In February 2015, city authorities in São Paulo announced plans to open a network of 12 public FabLabs. Following in the wake of an earlier ‘telecentro’ initiative that opened up internet access and digital media to citizens, the FabLabs are meant to bring the tools of digital fabrication to the people, equipping them for a fuller role in what FabLab founder Neil Gershenfeld forsees as a revolution in the decentralisation and democratisation of production and consumption.

São Paulo’s authorities join a range of civic bodies casting an eye over the – potentially – empowering possibilities of FabLabs. Yet these initiatives raise many issues: who, exactly, is being empowered by access to tools? What kind of technological citizenship and forms of urban governances do they support, and why? To start unpicking these questions, it is instructive to look to Barcelona where a program to open an Ateneu de Fabricació Digital in every city district has been running for two years.

A brief history of digital fabrication workshops

FabLabs are part of a larger global movement of community-based digital fabrication workshops. These spaces also include hackspaces and makespaces, and are typically equipped with both contemporary versatile technologies – CAD, 3D printers, laser cutters, routers – as well as traditional machines and tools including lathes, drills, sewing machines, and welding equipment. Emerging from the free culture and autonomist movements, community workshops have moved into hardware hacking, using tools that allow their members to modify, personalize, and manufacture anything from toys and vehicles to wind turbines and home energy systems (FabLab Barcelona even made a prefab eco-house). Members share ideas, design, code and instructions online – what gets designed in one workshop can theoretically be made in any other in the world.

The growth in FabLabs might seem like an organic outgrowth of this people-led movement. Its roots, however, come from an outreach initiative of MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms, who had intended to gradually roll out FabLabs in a few countries. Technology carries unexpected consequences, and the model soon took on a life of its own as other groups decided that yes, they would quite like to set up their own fabrication labs independently of MIT. Right now, there are around 440 FabLabs across 33 countries.

Barcelona and the Ateneus Project

And so to Barcelona, which opened its first FabLab at the Institute of Advanced Architecture Catalunya (IAAC) in 2006. Originally intended for relatively closed use – for students, prototyping, and architectural commissions – the lab garnered global attention for its pioneering vision of urban governance. More than simply making new widgits, IAAC founder, and now City Architect, Vicente Guallart envisioned maker-citizens using new tools such as 3D printers and open source designs as a means of taking an active, material role in city development.

This image of the technologically empowered civic citizen appealed, and FabLab Barcelona’s model went on to provide the template for the Ateneus program as part of the city leaders’ vision for transforming Barcelona into a smart, self-sufficient city. Supported by Barcelona’s civic leaders, each Ateneu receives public funds to run popular local events – family days and school visits; training courses and social innovation programs: everything necessary to equip citizens with the digital fabrication nous necessary to ‘materialise their ideas and create their worlds’ (according to the Ateneus slogan). By this vision, high-tech public infrastructure will make it easier for Barcelona’s citizens to lock into a global ‘maker’ network – uploading designs which folks, say, in Singapore, might use; or collaborating in prototyping with FabLabs in São Paulo, adapting ideas produced globally to fit their own local needs.

What does a citizen of this exciting new world look like? Technologically active, certainly, and willing to embrace digital fabrication tools, yes – but in a relatively trouble-free and depoliticised way? In adopting the term ‘Ateneu’ for their workshops, city authorities have evoked a Catalan tradition of social centres where people used to meet up, build bonds, and debate issues about the type of society they want – but which in this case civic leaders wish to associate with selectively.

Opening up Ateneus

The first Ateneu opened in July 2013, in an abandoned silk ribbon factory in the Les Corts district. A further 20 workshops are planned to some degree for later down the line. In speaking to me, the Ateneus network director stressed how embryonic and exploratory the programme is. A community workshop for digital fabrication is a strange concept for public administrators to get their heads around. Councils traditionally produce conventional public services for people to receive and consume; conversely, Ateneus offer a space where citizens do the producing. Simply convincing city bureaucracies to experiment with this concept is already an achievement.

Whilst setting-up is also relatively straightforward – installing machinery, running courses – the real challenge comes in weaving the workshops into the everyday fabric of the local community. It takes time to build familiarity, confidence and commitment amongst neighbours, and considerable resources and patience on the part of the city authorities before the possibilities loaded onto Ateneus can be realised.

The experiences around the Ateneu in Ciutat Meridiana highlight these tensions. Ciutat Meridiana is the poorest neighbourhood in Barcelona – unemployment exceeds 20 percent, and family incomes are one third of city averages. The neighbourhood association is constantly in battle with the council over changes to social services, and resisting evictions from mortgage lenders.

So what, exactly, does a high-tech, MIT-inspired workshop, with no immediate role in alleviating the daily crisis of people’s lives, have to offer the neighbourhood? Very little, it would seem – at least initially. The people of Ciutat Meridiana needed food, not 3D printers, and the project didn’t help itself by siting the workshop in a building that neighbours were already using as a food bank. (The Mayor’s support for Ateneus also counted for little in a neighbourhood that felt ambivalently towards him). Rather than embracing the project, locals were alienated and occupied the Ateneu in protest. Negotiations ensued, eventually leading to two conditions of agreement – the food bank was re-established, albeit elsewhere in the neighbourhood; and the Ateneu would emphasise training and work for young people.

Ciutat Meridiana shines a light on the tension between what citizens wanted from their city now, and what city-leaders envisage for future citizens. Even if local stakeholders are engaged beforehand, as happened with the first Ateneu in Les Corts, opening up a workshop is the easiest part of the project. Embedding the facility into community life is more challenging by far.

Making other forms of citizenship

Whilst the Ateneu program is being rolled out, other self-organised and spontaneous workshops are also flourishing across the city. Over in Ciutat Vella, the Maker Convent offers open and informal training programmes for their machinery. Vailets Hacklab run courses for kids in a variety of locations, and now including the Ateneus. Similarly, the Fab Café, run by the Makers of Barcelona and other groups, offer workshop space, education, and tools for anyone walking in off the streets. The ethos of these spaces borrows heavily from a Silicon Valley-esque, Kick-started, ‘can do’ form of urban entrepreneurship, in which people happily share enthusiasm for digital fabrication and explore new forms of collaboration together. Whether citizens suffering precarious employment and other economic hardships wish to embrace this form of citizenship is perhaps a moot point.

Despite the public imaginary of hackspaces as user-led spaces, neither the Ateneus nor these other makerspaces are particularly grassroots phenomena. One test for whether the Barcelona civic vision of digital fabrication workshops can co-exist with grassroots activities will come with Can Batlló, a massive disused textile mill proposed as a potential site for an Ateneus workshop. Can Batlló is in the Sants district of Barcelona, and working-class Sants has a long tradition of political and community organisation – including many squats and social centres – and a history of their own autonomist and co-operative activities.

In response to the economic crisis, Sants activists have already occupied and renovated Block 11 of Can Batlló. The building has been converted into an autonomous, self-organised community centre and co-operative working space, housing a library, carpentry workshop, bar, urban gardening space; and the Sants activists have aspirations to seed local, co-operative economic activity for the neighbourhood through the centre.

If activists are already involved in this type of community building, does a project like Ateneus offer anything more than a shiny technological patina to the process? Or could an Ateneu provide useful tools that unlock wider possibilities, and plug the district into a global community of design activists experimenting in digital fabrication for DIY urbanism and commons-based economic development? The association of Ateneus with Mayor Trias’s smart city vision has been considered by critics to be the latest in a series of city makeovers, prioritising international capital markets and speculative investments in the city over the real needs and aspirations of its residents. According to Ivan Miró, an activist from the Ciutat Invisible co-operative, the smart city is merely a different brand of the same neo-liberal model of urban regeneration, whose democratic and local economic credentials are deeply suspect. In Barcelona, the council’s (sometimes violent) evictions of long-established squatted social centres have deepened suspicions of the smart city plan, and heightened antagonism with the city’s grassroots activists.

Making is political

The Ateneus programme, with city-leaders’ notions of an orderly cultivation of technological citizenship, has unintentionally uncovered very different forms of citizenship in action, and the role that tools play in them. Ateneus are trying to establish themselves in a context where people feel the strain of economic crisis, and increasingly question whose interests are truly being served by future visions of their city.

Many in the wider ‘maker’ movement can be reluctant to engage in politics overtly, as to do so would appear to constrain the notion of giving tools to people in a way which offers them unconstrained agency around their purposes, deployment and use. Yet, as I have explored in my work on community workshops in London in the 1980s, these types of ‘making’ spaces are always opened in very specific social, political and economic contexts. Such contexts already influence the relative ease and kinds of support available for putting tools to particular purposes. If communities are truly to be liberated to debate, use, and resist tools in a way that they see as appropriate (rather than those encapsulated in elite visions), one must engage with the politics of these contexts. This is something that earlier advocates of providing tools for the people have made very clear – think of William Morris and his argument for socialism, or Murray Bookchin on post-scarcity anarchism.

Deployed sensitively, the Ateneus programme could provide important spaces for exploring technology, citizenship, and urban governance in very practical ways, supporting diverse forms of neighbourhood-led development. The programme is still young, and patience is required. The longer-term promise of Ateneus rests with it becoming a community resource owned by the neighbourhoods in which it sits, rather than tied up with the patronage of local politicians. São Paulo, and wherever else public authorities become involved in community workshops, including here in the UK, should take note: bringing tools to people requires skilful community development as well as skills in digital fabrication. A controlled opening up of urban governance and experiments in cultivating particular forms of citizenship is not an easy task.

Originally published in the Guardian in 2015. Lead image by Adrian Smith.

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