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Bhutan’s Journey Into the Third Digital Revolution

The digitization of fabrication offers the promise of personal fabrication, enabling individuals and communities to produce and share products on demand.
  • Zina Choden Yonten
  • |
  • July 6, 2021

Start of the Digital Movement

Imagine the year is 1965. The third Druk Gyalpo is 13 years into his reign. Bhutan is not a member of the United Nations just yet and The Royal Bhutan Army is just 7 years old. India just started television broadcasting, something that wouldn’t come to Bhutan until 1999.

Halfway across the world, The Beatles are enamoring audiences worldwide and The Sound of Music is leading at the box office. An article published in Electronics magazine by Gordon Moore doesn’t get extensive attention but has a greater impact on our lives today than anticipated. In the article aptly titled “Cramming more components onto Integrated Circuits,” Moore makes the case that the number of components on an integrated circuit has been doubling annually and that he expects the trend to continue for at least ten years. This trend is essential to computers’ ability to become smaller, cheaper and faster- and it was happening at an accelerating pace. If Moore’s prediction was correct, then we would have “such wonders as home computers” by 1975. Unbeknownst to most, we were at the cusp of a digital revolution.

In fact, over the last 50 years, two digital revolutions have passed, more striking than Moore himself predicted. The first digital revolution was in communication, taking us from analog phones to the Internet. The second was in computation, bringing us personal computers and smartphones.

Gordon Moore simply looked ahead 10 years and he predicted things like personal computers, mobile phones and smart cars. True to his prediction, Microsoft was set up in 1975 and Apple in 1976. Entrepreneurs and some organizations were quick to grasp at the opportunities that the two digital revolutions brought. However, the policy makers and social scientist were much slower at thinking about the doubling of technology and the impact on society.

Technology continued to advance at an exponential pace while society struggled to keep up. Today, over half the planet still has no internet access, while billions more have limited access. We built breakthrough digital communications but failed to foster safe cultural norms, and algorithms that will prevent civil discourse. New threats to security and privacy were introduced and we struggled with the impacts of lost jobs due to technology.

With the first two digital revolutions, we missed the opportunity for both the social and technical systems to co-evolve effectively. We now have another chance and it comes with the third digital revolution- in fabrication.

The Third Digital Revolution

The third digital revolution brings the programmability of the virtual world into the physical world of atoms. Just as computation and communication went from analog to digital, resulting in personal computers, cellphones, and the internet, the digitization of fabrication offers the promise of personal fabrication, enabling individuals and communities to produce and share products on demand.

Much like the early mainframe computers, tools of digital fabrication today fill up a room and is used by highly trained operators at leading research institutions and big companies. However, in a few years, the power of these tools will be accessible to anyone, just like your computer and phone. Digital fabrication enables personal fabrication which is production for one person; which means soon we will be able to produce most of what we consume.

While this vision might seem far-fetched, we are already on the way to it becoming a reality. Fab labs, community based labs where individuals have access to powerful tools of digital fabrication, have been doubling every year and a half since its inception in 2003.

Bhutan’s Digital Journey

Bhutan missed out on the opportunity to be a competitive participant in the first two digital revolutions that took place in the 1980s and 1990s. We now have the chance to lead and pave the way for digital fabrication. With his Majesty’s vision and constant encouragement to promote STEM education and move Bhutan forward digitally, we are advancing at a much faster rate.   

In 2017, Bhutan welcomed the first fab lab in the country. Up until then, technologies and machines like 3D printers, laser cutters, Printed circuit board (PCB) milling and other machines found in a fab lab were unheard of. The country embraced the lab fully, garnering a vast number of volunteers eager to get their hands on the new technologies.

Now, three years later, Bhutan is ready to welcome the second Super Fab lab in the world outside of the United States, and set up another four Fab labs. The country has really leap frogged its way into the third digital revolution.

Impact and Opportunities Ahead

The biggest impact of the Fab labs and the Super Fab lab will be in education. The classroom environment is due for a change and our youth will have the opportunity to learn about the power of digital fabrication. This will sow the seed for future generations to innovate in engineering and technologies.

The Fab Labs will also draw in people from all across society. This includes unemployed youths, retired professionals, and students on vacation. Therefore, apart from providing a space to create and learn, Fab Labs will also boost engagement, showing people better life outcomes and increasing social harmony.

An obvious impact is the number of businesses that will come out of Fab Labs, creating employment and offering distinctive services locally. A few start-ups have already spawned from the first Fab Lab.

Finally, digital fabrication can relieve the heavy reliance of our country on imports of the end-long supply chains. As a country that prides itself in Gross National Happiness, we depend desperately on things trucked in from India as we have seen in the past year. We can use the tools in a Fab Lab to fabricate locally what is designed globally.

The Challenges for the Community

As with anything that is new, this digital movement will come with its own set of challenges.  The most evident will be the digital divide it will create. The unequal development between rural and urban areas is obvious today. The rapid digital development can widen this gap, advancing those that are able to grasp the vast opportunities, while leaving the others behind in the dust.

Another challenge is creating an enabling ecosystem. While access is the first milestone to setting up a Fab lab, teaching people the tools and skills needed to use the lab to its full potential is a bigger challenge. Each of the machines have different design software and figuring out how the computer talks to the different machines is a feat in itself. Robust training sessions and continuous learning paths have to be developed to ensure that the labs continue to run successfully. Local and remote mentors will be required to help users on their journey to meet their goals, whatever they maybe, using these powerful technologies.

Looking Ahead

We are now at the cusp of the third digital revolution and thanks to His Majesty’s vision, we Bhutanese will have access to powerful cutting edge technologies. I am hopeful that in a few years’ time, Bhutan will emerge as an innovative hub, integrating smart technologies in our homes, streets, and throughout the country. It is up to us to take it upon ourselves to lead the way forward so that we can not only survive but thrive in the third digital revolution.

English (UK)