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Capital Ideas

The thoughts of Matt Olson, a systems thinker, hacker, and social entrepreneur, on retooling consumer culture

Reinventing Chico

Fab Lab

A group of makers has been quietly building a community space here in Chico with great potential for democratizing the tools of innovation and expression. After months of planning and hard work, Idea Fab Labs, Chico’s first makerspace, is opening its doors May 4th.

Makerspaces—open, social spaces designed for brainstorming, collaborative learning, tool sharing, and most importantly, making things—have a long tradition in technology communities around the world. They provide the space and both standard and high-tech tools, as well as the knowledge of how to use them, in a collaborative, open environment where experimentation and peer-to-peer learning thrives.

This technology-driven maker culture, both inside companies and outside of them, is responsible for many of the innovations we take for granted today. Steve Wozniak, the original developer of the Apple computer, did most of his work on that seminal design to impress his friends at the Homebrew Computer Club, a Palo Alto based group of home electronics hobbyists. It is that enthusiastic spirit of open innovation and knowledge sharing that forms the basis of the maker culture, and has inspired the recent resurgence in makerspaces around the world. (Makerspaces are sometimes known as hackerspaces, although the term “hacker” in this context has nothing to do with the image you might have of criminal activity, instead referring to the original meaning of the word: a spirit of tinkering, modifying, and extending existing hardware and software.)

Chico’s Makerspace

Idea Fab Labs has taken the makerspace concept one step further by offering a much wider range of modern tools than are traditionally available: an industrial laser cutter, a CNC router, a 3D printer, textile and leatherworking equipment, a wood shop, and a metal shop, in addition to the standard microelectronics workshop. It is a digital fabrication facility, giving the community an opportunity to work with specialized tools that are ordinarily out of reach for hobbyists or small businesses, learn how to use them, and build prototypes of their ideas, either for personal or commercial purposes.

Idea Fab Labs sprang from a collaboration between Erin and Kristina Banwell, Jordan Layman, Billy Hopkins, and Sean Mitchell, all Chicoans who embody the maker spirit. After visiting makerspaces elsewhere and seeing the amazing work they’ve published online, they wanted to build the ultimate makerspace here in Chico. Rather than waiting for someone else to come along and do it, they and their friends got their hands dirty renovating an industrial space south of campus, buying equipment and finding like-minded collaborators.

What motivates these guys to put in all those long hours? According to Erin, “There’s a worldwide movement that is taking the form of makerspaces and hackerspaces and these groups that are collaborating together, open source over the Internet, and in person, and we are just a part of this worldwide movement. What that movement represents is a new paradigm in innovation, manufacturing, and organizational structure, all falling under the banner of Open Source. We’re carrying the torch.”

The widespread availability of information, hardware and software designs, source code, and scientific data openly available on the Internet has led to an explosion of innovation in recent years, and it’s never been easier for a self-motivated individual to apply what they’ve learned by building on the work of others. In the software and hardware world, this is known as Open Source. As opposed to the traditional system of locking up information behind patents for monopolization, Open Source software and hardware designs make the results of your innovations freely available for others to build on, usually with little or no licensing restrictions. This has sped up rate of innovation to unprecedented levels—clearly a net benefit for society.

However, it’s often more efficient to share information in person, especially when troubleshooting a problem in an area where you are inexperienced. It’s easy to get discouraged and decide to move on. For this reason, makerspaces have turned into a powerful force for learning outside academia. Sharing your skills and learning from your peers is seen as one of the key purposes of makerspaces, and Idea Fab Labs is no exception. A community of makers is already using the space to work together in a spirit of mutual assistance. In addition to the type of informal peer-to-peer education that already takes place at the lab, structured classes will be offered on a wide variety of topics by local experts. As Erin told me, “If someone wants to learn how to use a 3D printer, or a laser cutter, or a CNC router, or they want to learn how to write code in C++, or Javascript, or Ruby on Rails, this is a place that is going to provide that, outside the institutional educational structure. We are creating a place where, whether you are already a tech person, or you have no knowledge of it whatsoever, you are welcome to come and work and learn.”

For small businesses, the advantages of prototyping at Idea Fab Labs are clear. In the prototyping stage, it is not uncommon to go through dozens of iterations before perfecting your design for manufacture. To purchase high end prototyping equipment for a speculative venture, not to mention the space and electricity to use it, would be prohibitively expensive for most small businesses, but having it available on a rental basis at low cost, not to mention having other smart individuals to bounce ideas off of and troubleshoot problems, is a clear advantage. The lone inventor previously discouraged from testing out his/her designs because of high initial costs can now begin a rapid prototyping cycle, perhaps using the result for fundraising.

The tools available at the lab are just that: tools. It is up to the individual how to use them. Artists have begun to discover these tools and are developing fascinating new modes of expression. The lab wants to make these tools and the knowledge of how to use them available not just to left brain types, but righties as well, in an ongoing exploration of the intersection of art and technology. In explaining the motivation behind the gallery, Erin explains, “we want to showcase some of the possibilities of digital fabrication, and to push the boundaries of art with this technology.”

What is possible when a talented conceptual artist is given all the tools in the lab and training on how to use them? There’s only one way to find out. In that spirit of experimentation, Idea Fab Labs has established a residency program for established artists to train on this new equipment and follow their muse. The program includes two weeks at the lab, training by experts, a creative environment to do their work, followed by an exhibition in the gallery. (Turns out there is plenty of space for an art gallery in the lab’s 7,000 sq ft facility.)

The first such artist residency is in progress. David Seied, a computational/architectural 3D designer from Denver is working with Erin to discover what these tools can add to his already impressive body of work.

Seied works with 3D modeling software to create complex geometric shapes. He is becoming well-known for his designs printed in steel and sandstone. He worked as an intern for Marc Fornes and THEVERYMANY, an impressive computational architecture project, on an installation at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

The gallery opening for the Seied exhibit will be held on May 4th at Idea Fab Labs (603 Orange Street) from 3-6pm. Anyone interested in Seied’s art or the lab itself is welcome to drop in. Art will be available for purchase. Following the opening, the exhibit will be open to the public through June 1st.

Building a Tech Community

Chico is a fun loving, community oriented town, a place where it’s easy to build relationships, so it’s only natural that our emerging tech community have a space that embodies that spirit.

As Erin told me, “part of what makes Open Source work is that it’s social. This is a social setting. People come here to have fun and hang out with their friends and to build cool stuff. So maybe on Friday night instead of going out and taking three shots of the cheapest whiskey they got on the shelf, let’s all go work on our laser shooting robot helicopter.” Many important innovations have historically come out of that same spirit of playfulness, which is one of the reasons I’m so excited about the emergence of this space.

Idea Fab Labs has the potential to be a hub of innovation and entrepreneurial activity in Chico and the North State region. With such a wide variety of equipment available, it will likely become a crossroads of sorts for groups of people that may not ordinarily interact or work together. I would argue that the most interesting ideas come from a multidisciplinary approach that will be enabled by this type of cross pollination.

See you at the lab!

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