[Editor’s note: Madison Worthy and Miriam Engle are biking across Europe, visiting different Makerspaces, and filming Self-Made, a documentary about their adventure and the Makers they meet. You can find the other parts to this series at the end of this article.]
About six weeks before the Tour de France cycled to its dramatic conclusion in Paris, we reached the same city on refurbished bicycles after cruising through the gleaming majesty of Champagne. Miriam had managed to crash land her bike into a ditch and bruise her left shoulder en route to Paris, so the week-long break we enjoyed there was most welcome.
FacLab, located in the University of Cergy-Pontoise in Gennevilliers, just north of Paris, is open to the public and operates out of a large space of over 200m². Local leaders had arranged a gathering for our visit, recruiting Lab managers and members from throughout the Paris Fab community to join a candid discussion about the future of the movement. “I think that what the network is missing currently is a meeting of intermediate area,” said Olivier Gendrin, the first manager of FacLab in 2012, “so in France we talk about organizing regional meetings.” He envisions a more organized federation of Fab Labs in France, which will help Labs collaborate more effectively, sharing successful management techniques.
Also present were Ophelia Noor, who has been working as a journalist to document the Maker Movement for years; Antonin Fournier, current manager of FacLab; Andy Kwok, manager of Le Petit FabLab de Paris; Anthony Jahn, an avid member of several Fab Labs and Makerspaces around Paris; Nicolas Barrial, a reporter for Makery, a Parisian news source for all things DIY; Sophia Manseri, town councilor of Gennevilliers specializing in feminist issues, and several others.
The ever-changing group discussed a range of topics from more inclusion of women in highly technical fields, to how we can bring the movement mainstream to maximize its potential, and the role of Fab Labs in transforming education. Antonin Fournier highlighted the benefit of learning by doing: “Instead of having a huge class on what is coding and ask twenty students to sit still and watch a teacher, you’ll give them an Arduino or a piece of code, and you’ll ask them to make it blink. They’ll understand that they can do it. Because your hands are doing stuff, your brain follows.”
Ophelia Noor echoed some of Olivier Gendrin’s sentiments when she recounted how she’d witnessed the growth of the movement in France. “I met the first group of people that created Fab Labs in France,” she said. “What I’m seeing is that each Fab Lab adapts to its environment. For instance, in the countryside, you have a network of little Fab Labs, in Brittany, you have tech schools that joined with a grassroots organization of science education. Each situation is really different so you can’t really define them. I think it’s even better if we have different Fab Labs, different ways of doing things, but at the same time they have this common ideal.”
From Paris, we struck southeast, cycling through what would be the last rainstorm of our tour. Summer heat surged in with suffocating malice. In Dijon, we spoke with Lab manager Laurence Lafarge and watched Kelle Frabrik in action at two different weekend festivals, Catalpa music festival in Auxerre, at which four regional Fab Labs were present, and Alternatiba in Dijon, a sustainability faire. At the former, we connected with Pascal Minguet, who has been instrumental in establishing the network of rural Fab Labs in Burgundy that Ophelia Noor had told us about. On Pascal’s invitation, we cycled 40km south to Beaune to attend the grand opening of another Lab, made possible due to a government donation of a historical building with 400m² of space. Despite the oppressive heat, a large crowd had gathered to listen to Pascal discuss the benefits of having a community workshop.
After a brief stopover in Lyon, we continued south to Montpellier, cycling through some of the hottest days of the year. 40°C sapped our strength and left us feeling limp as overcooked pasta. Needless to say, we were unaccountably thrilled to arrive at LABSud in Montpellier, where we spoke to a range of enthusiastic members, including musician Aurélien Bontemps, who is designing and making guitars for his business in LABSud. Through an interpreter, he told us, “Usually I work more traditionally, but with the opportunities in the Fab Lab, it takes less time to do what I have to do. It’s the first time I used laser cutting. I hope to do many more things with the machines here in the Fab Lab.”
We cheated a bit and caught a ride share for a day trip to Toulouse to visit Artilect, France’s first and biggest Fab Lab. Too many people throughout France had insisted that we had to check it out, so at the last minute we found a way to make the detour possible. Project coordinator Constance Garnier has thought a lot about the future of the Fab Lab network, both in France and on the global scale. “Let’s imagine that the huge cataclysm that people are talking about will happen,” she said. “Let’s imagine that the ecological situation is getting worse, that there are going to be huge immigrations, because some parts of the world are not going to be livable anymore, the economic growth is not coming back, because when some things remain still to stagnate, maybe it’s not anymore time to talk about a crisis. Maybe it’s not a crisis, maybe it’s a transition. […] Now that we know Fab Labs can work, we maybe should think more globally about what impact to have and how we take a part in this whole dynamic.”
Speaking of transitions, Constance provided the exact transition we were looking for before we left France to cycle toward Barcelona, our bike tour’s final destination. As the Fab Lab movement heads into its second decade of existence, it’s time for a more aggressive focus on impact. Education has been the focus of the first Fab decade, but what should the focus of the second Fab decade be? “Ecological,” Constance replied without hesitation. Environmental sustainability is a pure and beautiful dream for the twenty-first century. Barcelona pledged last year at the Fab10 conference to be the world’s first Fab City, fully sustainable within forty years. Reunited with our bikes in Montpellier, we hopped into our saddles to pedal the last 400km to our final destination, buoyant with positive visions for the planet’s sustainable future.