Emancipation through citizen science

Foto: Fablab MachBar Potsdam

Fab labs are open workshops, usually run as charitable non-profits, where people come together to build and repair things. The “Machbar” in Potsdam is using this approach to make research, innovation, and factory-like production techniques more accessible to the public.

Our latest project concerns environmental sensors. The focus is on air quality in cities. We want to convince as many people as possible to install small air-quality monitoring stations that transmit information and which together would form a massive network of data collection points.” Mario Parade, member of Potsdam’s science shop, long-time activist and mover in the international ‘maker’ scene, is quickly in his element. We have barely introduced ourselves at the entrance to “Machbar” in Potsdam, and already he’s enthusiastically describing what is going on in this fab lab, and why open workshops, maker-spaces, and citizen science are pointing the way forward. Parade is convinced places like this contribute to the sustainable democratization of research, innovation, and factory-like production capabilities.

The air-quality monitors consist of an Arduino minicomputer, sensors and various other components, including a module transmitting collected data. Easily networkable mini-measuring stations like these will be designed and assembled in the Machbar fab lab. This means they are locally produced. “These are relatively simple measuring devices; the quality of the data they deliver is good, but it’s not high-end”, according to Parade. However, the volume of data generated by several dozen mini-monitors working together ultimately allows measurements as sophisticated as any state-of-the art, isolated, high-end sensor. Here, the databank and analytical software also play an important role; they need to process raw air-quality data both intelligently and efficiently.

Mario Parade is not a programmer. He studied physics. After graduation, he decided he didn’t want to enter the private sector, nor carry on with a university job. “Eventually you just wind up writing research proposals, and lose track of what science needs to do for people”, he says. Armed with this conviction, he entered the world of “real citizen science”, which in the last several years has established itself as a practically worldwide movement. Citizen science activists want to lay bare the technology behind the things we use every day, whilst also creating open-to-all social spaces providing direct access to science and technology.

Fab labs have emerged from citizen science

This idea of citizen science gave rise to science shops as well as to small, open fabrication workshops, or labs, hence “fab lab”. The aim of science shops is on the one hand to elicit scientific questions from the general population that can be channelled into research, and, on the other, to pursue research in which laypeople can participate and potentially advance on their own. Fab labs are characterized by an open-door policy, tools for everyone’s use, and the concept of open source. This means transparent and freely available codes, processes, and blueprints.

“Let’s go inside”, says Parade. We have been absorbed in conversation for a full 20 minutes without even noticing the uncomfortably brisk autumn day. The building that houses Potsdam’s science shop and fab lab belongs to Freiland Potsdam, a socially and culturally oriented community centre near the city’s central station. Long ago, the site was used for armaments production; later, the council operated several workshops there. Since 2011 the plot has been open to public use. The repurposing of a disused industrial site into an alternative community centre is perfectly in line with Mario Parade’s concept of an open and constructive citizen science, just as it would have been to the pioneers of the fab lab model.

Makers essentially follow the basic principle of the Montessori method, that views children as the “architects of themselves” and thus employs open lessons and free-form work. Accordingly, it is important that children have the experience of building something with their own hands. Adventure playgrounds, which came into vogue in Europe in the 1970s, are also grounded in this idea of experiential learning. Mario Parade works as a teacher at a private Montessori school in Potsdam. For him, the fab lab is the modern adult counterpart to the adventure playground.

The maker movement, with its makerspaces and maker days, and the similarly conceived hackerspaces, have broadened the creative approach of self-guided, trial-and-error learning with an array of digital tools and programmable machines. Manufacturing equipment once available only to industry because of its size and cost has now found its way (in far more compact and affordable form) into small workshops and onto desktops—for example 3-D printers and scanners, Computer Numerical Control (CNC) laser cutters, and CAD software. On top of this are the inexpensive, versatile and powerful micro-controllers like the Arduino or the Raspberry Pi. “Making” or “maker”, which have multiple meanings, refer in this context to the digital production of objects; or, as the German magazine Spiegel Online puts it: “Makers are people who treat atoms like bits.”

Open-source designs are available online

The Machbar also has a 3D printer, a 3D scanner and a CNC milling machine, all of which take up little more space than an ironing board or a table football table. Add to this several classic workbenches, an electronics lab with soldering stations and oscilloscope, as well as machines and tools for woodworking; in other words, everything needed to build, saw, mill, or print in 3D. And the computer, of course. At the moment, everything looks a bit chaotic; they have just acquired some new space. Parade explains that during the renovations everything had to be moved around. The first thing we stumble upon is a large, somewhat cumbersome-looking cargo bicycle, made completely from standard aluminium square tubing anyone can pick up from their local DIY store. The design is available online free of charge: anyone can build or optimize this bike.

Parade mentions that Machbar regularly organizes a now-popular repair café: “At first, we had elderly residents coming by who thought they could drop things off to be repaired for free. We had to explain to them that this is all about DIY, and that they should bring and share their expertise and experience.” Since then, young and old attend the sessions, pick up soldering irons and screwdrivers, and learn from one another. The at times ambitious maker projects pursued by fab labs have a common goal: “To quickly and directly realize ideas, such as prototypes or machine components”, says Parade. The essential factor, in his eyes, is one of the founding principles of the maker movement: instead of protecting codes like patents, makers publish their projects as open-source material, allowing anyone the opportunity to use and further develop their designs.

Nonetheless, the fab labs movement threatens to lose sight of its original ideals. The small, versatile workshops have long since landed in the sights of industry and their independence is increasingly in danger. In recent years maker conventions, originally conceived of as casual meeting places and idea exchanges, have taken on the character of shows and marketplaces, attracting investors and their capital. The 2016 maker fair in Hannover featured more than 800 makers as exhibitors, welcoming upwards of 15,000 guests. In the USA and also here in Germany, according to Parade, many makers are striving to turn their projects into startup and commercial enterprises.

Mario Parade knows the international fab lab scene inside and out, because he’s been part of it from the beginning. He is also currently a fellow at the Stanford University’s Transformative Learning Technologies Lab, allowing him to collaborate with other makers on international projects. He travels regularly to California and participates in frequent video-conferences. One example of an international project he has been involved with is the “Fortek oven”. Together with collaborators, he developed and published open-source designs for micro waste-incineration plants, which could be used in West Africa to convert the massive and ubiquitous amounts of plastic waste found in the region into energy, leaving raw material for 3D printers as a by-product.

Excessive commercialization undermines fab labs’ founding ideals

Parade views the commercialization of fab labs through the founding of startups critically, seeing it as a betrayal of their original goals and ideals. “I’ve got nothing against fab labs having a business plan—public libraries need business plans too”. Nonetheless, private investors and marketable products developed in fab labs, but mass-produced in China, are incompatible with the independent, non-profit, and open-source principles at the heart of the maker movement.

A passionate believer in these principles, Parade is careful to finance the Potsdam fab lab from a wide field of regularly changing sources, often relying on crowdfunding and public grants. With the project “Fabulandlabs”, Potsdam’s science shop was among the ten winners of a grant competition run by Germany’s Federal Research Ministry. The aim of Fabulandlabs was to produce an array of “adapted assistance” equipment and devices for people with disabilities including, for example, special handles and grips for tools or instruments, special cutlery and crockery, enlarged keyboards and intelligent signage. People belonging to this target group would then be included in the development process itself, which would be localized but networked, and encouraged to participate in the manufacture of the final products, acquiring the skills to render the project outcomes sustainable.

Here, the goal is a democratized science and an empowered population with sovereignty over technology that can be used daily. Parade has a vision: “It’s about emancipation from the black boxes of our digital age, but also from the mechanisms of planned obsolescence. People need the courage to be able to take something apart, to see how it works and how it’s built, and then to learn how to it make it themselves.”

Inclusive and self-administered: 
Freiland Potsdam is truly open space

Until a few years ago, the Potsdam council used this site for various works and service facilities. When they left, plans for an alternative repurposing of the property first began to take shape. The 12,000 square metre site with its five buildings has been open to the public since 2011. On their own initiative, young people and activists have established an events house, seminar rooms, a youth club, a café, the free radio station FRRAPÓ, rehearsal spaces for musicians, studios, a library, a theatre space, a sports room, and various workshops and offices.

The property is currently administered by the non-profit Cultus AG, an association of about 40 different organizations, initiatives, and projects. Financial support is provided by the Potsdam council alongside grants from charitable foundations, donations, membership fees, and special events.

The former council works entrance is always open. Two signs above read, “Please drive slowly” and “No Nazis”. A young, alternative spirit pervades the whole site. Facades are covered in graffiti. Much seems improvised, but everything feels dynamic and purposeful. The central idea behind the Freiland Potsdam is open workshops with open doors for open groups with open structures. A truly open space for makers, artists and hackers.

The origins of fab labs lie in Montessori theory

The idea of fabrication laboratories (fab labs) arose at the MIT in the 1990s. Seymour Papert, Professor of Mathematics and Education, taught and researched there at the time. Among other projects, he assisted the toy manufacturer Lego develop a programmable construction-kit computer named “Mindstorms”. Papert, who died in 2016, had himself studied under Jean Piaget, a pioneer of cognitive developmental psychology. By their own account, the fab labs are carrying on the work initiated by the educational theorist Maria Montessori and furthered under Piaget and John Dewey.

The fab labs movement­­­

The term “fab labs”, a trademark of MIT, refers not only to open, but also non-profit workshops. Fab labs operate on the basis of small use fees and offer at least one regular open afternoon for the general public. These and other principles are laid out in the Fab Charter, which on the whole is formulated relatively loosely. There are currently more than 500 fab labs worldwide, all of which can be found on a map with the help of Fabwiki. A major fab labs conference is held annually, where guidelines and challenges facing the movement are discussed. Ethical and other concerns are also addressed, for example the use of 3D printers to manufacture usable firearms, and solutions such as programming blocks and barring code access. Makers also discuss their own responsibility with regards to issues such as the development of overly accessible bio-chemical weapons technology. Here, the potential dangers are much greater.

Henry Steinhau

Henry Steinhau

Henry Steinhau works as a freelance journalist and author in Berlin. He regularly publishes pieces at iRights.info and ‘Publik’, amongst many others . He also lectures, moderates debates and discussions, and runs seminars on the basics of journalism and contemporary media-culture. He is a member of the honorary board of Freischreiber e.V., the professional association of freelance journalists in Germany.
Henry Steinhau

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