Do innovation networks trump research centers?

The heart of MIT is its intellectual rather than physical infrastructure: a research culture that creates room for new ideas by emphasizing their evaluation through rapid reduction to practice, and by mixing short-term applications (both serious and silly) with long-term research. It’s much harder, however, to make room for new people by squeezing them into the same limited campus space. I recently helped plan substantial buildings to accommodate research growth at MIT and in the fab lab network; the former, at $100 million, was about 100 times the cost of the latter. While there are advanced capabilities that remain available only on campus, that boundary is rapidly receding.

In Seed magazine, Neil Gershenfeld, the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and author of the book FAB describing the emergence of personal fabrication, wonders: Is MIT is Obsolete?.

The reason is a kind of “Peak Hierarchy” moment in the field of innovation: the innovation network is slowly getting more powerful than any single however-strongly-funded research center.

He writes that this should transform such centers into facilitators:

“A few hundred top universities with a few thousand students each can hope to host only millions out of the billions of people on the planet, but insight and invention do not stop there. The MITs of the world are far from obsolete, but instead of draining brains away from where they are most needed, these institutions can now share not just their knowledge but also their tools, by providing the means to create them. Rather than advanced technological development and education being elite activities bounded by scarce space in classrooms and labs, they can become much more widely accessible and locally integrated, limited only by the most renewable of raw materials: ideas.”

An example of this is his own network of Fab Labs:

“In making today’s most advanced airplanes or integrated circuits, the intelligence is in the tools rather than the materials, which are cut, carved, mixed, and melted as they have been for millennia. But prototype processes in the laboratory can construct with codes, turning information into objects and vice versa, just as the proteins in your body can execute programs and correct errors.

This research will eventually lead to “personal fabricators” that will be able to make almost anything (including themselves). But it’s already possible to approximate their capabilities in field “fab labs” that are similar in cost and complexity to the minicomputers that were so important in the history of computing. Fab labs contain tens of thousands of dollars of computer-controlled tools that, although they don’t yet use fundamentally digital fabrication processes, can be used together to convert an electronic description into a functional object. Projects underway in fab labs include producing low-cost, low-power computers, wireless data networks, instruments for agriculture and the environment, and on-demand housing.

The Fab Academy is a network rather than a place, with teachers and students in fab labs around the world linked by broadband video, shared online information, and common technical capabilities. Its purpose is to keep up with the remarkable kids who are getting hands-on technical training in fab labs that is outstripping what they can learn in their (frequently dysfunctional) local school systems. Through this network I see colleagues above the Arctic Circle more often than ones who are in the same building at MIT, because on campus we’re all so busy juggling all of the activities that are happening in that single location.”

Pulled by a universal desire to measure and modify the world as well as get information about it on a computer screen, fab labs have spread around the globe, from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to northern Norway. The number of them has been doubling every 1.5 years or so; there are now about 30 (the most recent one opened in Afghanistan), with that many more currently being planned.

The only problem with providing ordinary people with modern means for invention is that this doesn’t fit within the conventional categories of education, industry, or aid. To fill this void, the fab lab network is now inventing new organizations: a non-profit Fab Foundation to support invention as aid, a for-profit Fab Fund to provide global capital for local inventors and global markets for local inventions, and an educational Fab Academy for distributed advanced technical education.”

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