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Fab City: how can we build more sustainable cities?

If we’re going to take sustainability seriously, we need to talk about cities. Already responsible for 75 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions, urban populations are predicted to continue rising and make up 70 per cent of the global population by 2050. So how do we want our cities to function in the future?

One answer to this question is being proposed in cities across the world via the Fab City initiative, a global effort to make cities more locally productive using new sustainable manufacturing technologies available in city centres and, ultimately, to realise the Fab City Pledge of 50 per cent self-sufficiency by 2054. 

Describing the initiative as "part project, part network, and part movement", Tomas Diez, one of Fab City's main instigators, argues that the disconnect between consumption and production is at the heart of our cities’ problems. As societies become disconnected from the production of everyday items entirely, we become reliant on importing via supply chains. As Tomas puts it: "We have externalised the responsibility for sustaining our lives".

It isn’t hard to find evidence of this disconnect; the components and labour which combine to create our food, clothes, phones and buildings are sourced from all corners of the world. Fab City hopes to reverse this centuries-old trend. Citizens are being empowered to reclaim the means of production and manufacturing to create anything in their own cities, from food to prosthetic limbs, using sustainable technology and tools. 

A question of scale: from fab lab to fab city

The seeds for this change are buried in the global network of fab labs (small-scale workshops that are open to the public and equipped with state-of-the-art technology, including 3D printers). There are now more than 700 fab labs, each filled with individuals designing and making innovative and sustainable solutions to local problems.

Inside the Green FabLab in Collserola Natural Park, Barcelona. Photo credit: Marcel Tkocz

The popularity of the Fab City pledge is evidence of the growing political appetite for sustainability that will be required if the Fab City initiative is to reach the global scale it aspires to. Since Barcelona City Council became the first to sign in 2011, the list of would-be fab cities has grown and now includes Paris, Boston, Shenzhen, Amsterdam and Detroit.

It would be easy to dismiss this as nothing more than a vague political gesture (indeed, Tomas admits that the pledge must become more than just a way for cities to say, "we’re doing cool stuff"). However, city governments are only inspired to sign the pledge after the momentum for change has been generated from the bottom up.

"What’s interesting is that it doesn’t come from city councils, it comes from the local fab lab community, or the networks of people thinking differently about the future of our cities. It never comes from just the government." 

What does a fab city look like?

Perhaps wisely, Tomas avoids trying to predict exactly what our cities will look like in 2054 (we all know how wildly wrong technological prophets have been in the past), and explains that there is no fully formed vision of what a fab city will look like. Instead, he describes fab cities as an emerging process of experimentation.

"We are flying an aeroplane while we are building it." 

One of these ‘aeroplanes’ is the newly designated makers’ district in Barcelona’s Poblenou neighbourhood. Working in partnership with the council, fab city enthusiasts hope to create a fab city Prototype in Poblenou as the area becomes an experimentation playground for trialing new systems of production and interaction. Similar schemes are taking place in Paris and Amsterdam.

The prototype sees residents experimenting in three main areas: material production, food production, and energy production. At the most fundamental level, this means manufacturing goods in makerspaces, growing food on rooftops, and storing energy collected via solar panels in domestic batteries. However, if enough citizens become empowered as producers rather than simply consumers, a whole new range of relations and transactions are possible.

"You can go to a restaurant and eat a steak which has been synthetically grown [...] or store energy from solar panels on your balcony and trade that energy with your neighbour in exchange for some tomatoes which they have grown." 

Fab City hopes to change the way citizens interact, and sees itself as more than an environmental movement. Tomas emphasises this when he notes how other ideas - the circular economy, hyperlocal e-currencies and the sharing economy - "click with Fab City".

An open-source aquaponics prototype for food production created in the fab lab by Aquapioneers. Photo credit: Guillaume Teyssie

Changing the system from the inside out

Imagined futures and abstract discussions of ‘self-empowered citizenship’ or the ‘maker revolution’ will only go so far. As Tomas concedes, "it’s really easy to get into the idealisation of communities, but the truth is that in order to scale up the work, we need to get into policy, and into big, big companies". Only then will Fab City manage to scale up the impact from tech savvy individuals to the rest of the population.

If the signing of the Fab City pledge represents progress in policy terms, Fab City has also attracted the attention of some of the manufacturing industry’s biggest players. Fab City recently welcomed members of IKEA’s design, production and sustainability teams to Barcelona to experiment with new models of production and distribution. Tomas is confident of the potential of localised production to enhance existing business models.

"Rather than IKEA having warehouses outside the city where they can store stock which travels thousands of kilometres, and then people buy IKEA products before becoming part of the assembly line, IKEA is going to have stores in neighbourhoods where products are going to be manufactured on demand, possibly in collaboration with citizens and their designs." 

A report on the cooperation between IKEA and Fab City will be published in December. However, if recent pop-up IKEA stores in central locations in Madrid and Barcelona are anything to go by, it would appear that the company is reflecting seriously on how its production model can be adapted to new localised manufacturing techniques in the future. This integration of the present into the future is at the heart of the Fab City vision.

"A fab city is not a city full of fab labs. We are aiming for fab labs to disappear, which means that local production is embedded in everyday life." 

Challenges to making the fab city a reality

The Fab City initiative has major aspirations. As with all big ideas, there are a number of significant challenges it must overcome if it is to be a success, including:

Scale and enthusiasm - How will Fab City reach out beyond the tech-savvy community and scale up? Not everyone dreams of replacing supermarkets with 3D printers. The arguments required to persuade everyday citizens, businesses and policymakers are not the same as the arguments required to persuade enthusiasts.

Funding - As budgets are slashed in cities across the world, sustainability programmes will need to fight to access the funding needed to ensure that access to the skills and tools required to become a producer are available to all. There will also be a pressure to show that existing funding is achieving results. How can a fab city measure its success?

Political continuity - Who will hold city authorities in 2054 to a pledge made in 2016? In the tribal world of city politics, long-term projects are infamously hard to manage. Barcelona was the first city to sign the Fab City pledge in 2014, before a new mayor was elected in 2015. The new council’s leaders have not dropped the city’s commitment to the pledge, but are evaluating how to support the project on their own terms. We can expect similar situations in other cities in the future. 

The unknowns - As with any system that relies on experimentation to find solutions, an enormous number of unforeseen problems are inevitable. What does this mean for skills and education? How does this model work in developing economies with a greater reliance on exporting for employment? What happens to rural communities? Advocates of Fab City must remain attentive as they look forward to ensure that potential issues such as these transform into opportunities for bringing wider sustainable change.

Despite these challenges, Tomas is optimistic that we live in the age of fab cities: "I feel as if things are aligning and falling into a position to make it happen. As Fab City projects develop further, it will be fascinating to see how this initiative evolves towards its 2054 targets. If you want to get involved with its progress, go to your nearest fab lab!"

This post was originally published on Digitalsocial.eu (DSI4EU). Read the original blog. DSI4EU is a platform for digital social innovation. People, projects and organisations can use the site to showcase their work and to find funding, support, events and news. 


Toby Baker

Toby Baker

Toby Baker

Mission Manager, A Fairer Start

Toby worked with local governments to develop and pilot improvements to services that support young children and families.

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