Reimagining Our Relationship with the Material World

by Blair Evans

photos courtesy of Incite-Focus

What Would You Like to Make?

Incite Focus is tucked inside a nondescript complex in the Warren-Conner area of Detroit’s east side. However, it is operating within a much grander vision than its modest accommodations suggest. Its combination of people, technology and vision for the future set into motion a series of  “light bulb” and “a-ha” moments for visitors who venture into the Incite Focus Fab Lab.

The Incite Focus Fab Lab is part of a network of over 1,000 such labs in 78 countries.  The network was started by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, born out of a class taught by Neil Gershenfeld titled “How to Make (Almost) Anything.”  Each lab is equipped with digital fabrication technology: 3D printers, CNC Routers, milling machines, laser cutters and more. With a goal of creating a more self-sustaining Detroit, Incite Focus is committed to providing free community access to such tools and the knowledge necessary in using advanced digital technology.

As part of the Fab City Global Initiative, Incite Focus is about radical transformation, about rethinking and changing our relationship with the material world and, in turn, each other. It is about shifting to systems that nourish ourselves, one another, and this planet.

The Fab City Global Initiative proposes a real-world model for communities to recover the knowledge and capacity to make things, produce energy, harvest food, and develop ways for people to decide their own destinies. The Initiative calls for cities to become self-sufficient by 2054 and produce everything they consume. Detroit joined the pledge in 2016.

The Fab City Global Initiative was started by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) in Barcelona, Spain, MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, the Barcelona City Council, and the Fab Foundation to develop locally productive and globally connected self-sufficient cities. Other cities committed to the Initiative include Boston, Cambridge (UK), Ekurhuleni (South Africa), Shenzhen, London, Copenhagen, Paris and Santiago de Chile.

Collaborating with local communities, companies and institutions, the Fab City project will assist cities in revitalizing manufacturing infrastructure and incentivizing a new economy. Information, economic and social networks will replace global supply chains. With drastic reduction in the movement of materials, as well as their associated energy consumption and carbon emissions, a city’s resilience is increased and a more ecological system is developed. This shift requires us to exercise our social lenses by understanding the objects we use, not as things that will eventually become obsolete and disposable, but as re-imagined and reusable fixtures.

The Fab City strategy is unique in that it addresses a range of environmental, social and economic objectives:  reduction of carbon emissions, waste minimization, re-localization of manufacturing, democratized work and a reduction in degrading environmental practices. These objectives are brought to a practical level by connecting with the Fab Lab Network, where concerted and coordinated efforts are being made to reimagine how, where, and what we make in order to live harmoniously within the bounds of the planet’s resources.  

As technology continues to progress in leaps and bounds, jobs are slowly disappearing. As automation continues its spread and stratification of wealth becomes more extreme, solutions to these changes cannot look like more of the same. We must ask ourselves: How do we harness the energy of these changes and technology? We must apply our ancient ingenuity, our social and collective nature and bring about solutions that lead us in the direction where we don’t just survive, but we thrive.

Detroit’s destiny as a Fab City will not be determined by a single organization, but by this technology being embraced by all community members.  When people have the capacity to make the things that they need, they begin to have a greater sense of control over their lives.

Incite Focus’s efforts to provide people with access and resources for empowerment don’t end with the lab. The Detroit Fab Lab is hard at work developing a digital platform that connects independent designers, makers and conscious consumers from around the world. This platform will utilize the latest advancements in design technology and allow the customer to make alterations to existing designs so the product is personalized to their specifications and manufactured on-demand. For instance, if the customer desires to purchase a kitchen table they find on the platform but the size isn’t appropriate for their kitchen they will simply modify dimensions and the software will alter the design of the product. The same goes for manipulating other characteristics.

The platform will be a resource for independent and emerging designers to provide their quality product designs as well. This will give them access to a global audience and catapult the sale of products produced from their designs. Once the buyer finds and customizes a design they wish to purchase, the platform will quote cost and delivery and coordinate local makers and workshops which will fabricate the product. Although the platform embodies technological complexity, the idea is quite simple. Incite Focus’s platform looks to empower the consumer by allowing them to personalize the products they consume and giving them the option of buying from specific designers, whether on the basis of aesthetic preference, cultural identity, and so on. The designer is empowered by the platform because their designs will be placed on a global stage, growing their customer base and allowing them to receive royalties every time their design is purchased. The platform empowers the maker by giving them more opportunities to do what they do best: make quality products and have flexibility in controlling their time. The maker is also included in a global collaboration that produces products locally, relative to the customer, instead of making in a central location and shipping around the world.

Information being designed and shared globally but produced locally is one of the motivating factors of both the Fab City initiative and Incite Focus’s digital platform. The platform in particular creates an on-ramp to gaining skills in and experience with these enabling technologies while earning supportive income. Both endeavors will do their part to engender a circular economy and community self-reliance in Detroit. What if Fab Labs enabled self-determination through self-sufficiency?  Imagine it is 2037 and Detroit is now a beacon for a “post-salary” future, that is, where individuals can be self-sufficient and find meaning, purpose, and dignity by increasingly making what they consume—self-determination through self-sufficiency. In this model, people spend about 30 hours per week working individually and in community-anchored cooperatives, making what is needed for the family and community, and making additional designs and items for sale and exchange in support of others following similar desires. The remaining 15 to 20 hours of what was traditionally time on the job is spent combined with other free time to pursue personal passions and personally motivated activities around growth and personal development.

This is not some distant future. It is now a focused effort in Detroit and in urban centers around the world, where communities move to emitting and degrading less, and enjoying and thriving more. The team at Incite Focus believes in the philosophy, “Work and spend less; create and connect more,” and sees our work in digital fabrication technology as a foundation for community-based production. By incorporating concepts of social solidarity economy, zero-growth economies, steady-state economy issues; by building cooperatives and community transformation models; by fostering small group project management, and development of individual and group agency, the Incite Focus team is helping people not just learn stuff, but learn self.

Incite Focus invites you to ponder: What would a healthy community, a well community, BE if we could actualize a society driven by self-determination and self-sufficiency? Imagine actually designing and building what your community needs. It starts with the simple question, “What would you like to make?”  

Blair Evans, Founder and Executive Director of Incite Focus, is a Board Member of the Fab Foundation. He has helped position Incite Focus as the “principal collaborating partner” in Detroit’s commitment to the Fab City Global Initiative. To find out more about Incite Focus visit incite-focus.org.  

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