Traditional education is like mainframe computing… We (FabLabs) are the internet; a globally distributed campus for higher-level education, (to) learn top skills from global leaders, master them locally in hundreds of locations all over the world.~Professor Neil Gershenfeld, Founder, FabLabs.
The first FabLab started as a collaborative program in 2001 to provide access to tools, knowledge, and technology, allowing anyone to make (almost) anything. FabLabs also provided the financial means to educate, innovate, and invent using technology and digital fabrication, creating opportunities to improve lives and livelihoods around the world. The number of FabLabs around the world began doubling every one and a half years since its launch, and the Fab Foundation was formed in 2009 to facilitate the international FabLab network.
Seventeen years after the inception of a FabLab, Bhutan established its first FabLab in 2017. By 2022 Bhutan will also launch its first fully operational Super FabLab(SFL). This will be 3rd functional SFL in the world. With the vision of catalyzing STEM education in the country, SFL will create a community of fabbers. As a result, we are likely to witness a transformation in country’s economy.
In the current age of the digital revolution, Bhutanese citizens are still constrained by various limitations, including funds, space, and machines/technology. Today, the community of makers and fabricators is limited to businesses, leaving the youth, hobbyists, and entrepreneurs without a supportive space to prototype their ideas. As a result, most ideas do not translate into products or services, limiting Bhutanese citizens from innovating.
Super FabLab is a place for everyone interested in learning, teaching, building something, or even exploring to satisfy one’s curiosity. This open space will bring people together to engage with one another and find support for any of their experiments or ideas. SFL will increase social and professional networks, fostering a strong community of friendships and partnerships. Such a lab will ultimately create a strong social capital of fabbers, makers, and innovators consisting of a diverse group of people.
The Super FabLab will also focus on integrating digital fabrication into STEM education. Educators will have a platform to co-create lessons on using digital fabrication in the classroom to catalyze STEM education in schools and provide students with different learning environments. Exposing young minds to such methods will help cultivate knowledge and creativity, paving a path for innovation and economic diversification.
Further, as youth engagement, long-term wellbeing, and unemployment continue to be of concern in Bhutan, SFL will go beyond “a place for technology development and innovation.” This open space will enable intergenerational learning and sow seeds of welling and prosperity for generations to come.
Barcelona in Spain is a great example of how a city can leverage FabLabs to build a resilient economy. In the 1980s, Barcelona witnessed a stagnating economy with 50% youth unemployment. The relevant decision-makers eventually decided to establish FabLabs as part of the Smart City Series in every district in Barcelona and create a city of fabber and maker to achieve urban self-sufficiency. The main goal was to produce what the locals consume and turn consumers into producers.
Contextualizing the same approach in Bhutan where consumers become producers, and produce what the community consumes, it can result in high rate of growth and self-sufficiency. Additionally, it will also reduce carbon footprint and lead to a culture wherein people make and repurpose items. Thus, the FabLabs initiative goes beyond technological advancement but also paves the path for creating long-term talent pipeline, building an innovation ecosystem, and diversifying the economy.
There are many examples of businesses that have started at a FabLab and have now grown into multi-national companies, including FormLabs and NifyDrivee. Towards similar goals, SFL aims to provide support to startups for rapid prototyping of technology and reiterating the design of those products before they are taken to the market.
Machines in the Super FabLab are mainly for creating and fabricating things, thus requiring competent technical skills. Compared to the Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) in our country, SFL uses digital fabrication tools that are much more efficient and less labor-intensive. With SFL, implementing digital fabrication in the Technical and Vocational Education system will also be fast-tracked. Thus, anyone can get skilled or upskilled in SFL by undergoing training on machines and digital design and fabrication.
For businesses and organizations, SFL can be used to fabricate the design of new products. Additionally, organizations can also utilize the machines in SFL to repair parts usually sent to other countries at a very high cost. Lastly, established and emerging businesses can find skilled staff through the FabLab network.
Super FabLab will be a space that will not be limited to demography or educational background. It will not be defined by the type of work that can be carried out. Rather, the SFL platform will inspire innovation, transform minds, and educate on technology. Having such a space for knowledge sharing and learning, where a community of fabbers and makers come together, can fundamentally transform Bhutan’s economy.
SFL will foster research and development of new and emerging technologies in collaboration with national and international institutes and organizations. Super FabLab, compared to other Labs, will have over 40 machines which will give it a distinctive capability to make all the machines needed for standard FabLabs and fabricate anything needed in the FabLabs. As a result, through SFL, Bhutan has the potential to establish more FabLabs in the country with a strong network of fabbers.