Written by Ana Humbert-Droz
Digital laboratories on wheels are spreading technology to distant communities
10th July 2018
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Since the proliferation of makerspaces in the last decade and the spread of technology as an alternative to established production methods, knowledge has also become more mobile. By relocating equipment and teachers specialised in digital innovation, several laboratories around the world have established moving units to reach different and distant communities that have seldom encountered such kinds of technology. The interest in learning new technologies, being it basic or advanced ones, for professional or personal reasons, touch a wide variety of publics - rural communities, children, makers, disabled people and education professionals, to name a few.
The first example of a mobile lab appeared in 2007, produced by the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It consisted of a container filled with the main equipment that would be found in a regular (fixed-location) Fab Lab, such as a laser cutter, a 3D printer, a CNC machine, and other smaller tools and machines. MIT’s mobile fab lab travelled through cities in the USA, presenting and spreading the technologies of a digital innovation laboratory. After a few years, the units were faced with a social challenge to overcome: using the equipment to reach more than the usual makers. By 2014, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) had launched an initiative to circulate four buses filled with digital innovation technologies between schools across Singapore. Their initial aim was to work with primary and secondary classrooms, but have more recently developed a project to target students with disabilities. IMDA is now training teachers focused on special needs education through workshops and activities, in order to present technological alternatives that they can apply further in in their classrooms.
In South America, the FabLAT (FabLabs in Latin America) network took the challenge to another level when in 2016 they came up with the floating high-tech lab to travel down the Amazon river. When finished, the Floating FabLab will consist of several mobile and stationary nodes that will be dispersed over the region. The great challenge of reaching distant and unfamiliar communities with technologies is matched by an equally great reward.
The possibilities that technology presents in terms of social and economic development for this region could not only result in people learning new skills, but in really transforming the future of these communities and presenting alternatives to current systems, including the potential to preserve rainforests through digital solutions. The network’s mission, indeed, is to “provide local communities with access to technological tools that allow them to cope with their daily challenges with water, energy, health, food, education while at the same time, serve as a place for research and development to better understand the Amazon.”
Another recent initiative that developed out of Fab Lab Barcelona’s educational program is the Pop Up Lab, a smaller and more mobile Lab that can be transported to spaces such as cultural events, schools and libraries. By taking the mobility asset to the next level, it can ‘bring the Fab Lab to the public when the public cannot reach the Fab Lab’. This encourages people who would not have known about Fab Lasb to learn about the world of digital manufacturing and programming. The presence of a Pop Up Lab in unusual spaces shows that increasingly more people can use and understand the transformations that digital technology is having on our society.
The rising affordability and accessibility of building your own mobile tech-lab is changing the way to see its limitations: instead of focusing on hyper-specialised professionals and restricted knowledge, they are proving to be a democratic tool of education, providing new options to different communities and solutions across various issues. The circulation of technologies and knowledge, along with the advantage of reaching distant communities is transforming these mobile laboratories into promoters of the philosophy of productive cities and distributed manufacturing.
This research is included in DSI4EU’s Skills and Learning Cluster, led by Fab Lab Barcelona, and has the main objective to develop and expand new educational models and skills for the modern days.
Cover image: Amys at mit via Wikipedia.