes and distractions are depicted assuch on the basis of appearing numerous times in thedata. Attention is also paid to discrepancies betweenwhat actors express as convictions and preferences andwhat they actually do. This is especially relevant in thedata set on the Lab’s digital fabrication courses. It ishere that Organizers have a key role in shaping users’(i.e. Aalto students’) attitudes and behaviours regardingboth collaborative invention and sustainability-orientedpractices – especially in the context of an educationalinstitute.AALTO FAB LABFinland’s first Fab Lab opened in Aalto University’sMedia Factory in June 2012, while planning for itsopening and operation began in 2010. The Fab Labenables physical computing and product prototyping forstudents and staff as well as novel ways to engage withthe public in projects and/or during the Open Days. Thefirst public access Open Days began in October 2012(one day per week).Aalto Fab Lab is a small organization, consisting of onefull-time studio master and two half-time employees in2012. Decision-makers include Media Factory’smanager and director. The Lab’s space (about 100 m2)is divided into space for teaching/lecturing andworking/designing, an enclosed space for noisy anddusty equipment (i.e. laser cutter, milling machines),and space for other equipment (electronics stations, 3Dprinters, vinyl cutter, computers) and books. Anadjoining room offers office facilities and storage.ORGANIZER 1The Fab Lab’s Studio Master began work in November2011. She has a background in computing and workexperience in another Fab Lab. She was the main (oftenonly) person responsible for physically setting up theLab equipment and procedures: deciding on andordering the equipment and materials; coordinating withthe Lab’s space designer, builders, and authorities ( inspectors); troubleshooting the software andhardware; building the website; and deciding ondocumentation procedures, use instructions andworkflow. In parallel she was completing her own FabAcademy exercises, giving tours to numerous visitorsincluding journalists, and planning and teaching the firstDigital Workshop Basics courses. These courses gaveAalto students the first introduction to the equipmentand procedures through hands-on exercises as well asthe culture of sharing through having to executedocumentation or ‘instructables’.The purpose of the above lengthy description of tasks isto emphasize the many hats a typical Fab Lab managermust wear and the challenge to prioritize. The Studio
  • 3. Participatory Innovation Conference 2013, Lahti, Finland 3Master’s attention is often directed to the documentationproblem (i.e. the mechanics of how users can bestdocument and share their work) and the workflow anduser protocol issues (so users can be as independent aspossible), in accordance with values supportingopenness, sharing and peer learning.In interactions, the Studio Master clearly and regularlyencourages a help-yourself-and-help-others attitudethrough her words and behaviour. She continuallyemphasizes in Lab introductions that users do the workthemselves and she and the other employees are thereonly to help and guide. She routinely states that usersshould help the next one in the queue and teach themhow to use the machines. She reinforces this through herbehaviour: if two students are working together at amachine or computer screen, for instance, sheapproaches them to gauge the extent of the problem andthen physically draws away to let them continue helpingeach other.What was rarely observed was advice on environmentalchoices, given the substantial attention needed tofacilitate learning the equipment and social norms. Theselection of materials and equipment, for example, isclearly guided by bureaucracy and the need tostreamline. Complex procurement procedures in theuniversity including payment processes; ease ofordering in bulk through MIT, Aalto ARTS’ woodworkshop or another Aalto unit; price increases throughcustoms charges and import taxes: all these factors leadto choices that are usually not environmentally optimal.Moreover, not all materials are equal with regards to‘fabbability’: a British source of plywood was foundthat gave better results in the laser cutter than the localFinnish supply. In addition, standardized, virginmaterials are more predictable than waste (reused)materials in terms of equipment settings and output, andthis was usually pointed out when a student brought in amaterial of his/her own: not as a preference per se but asa practical issue regarding the need to test settings ( the laser cutter).Because of the practical concerns, the Studio Master hasbeen less able to spend time developing what she called“organic connections” and interests she had before herposition in Aalto. This refers to e.g. a Media Factory-funded project where people learned about waste and e-waste issues and experimented with reuse and recycling,as well as previous projects she has conducted oncreative reuse of laser cutter off-cuts. One mayconjecture that once the Lab begins to assume routineoperations she may pursue these more ‘benign’interests, thereby potentially influencing users’perceptions of what can be done in a Fab Lab.ORGANIZER 2The Producer is responsible for coordinating events(such as the Open Knowledge Festival) and communitybuilding. His background is in industrial and strategicdesign and he has an extensive history researching andexperimenting in the area of Open Design, digitalfabrication and peer-to-peer networks. It is important tonote that he is an influential voice in this (global)community. He began his work contract with MediaFactory in December 2011.He also teaches the Digital Fabrication Studio coursesubsequent to the Studio Master’s introductory course.His values and goals come through in how he conveysthe culture of fabbing through his lectures, includingstories told about other Labs and sharing of numerousprojects documented on the internet, and how he guidesthe students to final results. His success criteria for hiscourse are therefore more rigorous: fabbability isparamount, i.e. what it means to design for digitalfabrication. In his lectures and in guiding projects heespouses the “bits to atoms” ‘mythology’ rampant inFab Labs. Simply put, this concerns the relationshipbetween the digital input and the material output as wellas the meta-level where products can embed variouslayers of information. “It’s never only digital and neveronly physical material but both together.” One commonmethod of playing with this meta-level as well asadhering to the community rules on sharing designs is toprint (e.g. etch) the blueprint (or source code) on theproduct’s surface in the form of e.g. a QR code.The Producer’s favourite fabbed product by far is aglass bowl: a team effort where a pattern was milledinto a piece of wood in the Fab Lab, the wood wasconstructed into a glass mould, and one of the students(with glassblowing experience) formed the glass bowlby blowing, cutting and polishing in the school’s glassstudio. The praise for this work comes also unpromptedand after other interesting and praiseworthy studentwork has come out subsequently. This observation hasimplications for how influential actors and groups mayshape what is ‘success’ in future fabbing based on, forexample, traditional artisanal skills.This Organizer’s time constraints also dictate what heneeds to prioritize, his stance tempered by the practicalconsideration of a short course’s learning objectives.Despite his own emphasis on empowerment and peerlearning (stated explicitly in interviews), heacknowledges that the courses do not allow time tolearn how to e.g. set up collaborative projects. In thecourse the Organizer focuses on developing a designliteracy for fabbability (in the author’s terms, not theOrganizer’s) while ‘assuming’ the Lab environmentitself (including other Organizers) takes care of theopenness and sharing: “There is peer-to-peer learning.It’s not that I tell them: ‘Do p2p learning!’ It happensbecause they want to have it.” By extension the studentshave accepted this culture merely by registering for thecourse. When prompted about sustainabilityconsiderations, he concedes that time does not permit:“it’s better that they have another course aboutsustainability and materials”.The scope of this paper limits what can be discussedregarding the students themselves, and further narrativeswill expound on their motivations, actions, preferences
  • 4. 4 Participatory Innovation Conference 2013, Lahti, Finland responses to Lab norms, as well as how theythemselves shape the Lab’s culture. Some students forinstance do explicitly take on environmental concerns(through material reuse, for instance) but these were inthe minority and their effect indeterminate. Otherpriorities and/or an actor’s self-interest were also seen todeliver unintended environmental benefits (such as 3Dprinting time and energy consumption).With regard to the Organizers’ intent to promote peerlearning through sharing and openness, the Organizersthemselves report observing this culture taking shapeand the data confirms this to a large extent. Furtherexamination of this young Lab as well as other, moremature Labs will unpack how (or if) this culture canplant seeds for participatory, collaborative inventionprocesses.DISCUSSIONIn this case study we examined how issues pertaining tosustainability were shaped in the process of sociallyshaping the culture of a new Fab Lab. Whilesustainability is espoused, it does not render Fab Labs asany clear platform as yet for ‘participatory sustainableinnovation’ amidst the other issues that are shaped.Some signals do emerge, nevertheless. In wealthycontexts where financial resources are relativelyplentiful, it is time that becomes the scarce resource toleverage in creative ways if one aims to be a changeagent. Moreover, while these students express a myriadreasons for choosing to make a certain object,collaborative projects taken on by Fab Labs themselves(cooperation among several Labs) tackle specific localproblems. This localized need-based approach(intimating value-sensitive design) carries potential formore sustainable practices overall.The discourse in the ‘maker movement’ claims that thiskind of distributed, open knowledge building throughhands-on learning and designing embeds responsibility.It remains to be seen, in further observation andempirical analysis, how this sense of responsibilityemerges, is expressed, and is sustained.REFERENCESATKINS Project, 2007. Manufacturing a Low CarbonFootprint: Zero Emission Enterprise Feasibility Study,[pdf] Loughborough University. Available at: [Accessed14 March 2012].Bauwens, M., Mendoza, N. and Iacomella, F., 2012. ASynthetic Overview of the Collaborative Economy, [pdf]Orange Labs and P2P Foundation. Available at: [Accessed 1 August 2012].Benkler, Y., 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How SocialProduction Transforms Markets and Freedom, NewHaven, CA: Yale University Press.Bijker, W.E., 1995. Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs:Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, Cambridge,MA: The MIT Press.Daily, B.F. and Huang, S., 2001. Achievingsustainability through attention to human resourcefactors in environmental management. InternationalJournal of Operations & Production Management,21(12), pp.1539-1552.DEFRA, 2008. A Framework for Pro-EnvironmentalBehaviours, London, UK: Department for Environment,Food and Rural Affairs.Eychenne, F., 2012. Fab Labs Overview, [pdf] The Fing(Fondation internet nouvelle génération). Available at: [Accessed 9 April 2012].Franco, A., Lanzetta, M. and Romoli, L., 2010.Experimental analysis of selective laser sintering ofpolyamide powders: an energy perspective. Journal ofCleaner Production, 18, pp.1722-1730.Gershenfeld, N., 2005. FAB: The Coming Revolution onYour Desktop – From Personal Computers to PersonalFabrication, New York: Basic Books.Hargreaves, T., 2011. Practice-ing behaviour change:Applying social practice theory to pro-environmentalbehaviour change. Journal of Consumer Culture, 11(1),pp.79–99.Lipson, H. and Kurman, M., 2010. Factory@Home: TheEmerging Economy of Personal Manufacturing, [pdf]Science and Technology Policy Institute. Available at:[Accessed 13 March 2012].Rohracher, H., 2003. The Role of Users in the SocialShaping of Environmental Technologies. Innovation,16(2), pp.177-192.Stø, E., Throne-Holst, H., Strandbakken, P. andVittersø, G., 2008. Review: a multi-dimensionalapproach to the study of consumption in modernsocieties and the potential for radical sustainablechanges. In A. Tukker et al., eds. System Innovation forSustainability I: Perspectives on Radical Changes toSustainable Consumption and Production. Sheffield,UK: Greenleaf Publishing.van Abel, B., Evers, L., Klaasen, R. and Troxler, P.,2011. Open Design Now: Why Design Cannot RemainExclusive, Amsterdam, The Netherlands: BISPublishers.Williams, R. & Edge, D., 1996. The social shaping oftechnology. Research Policy, 25, pp.865-899.