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Tomas Diez: how to transform cities into FabLabs

Tomas Diez (@tomasdiez) is a Venezuelan city planner who really thinks big. For him, all cities can become FabLabs—creative laboratories in which the inhabitants themselves shape the lives of entire neighbourhoods. Tomas works primarily in Europe, where he is a tutor and permanent director of the Fab Academy Diploma at FabLab Barcellona. On the 24th of May, he will be one of the guests at Atoms, Bits & People, the event, held in Rome, that brings together Neil Gershendfeld, Massimo Banzi, Riccardo Luna and makers all across Europe.

According to Tomas, the ‘makers revolution’ is all about people, not slogans. To understand it, it is only necessary to listen to Tomas’ talk given at TEDxZwolle, where he summarises the past five centuries of human history. From 1492—the year America was discovered—to the present, the world has seen many revolutions that have changed how we live and think; 3D printing and the ‘makers movement’ is only the last in a long series.

It all began with the invention of moveable type by Gutenberg in ca. 1439. This revolutionised Europe during the 16th century, placing over 200 million printed books into circulation. Thus culture and knowledge became accessible to an ever-increasing number of people—assuming they could read and could afford the books.

History has galloped across the centuries, from the industrial revolution, steam engines, and Henry Ford’s production lines. The 1900s gave us the computer, the Internet, and the very first industrial 3D printers. The millennium ended and, in 2001, Neil Gershenfeld founded—and still runs—the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. The FabLab was born, with the idea that places exist in which everyone can build (almost) anything.

At this point, Tomas breaks off and tells us how things stand today. 3D printing will be the microwave oven of the next decade: a technology destined to put old methods and habits out to pasture. Okay, it hasn’t quite turned out that way and it’s likely that not even 3D printers will succeed in changing the world on their own.

Tomas believes that the future will be defined by people. A FabLab can be at the cutting edge, but if it is not visited, it has lost. The same occurs with the smart city: they are of little use if the population is treated as if it were comprised only of stupid people.  Technology can change the cards on the table, but it’s the people who make the real difference.

This is made easier to understand by studying the Smart Citizen project, currently involved in a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign. The idea is that of spreading an Arduino-compatible microcomputer board fitted with light, sound, humidity, CO2 and NO2 sensors throughout the citizenry. This would ensure every balcony and window in one city becomes an ambient sensor station connected to an open network. Open Data, accessible technology and a desire for change: it sounds banal, but that really is how it works.

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