Global transitions, Fab Labs and Fab Cities: interview with Tomas Diez

By on April 22, 2014

Incredibly enough, given the incredible amount of work he’s doing to prepare the next edition of the International Fablabs Conference, the FAB 10 that will happen soon in Barcelona, we had the chance to host this beautiful interview of Tomas Diez, leader of Barcelona Fablab and one of the most knowledgeable person on earth about this Fablab thing everyone is talking about. This interview is so deep an eye opening that you really shouldn’t miss. Sit down, take 10 minutes and take a look into the future of cities.

Interesting links:

[Simone Cicero] Ciao Tomas, first of all, can you tell us how everything started and you fell into the Rabbit hole of Fablabs?

[Tomas Diez] When I first came to IAAC, I was an intern doing my thesis to become an Urbanist. It was about Taipei, and based on a previous research done by other students, and the aim was to make a book in collaboration with Actar and then go back to Venezuela in 5 months.

One day in a board meeting of IAAC, they were eating pizza Vicente, Marta, Willy, Lucas and Carolien (these last both my supervisors), and Carolien called me to come and have a slice, so I came and sit down while they were discussing this new thing related with machines that MIT was working on. They agreed that IAAC needed to a Fab Lab to make not only a digital fabrication facility for an Architecture school, but also to give a broader vision of digital fabrication, as it was emerging and led by Neil Gershenfeld. There was this pack of papers (around 20 pages), which was the inventory of a Fab Lab, and they were discussing that in five months IAAC should have one so Vicente asked who is going to do this? Guess who got the mission of contacting more than 20 providers to get materials and machines from the US plus more machines to the existing milling machine, and a laser cutter and 3d printing sitting inside a box?

Vicente throw me the papers and says: can you do it? I said to myself: why not? So I started to read about Neil’s work, and saw his TED talk about Fab Labs, and my impression was: “this is the real urbanism!” …The tools to change how people relate between each other are here, and will change society and every other aspect of our life, it was clear for me from the first minute. That year I ended up in the Mobile Fab Lab across the US together with two MIT grad students Kenny and Amy, we did a full tour in the country, ending up in Burning Man! The rest is history…

Tomas Diez

[SC ] Now you manage the Barcelona Fab Lab since more than 7 years, and this basically makes you one of the most experienced fab lab manager in. How’s your feeling about how things changed in the last few years? Especially, how’s the interest of the city – and citizens – changed, what kind of social involvement you see growing around the Fablab? Is it making a difference?

[TD] Starting the lab was hard (Shane and Victor can tell about it too!), because it was observed as a very technical and futuristic vision, not really for those times, and every time someone was visiting the lab (very few people could be convinced to come) it was very hard to create excitement on people, they were very skeptic about that vision. We were maybe 6 Fab Labs in the world by that moment, just navigating behind Neil’s and Vicente’s visions, and here we are today: 300 Fab Labs, and doubling every 18 months (yes, like Moore’s law), and organizing specific days in the week to visit Fab Lab Barcelona, otherwise we will just be dedicated to show people what we do, instead of do what we do. That was very local, but if you see the global picture, I can tell you that we have been moving from being a group of global cool nerds with very high technical standards to access to a Fab Lab, to be a network of people (Haakon Karlsen from Fab Lab Norway always said it), to be a social project. Today Fab Labs are not about technology, they are about the big impact they are creating in people, communities, and now in cities like Barcelona.

[SC] Is the Fablab culture, from a worldwide point of view, as a movement, changed and grown up as well in the last few years? What are the major improvements that you’ve seen?

[TD] As I mentioned before, moving from a group of tech savvy people with very individual challenges, to be a global brain of knowledge and resources to produce social change. For me one of the most important values of the network is being able to keep that essence in every corner of the world, you cannot tell what is it, its like a spice, and I think Sherry Lassiter has a lot to do with it. In practical terms, what we have done with the Fab Academy is maybe the thing I am really proud off. Creating a global university (or multiversity) has become a reality with the consolidation of the Fab Academy as the educational program by excellence in the network. More than 140 students connected in more than 20 sites, having classmates in Nairobi, Lima and Tokyo at the same time, it is just awesome! I think it can grow more, now is the perfect place for new labs to train their people, and to connect to the network, but we want to take it further, probably into advance research and knowledge creation.

[SC] Barcelona Fab lab and Fab city: how many real Fablabs are in BCN at today? How is the fabcity vision growing? I’m curious also to know how other spaces are getting involved. And what’s the view of the municipality?

[TD] Well, we have 3 Fab Labs and a half: Fab Lab Barcelona, Fab Lab Les Corts, the Green Fab Lab and the upcoming Fab Lab Ciutat Meridiana (machines on their way, will be open for FAB10… hopefully!). The city council expects to open at least 12 labs in the coming years. There are emerging community based initiatives like MADE, and private initiatives as Fab Café (brought from Tokyo and Taipei by MOB). We have been pushing hard to get the city council to support those community and private initiatives in order to build a richer ecosystem around digital fabrication, it seems that will work, right now there is a lot of collaboration being built, and it is hard not to fall into the dynamics of a “small” city like Barcelona, and move from competition to real collaboration, I think is a matter of time and will happen at FAB10 and the Mini Maker Faire, will bring different communities together and help to build the Fab City, which is not one-side vision of the city as a laboratory, but a complete ecosystem which includes also industry, universities, commerce and many more actors which could benefit and participate of it. The municipality is a big entity, and they have their vision of creating their very own spaces, which are being also called Ateneus de Fabricació (in a more local basis), my concern is the interpretations that the public sector can make of Fab Labs, we are try to work as close as possible and is working, but there are always risks.

[SC] At which stage is exactly the Fab City Barcelona project and vision?

[TD] I think we will about to presence the big bang moment of the FAB City at FAB10! As I said before, there is a lot going on in Barcelona, and the plan is not to have a plan, but to be able to navigate with a clear vision of which is the city we want and how we want digital fabrication and collaboration to play within it. The FAB City will turn Barcelona in a productive city in few years, bringing back productivity inside the city, to the citizens, to promote local innovation connected to a global network, to re-industrialize the city, and to produce value on top of that, which will affect every single aspect of the life of people. We are in a global transition, FAB City is part of that, I like the idea of the medieval cities, protected by the walls, and in which you were living in the same place you were working or producing, I think FAB City could be compared with a high tech medieval city connected to a global network of knowledge produced in other cities.

“We are in a global transition, FAB City is part of that.” – Tweet That!

[SC] Last time we met you mentioned that other cities were about to join the FabCity project: what cities are about to join? Do you see big differences in how these cities see the Fab City concept (what specific views, perspectives for each city)?

[TD]  What has been fantastic is that the vision has gone faster than the materialization of the project, and many people and communities are telling us: we want to make a FAB City! We don’t know how to make a FAB City, we are actually learning how to do it while we are doing it, and it is great to do it together with other cities. Lima with Beno and Victor leading, and Yokohama with Hiroki, Emi and Hiroya leading, are the most advanced ones, but their challenge so far has been to convince their governments, and it happened! So now the first Fab Labs are operating and we are exchanging ideas all the time of how this should work, or getting to know what is the other doing. Yokohama and Barcelona might take the collaboration into another level since they are sister cities and have other common projects, so we expect to make big announcements at FAB10.

[SC] I’ld also love if you can tell us a little more about two additional projects birth out of Barcelona Fablab: the Green Fablab and Smart Citizen. My idea is that these two projects strongly relate to the holistic vision (fablabs as part of a more complete vision for cities) you’re promoting in Barcelona: what do you see in these project’s future?

[TD] Absolutely, FAB City is a sensor, the nature, the citizen, the technology and many more! It is all aligned with the vision of the Self-Sufficient City that Vicente develops in his book, is the practice of many ideas that might sound crazy few years ago but which today are becoming very very relevant. The Green Fab Lab is part of a bigger project called Valldaura Labs, which is located at the Collserola Park in the very center of the metropolitan area of Barcelona. We aime to relate nature, technology and history to build the next generation of Fab Labs, which will need to be more sustainable, holistic and resilient to their context. Valldaura has the Energy Lab, the Green Fab Lab and the Food Lab, the three pillars of Self-Sufficiency, but I recommend to read the book.

Smart Citizen is another story. It started as an interest as urbanist on getting the invisible information of the city, and now is becoming a global community of people collaborating to build open source tools to encourage participatory urbanism and activism. The project was crowdfunded twice, and now we are collaborating with city councils and big big companies, totally unimaginable 3 years ago when we started it with Alex P., Guillem, Miguel, Leo, and Alex D. We are making a tool for people to make their own tools, and to make open source technologies more accessible and usable for people to participate in their cities, actively, in collaboration with a global network. It helps people to understand their environment, and to have effect into the actions that might help to improve it.

Both projects are in their early days, we expect a big take off in the next 9 months.

Joe Justice @ Fab Lab Barcelona

[SC] I think this holistic vision (relationship with resources, sustainability) is reflecting your specific point of view on things, but how much do you think people share it? Do you think the technological advancements that are bringing users back on production will help raise more awareness?

[TD] I do think that when people is back on production there is a major transformation on the vision they have on resources, how things are being used and trashed away, and the effect on the sustainability of resources will be not that direct in the short term, but in the long one yes. One of the most interesting things I can observe that happen is around empowerment, and I experienced myself: that very first moment when you program the first circuit you (badly) design by yourself, manufactured it and assembled it, and it works! That is a moment of enlightenment, which produces a chain reaction, and I can see it coming when Fab Labs and digital fabrication get more into schools, universities and into people. The global consciousness on material scarcity will not make us consume less, but create new ways of consuming without creating devastating effects, and part of the broader research developed at the Center for Bits and Atoms is going to that direction.

[SC] Last thing about your role within the Fablab movement: I see you’re also involved in project: a social network for Fablabs and fablab peeps. What’s the idea behind that? Is it something you guys felt it was needed?

[TD] emerged from the need of the community. I have been involved in Fab Labs for more than 7 years now, and have attended 6 different fab lab conferences (Chicago, Pune, Amsterdam, Lima, Wellington and Yokohama) and from the first one I always listened to the same problem: there is not common platform for Fab Labs to share, so after many trials and errors, and I have to say that Frosti in Iceland putted a very nice wiki, we just decided to build the social network of Fab Labs together with John Rees (the wizard of code behind it), and the support of the Fab Foundation. Now hosts the official list of the Fab Lab Network, is curated in a distributed way, and will evolve as a platform to share: tools and tutorials, projects and events, and connect people with spaces and create common knowledge. We just started, right now has around 1000 users and more than 300 registered labs, we hope to evolve it into something really useful for the network.

[SC] This year the Fab Conference is heading Barcelona and my impression is that this is going to be the biggest Fab Conference ever. Would you explain us a little bit of the vision behind this year conference? What are the pillars of the program?

[TD] We hope that FAB10 becomes an inflection point for Fab Labs and their impact in cities and society. The 10th Fab Lab conference is basically closing a cycle of 10 years in which Fab Labs have matured, the network has been consolidated and the technical skills have been controlled; I think that this is the moment of taking it into the next level, not only making for fun or to show that you can 3d print or make a useless robot, but making possible the connection between the needs of people and the means of fabrication to solve them, the potential of people learning from people, and that empowerment feeling that anyone feels when they get their first project done. Imagine this in a city scale, and that’s what is happening. We are just in the right moment and in the right place, and we are connecting the pieces together. All of this would not be possible without the work of many people during all these years, we are glad to host this big launching of the FAB City, we say that we are closing a cycle of 10 years and starting another one of 90 years.

[SC] I recently visited the new D-Hub in Barcelona and I see that Barcelona’s scene around Design is growing a lot and it’s getting really mature: can you tell us more about your cooperation with Barcelona Design scene and FAD?

[TD] It is interesting how design is being influenced by this new way of prototyping, making and developing a product, and we see a lot of potential there that we do not yet have explore. Barcelona is a capital of design, and FAD leads an important part of it. We are doing more and more things together, but I think we are not even in the half of the potential we can explode. A significant thing is that we are turning Barcelona into a complete experience on open design and digital fabrication with the #8days initiative, bringing together a common platform to show how many things can happen in Barcelona in just 8 days which are extremely relevant, not only locally but globally.

[SC] I’m also especially interested (and I guess our readership also is) in having a more clear vision of the hands on activities and learning opportunities, can you give us some special hints?

[TD] The whole FAB10 is about the experience and the making. We will have 7 days of many different things happening, but mainly around knowledge sharing and hands-on activities, it is not an exhibition of projects nor a show for people to consume it. FAB10 starts with 3 days of very intense activities for the Fab Lab community holding discussions, workshops and short talks, a weekend for the city of Barcelona which we call the Fab Festival, where families can come and participate on workshops of making skates, citizen science tools, 3d print broken pieces, urban farming, clothing hacking, and many more. After the weekend, on Monday we will have the FAB City Symposium, which will gather experts on different fields, which will be around the Productive Cities, Emergent Communities and Digital Fabrication, the Fab Academy graduation and a closing ceremony with mayors from the world, hosted by Xavier Trias, Mayor of Barcelona and Toni Vives, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona. On Tuesday is the wrap-up of the Fab Lab community and the selection of the FAB12 city, since FAB11 will be in Boston at MIT.

[SC] What will be the bigger news in digital fabrication we can expect in the coming Fab10? Will it be about technological breakthrough or design genius?

[TD] I am not allowed to say that. J (ed: fair enough!)

[SC] As you know, we try to promote Open Source, that’s why all the products we create, before all our beloved 3D printer 3Drag, are strictly open source. I would like to have a glance of your point of view about the role that open source will have in digital fabrication and design: what is going to be the role of open source in enabling digital fabrication?

[TD] I think that digital fabrication and open source are stick together. You cannot conceive a proprietary system around digital fabrication it is just useless. The creation of technology and the creation of products has been boosted during the last years thanks to both digital fabrication and open source, but also thanks to crowd sourcing and crowd funding. The power of the many is really setting up new ways to operate in almost every aspect of our life, but I still think that we are in the very early stage of its potential. Look at how kickstarter and similar platforms have created so much value (also useless gadgets I know), Arduino empowers people, RepRap brings accessibility to making, and so on. All those are mostly open source, and very connected with digital fabrication.

We are very lucky, we are going to witness a big big change in almost everything.

If you liked the interview:

and Stay Tuned!

Photos courtesy of jeanbaptisteparis, OuiShare

About Simone Cicero

Simone Cicero is a blogger (at, strategist & speaker. Simone is also a long time Open Source advocate and Open Source Electronics editor. Follow him on twitter at @meedabyte