A wheelchair user with a laptop talks to a group of people

A year after new legislation came into force banning punitively high interest rates for payday loans and rent-to-own appliance shops, local activist Davide saw an opportunity in the making. The large floor space formerly occupied by a rent-to-buy white goods retailer, which had long exploited the vulnerable, could now be used in their favour instead. Having spent a career in light manufacturing, Davide saw how perfect the space was for a fab lab, and he realised that a fab lab could become the new beating heart of a run-down and splintering community.

The city was already signed up to the Fab City movement, with the aim of being fully self-sustaining in manufactured goods by 2054. But Davide was inspired not only by environmental causes. From the outset, his plan was to create a fab lab which provided good work for local people. It would be a base for them to create from, as well as being a space for hobbyists. The sell to the city government was clear: reach your Fab City goal sooner, provide local jobs, keep money in the local economy, boost the tax base, and increase footfall on the high street. It would be a virtuous circle for the community.

Davide worked with experienced fab lab organisers from other districts to recruit an organising committee. The local council offered an interest free loan to purchase machinery, local people got involved in the set up, and Casa Luminata opened its doors to applicants in July 2027. Now in its third year, the space is full of activity. The shopfront looks busy and inviting, encouraging local people to the high street. Its users support other local businesses like cafes and restaurants, and can sell their products in the fab lab’s retail space.

Proud of what he’s achieved over the past three years, Davide silently tags onto a tour that’s about to kick off. The tour is run by younger adults from the nearby intergenerational housing co-op, some of whom work in the fab lab or use it in their spare time. They’re guiding a group of fab lab newbies from their co-op, many of whom are older people. The tour begins in the corner where Sarah, one of the founding members, is hard at work.

Sarah uses 3D printing to make lightweight customised wheelchairs. She shows the tour group her CAD software, which she uses to design bespoke parts, and the 3D printer, which creates even the smallest and most complex parts with incredible precision.

Though they’re customised, Sarah doesn’t design her wheelchairs from scratch. Instead, she modifies open-source designs that were created by a global community online. Sometimes, she’ll try something experimental to solve a problem unique to one of her users. If it works out, she’ll upload the idea to the community for others to use or develop further.

The plastic she uses in the wheelchairs is itself recycled, made just a few metres away out of recycled plastic bottles in another open-source machine.

The group moves around the corner to Alex’s booth. Alex recycles textiles into new fabrics, and then into clothes using an open-source digital knitting machine. They specialise in gender-neutral designs, playing on motifs from clothing that would once have been considered masculine or feminine to create original pieces to suit bodies of all shapes, sizes and gender expressions. Some of the pieces are sold in the fab lab’s retail outlet. However, the individualised manufacturing process and the effectiveness of the design software’s AI means shoppers can submit their own measurements and have bespoke, perfectly-fitting clothes made for them. Alex is pleased to give their card to several people on the tour.

Next, the group passes schoolchildren who are learning hands-on about the plastic recycling machine with a volunteer who repairs white goods with custom made parts. They move over to the woodworking workshop in what was formerly the rent-to-buy retailer’s stock room, where planks of wood are being precision-cut with a CNC machine and loaded onto a trailer.

The project is being led by a local building firm which specialises in wooden structures. The firm recently won the contract for a high-density housing project at the nearby Pamilya community, and decided to produce the parts at Casa Luminata rather than buying from abroad. The firm is using open-source building technology which dramatically brings down the cost of design and build. These savings are passed onto citizens through cheaper homes. The waste wood and sawdust is collected and processed into logs which are burned for heat.

Davide is proud of what Casa Luminata has achieved, but he’s naturally modest. Having remained incognito for the whole of the tour, his cover is blown by one of the people loading the planks onto the truck. The visitors - most of whom had never seen most of the machines in the fab lab - are not just impressed, but also excited to get involved and check out the retail space. As Davide heads to the fab lab kitchen, he sees an old lady in the corner signing for a bespoke new scarf from Alex. In another, a man is speaking to Sarah about how she can upgrade his wheelchair.

Projects and organisations which inspired us

  • The international Fab Lab network and the Fab Foundation
  • Fab City Global Initiative, which aims to make locally productive, globally connected cities and citziens by enabling the return of manufacture to cities supported by a Data-in Data-out urban model.
  • Precious Plastic (NL), an open-source machine for recycling plastic.
  • Wikihouse (UK), an open-source technology for building low-cost, low-footprint houses.
  • Kniterate (ES/UK), a digital knitting machine.
  • Disrupt Disability (UK), modular customised wheelchairs, and Too Wheels (IT), an open-source sports wheelchair.