By Christel van de Craats and Tomas Diez, republished from

More than two hundred years since the Industrial Revolution, global urbanisation keeps accelerating. United Nations projections indicate that 75% of the human population will be living in cities by 2050. Newly created cities and the urbanisation process in rural areas replicates a lifestyle based on consumerism and the linear economy, causing destructive social and economic impact while compromising the ecological system of the planet. Extreme industrialisation and globalisation have turned cities into the most voracious consumers of materials, and they are overwhelmingly the source of carbon emissions through both direct and embodies energy consumption. The rise of offshoring and automation indirectly leads to a decrease of the practical and cultural knowledge on how and where things used to be made locally in our cities. These dynamic hubs lose their livelihood.

We need to reinvent our cities and their relationship to people and nature by re-localising production, so cities are generative rather than extractive, restorative rather than destructive, and empowering rather than alienating. In these cities, prosperity flourishes and people have purposeful, meaningful work that they enjoy and that enables them to use their passion and talent. By connecting citizens with the advanced technologies that are transforming our everyday life, we need to recover the knowledge and capacity on how things are made in our cities.

The Fab City is an international initiative started by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC), MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms (CBA), the Barcelona City Council and the Fab Foundation to develop locally productive and globally connected self-sufficient cities. The project is connected to the global Fab Lab (Fabrication Laboratory) network and comprises an international think tank of civic leaders, makers, urbanists and innovators working on changing the paradigm of the current industrial economy. In the latter, the city operates on a linear model of importing products and producing waste. This should change to a spiral innovation ecosystem, in which materials flow inside cities locally and information on how things are made circulates globally. Fab City is about building a new economy based on manufacturing infrastructure and distributed data.

For more than ten years, Fab Labs have provided widespread access to modern means for invention and production. They began as an outreach project from MIT’s CBA, but Fab Labs have spread from inner city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to the most northern tip of Norway, counting approximately 1,000 Fab Labs located in more than 78 countries today. Activities in Fab Labs range from technological empowerments to peer-to-peer project-based technical training. Projects being developed and produced in Fab Labs include, for example, solar and wind powered turbines and custom housing. Fab Labs share core capabilities among each other so that people and projects can be shared across the world. These labs work with components and materials optimised for use in the field and are controlled with custom software for integrated design, manufacturing and project management. This inventory is continuously evolving, towards the goal of a Fab Lab being eventually able to make a Fab Lab.

In 2054, our cities should be at least 50% self-sufficient.

Global manufacturing

In 2011, the Fab Lab project was launched at the FAB7 conference in Lima, Peru. A few years later, at the FAB10, the Mayor of Barcelona invited his colleagues around the world to join the Barcelona Pledge: a countdown for cities to become at least 50% self-sufficient by 2054. Ever since, several cities have pledged to join the network. Amsterdam joined the movement in 2016 at the first annual Fab City Summit, held at the EU2016 Fab City Campus. The Fab City movement is open for other cities, towns or communities to join in order to collectively build a more humane and habitable new world. Fab City takes the ideal of the Fab Lab – the connectivity, culture and creativity – and scales it to the level of the city.It is a new urban model for transforming and shaping cities that shift how they source and use material from ‘Products In, Trash Out’ to ‘Data In, Data Out’. This means that more production occurs inside the city, along with recycling materials and meeting local needs through local inventiveness. A city’s imports and exports would mostly be found in the form of data: information, knowledge, design and code.

Rescaling and connecting

At the core of the Fab City strategy is the development of a global network of cities that are a part of a sustainable ecosystem of production and knowledge: from a 3D printer at home to the neighbourhood’s Fab Lab, and from the city factory to global production infrastructure. In a Fab City, the number of imported goods – like food and resources as water and energy – need to be reduced. To make this possible, urban farming needs to evolve from experimental practices to a larger scale infrastructure. Local production of food at domestic, neighbourhood and city scales create a closer loop system for food production and harvesting. The use of recycled, raw materials for the production of objects in cities should be increased. this way, we create added value in every iteration of a new product, in a new spiral economy approach. A new productive ecosystem to rescale globalisation and provide the means of innovation to empower citizens. This process involves a huge cultural shift. One that promotes the empowerment of cities and their citizens.To become a Fab City requires having a more precise knowledge of the way that cities work. The evolution of the movement will make it possible to create better systems of capturing and analysing data, developing knowledge about each city and sharing it, and it will require the implementation of an evaluation system and detailed monitoring: the Fab City Dashboard. The Fab City strategy is unique in that it addresses a range of environmental, social and economic objectives (carbon reduction, waste minimisation, relocation of manufacturing and work) in a system approach to harness new technology and production approaches. All of this is brought to a practical level, by connecting with the existent Fab Lab Network and complementary productive ecosystems; a vast source for urban innovations being shared already globally by makers in more than 70 countries and 1,000 labs. The first city to become self-sufficient – simultaneously increasing employment by creating opportunities through open innovation, and radically reducing carbon emissions by relocation production – will lead the future of urban development globally.

According to Marleen Stikker, founder and director of Waag Society, also home to Fab Lab Amsterdam, Fab City shows that the combination of maker movements and circular economy are solid alternatives, ready to scale.

“The shared starting point is that we have to take responsibility for our own behaviour. We cannot wait for systems to change. We have to be the change. This Do-It-Ourselves, or rather Do-It-Together, mentally unleashes a powerful dynamic in society. It shows that civic movements are at the heart of change. We need an innovation paradigm shift. Not shareholders value, but social value, open instead of closed, cooperative instead of competitive. Smart citizens instead of smart cities.’ – Marleen Stikker, director Waag Society

The Fab City approach can contribute to achieving a range of city objectives. It helps civic leaders to develop locally productive cities in collaboration with local communities, companies and institutions by revitalising manufacturing infrastructure and offering incentives towards a new economy. Fab Lab and makerspace-based innovations could be a source for solutions to connect to real problems in cities, opening opportunities for businesses, research and education through projects in the digital realm. In this approach, citizens and cities are empowered to be the masters of their own destiny as their resilience is increased. With the circulation of materials and associated energy consumption, a more ecological system is developed in which carbon emissions – typical for the current economy – are drastically reduced; atoms stay in cities while bits travel globally. In order to make this happen, the city must be locally productive and globally connected to knowledge, economic and social networks. In this connection, the cooperation between cities, citizens and knowledge centres form the basis of scientific knowledge.

A concerted and coordinated response must be made to reimagine how, where and what we make if we are to live harmoniously within the bounds of the planet’s resources. Fab City proposes a model for cities to be resilient, productive and self-sufficient in order to respond to the challenges of our time. It also proposes the recovery of knowledge and the capacity to make things, to produce energy, to harvest food and to understand the flow of matter, in order to empower its citizens to be leading agents of their own destiny. The Fab City is about radical transformation. It is about re-thinking and changing our relationship with the material world, in order to continue flourishing on this planet.

This publication was written by Christel van de Craats together with Tomas Diez and originally appeared in New Amsterdam Magazine #10. You can access the original publication here

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