Interview and article by Ying-Che Chen
Some might not be familiar with Toulouse, a city in southwest France and home to Artilect FabLab, France’s first FabLab. The city is also famous for being home to aircraft manufacturer Airbus and a number of space centres. The Université de Toulouse, founded in 1229, is one of Europe’s oldest universities and attracts many great minds in science. The 2017 European FabLab Festival will be held in Toulouse from May 11 to 14, but it’s the 2018 FAB14, which will be held jointly in Toulouse and Paris, that is attracting makers from all over the world. Artilect FabLab will be the co-organizer of both the 2017 and 2018 FabLab..
The founder of France’s first FabLab, Nicolas Lassabe, came to Taiwan to personally invite Taiwanese makers to attend and to build stronger relationships among makers. Nicolas promised that going to Toulouse for the two major events will mean unlimited cheese and wine for everyone! France has over 300 types of cheese, and it’s impossible to try them all in just a few days. Nicolas also hopes that this unique cultural feature alone will be enough to attract people to come to France for these two events. In this interview, we’ll find out what the founder of the first French FabLab expects to see from Taiwan’s makers.
Why did you start Artilect FabLab?
Nicolas Lassabe (hereafter NL): I got my doctor’s degree in computer science in Toulouse. Before that, I only focused on things related to my study, and I spent about twenty hours every day on my computer writing programs. After getting my degree, I wanted to connect with other professions so I could work on more concrete applications like robots or machinery—things that are still relevant to electrical engineering.
Later, I went to Cornell University for my postdoctoral research and met people with different backgrounds. They were researchers of biology, computer science, mechanical engineering, physics and so on. Everybody was doing different projects in the lab—it’s like an interdisciplinary research lab. It was also the place where I got to use a 3D printer for the first time, and my adviser then was Professor Hod Lipson. Before going to Cornell, I had always wanted to build a space where everybody can come and work together, whether you’re an artist, architect, scientist or anything else, so that we can get to know each other and share experiences. When I saw digital tools like the 3D printer in Cornell, I was excited because I was thinking, “What if these tools were in that space I wanted to build? Wouldn’t everybody be able to complete their projects and create something useful?” Lipson told me that if that was what I wanted to do, I should contact Neil Gershenfeld because he was working on the FabLab online project. The year was 2008. I returned to France the next year and founded Artilect FabLab.
There are about 1000 members in the Artilect FabLab in Toulouse. We didn’t design it this way, but smaller theme labs have been spawning by themselves since the beginning, like biology labs, mechanics labs, design labs and architecture labs. It is important to gather the community and regularly organize events. The first Monday of every month is our “Super Monday”, when we invite three designers to each give a 15-minute presentation on their work. Besides talking about their work, they will also explain how they use the tools within FabLab to accomplish their goals, what difficulties they have faced and how they overcome them with FabLab’s assistance. After each presentation is a 3-minute Q&A, which gives people the knowledge resources they need. There are about 150 participants in Super Monday at the moment, so you can always have your questions answered right away or find the people who can help you.
What are you looking forward to about organizing 2018’s FAB14 in Toulouse?
NL: We have been busy with the FabLab Festival, Europe’s maker event from May 11 to 14 of this year. This is another major event of ours before Fab14, and we might have to finish FabLab Festival first before we can focus on Fab14. Our partners and sponsors are all excited for Fab14 to be held in Toulouse because this event is going to bring people from all over the world together, and Artilect FabLab is going to be even more attractive.
We are more than happy to build a stronger relationship with makers all over the world. We look forward to building a better relationship with Taiwan’s maker community because Taiwan has a huge advantage. There are a lot of manufacturers in Taiwan, so if you have invented or made something, you can easily go to a manufacturer for research and production. We have plenty of creativity in France, and Taiwan has all the manufacturers to implement these ideas. We should work with Taiwan to establish better relationships between makers and factories or manufacturers and bring the creativity of France to Taiwan so that many things can be improved. Taiwan has excellent electronic and plastic manufacturers that need to be introduced to French makers and startups to help them produce their products. This advantage of Taiwan can bring FabLab and manufacturers together to create awesome things. A lot of connections have been made now, and I believe more and more networks will soon be established and even better relationships can be built among labs in different places.
Artilect FabLab’s ability and motivation to organize international events shows that you have a good relationship with the community. What can you tell us about that, and how can you strengthen this relationship?
NL: Once I was invited to a conference held by a digital art organization, and someone from Paris, who studies digital art development in Toulouse, was giving a speech on where to find digital art classes and what were some of the official activation plans. I was thinking that, though we could offer some assistance from Artilect FabLab, we did not have anything specifically for artists. The speaker then went on to say that all Toulouse artists went to one place, and that place was called Artilect FabLab, that many art projects are relevant to this place. It was a big surprise for me, for we were not aware of this at all. I was just thinking about how to make connections with artists and where they would go. We have over 1000 members, but we have never asked their occupation or profession. Maybe we should start asking more questions.
Two weeks ago, I saw an article in a newspaper saying that a startup has been performing well this year, and if not for Artilect FabLab, they couldn’t have done it. I don’t even know these people. That article was where I first saw their names.
Our next step is to digitize FabLab. Even though we’re already using digital tools to create and we’re on Facebook, our goal has always been to help people who go to FabLab to meet even more people. Therefore, we want a webpage or a digital platform where you can interact with others even when you’re not in the lab. This system allows you to see who is in the lab, so you can find electronic experts, computer experts or artists. You can also see what projects other people are working on. We can actually use Super Monday to increase the visibility of artists and makers. Through their presentations and demonstrations, they might be able to find support and also help build a network for everybody.
Sharing is a feature of the maker movement. As a pioneer of the maker movement yourself, what do you think is its significance?
NL: There wouldn’t be a maker movement at all if nobody was sharing. We can now learn on the internet and apply what we’ve learned because many projects and researches are well recorded and people also share their entire production processes. You can become a maker by learning from all the information and knowledge. The maker movement exists because people share their knowledge. It is important that we keep sharing, though I am aware of the difficulty of keeping records. It is one way to innovate because sharing speeds up innovation. Someone has completed a project: someone else might add something to it, like new features, and that’s great. The most important thing about innovation is speed, not creating too many “patents” that might slow down the progression.
The maker movement is now a reality because the internet has made the sharing of data and information possible. Economically, innovation is no longer hindered by the lack of tools and the excessive number of patents that overprotect creativity. Thanks to the internet and the fast sharing of knowledge, you can now use FabLab to carry out your projects and create innovations. It is now relatively easy to start a startup company and make videos. There are quite a few crowdfunding websites out there, too. These are the advantages of the current environment.
What kind of new thinking can the maker movement inspire, both socially and educationally?
NL: I think the impact makers have on society today is similar to something in the 1980s: a lot of programmers were writing software back then and, much like the makers today, they researched products, created projects, and some of them became entrepreneurs. The important thing is that they all used digital tools. The concepts of open source and sportsmanship are quite similar to the personal computer trends of the 1980s. Before that, computers were for commercial use only and not easily accessible for most people. After the release of the PC, everybody gets to use it, much like the 3D printer and laser cutter today, which everybody can have access to and use them to innovate and invent products. This directly impacts the economy.
As for education, France is like most other countries: there is the theoretical and the practical. People who are good at science usually don’t do laborious work, and this makes a huge difference. In the past, schools in France only taught students to write but not to do. Now that we have the FabLab and the maker movement, we can have both knowledge and the opportunity to try to implement what we’ve learned. This is something new.
A new educational approach is to attempt to directly apply your knowledge by turning something in your mind into a physical object. Design something, do some maths, solve some problems, and once you have done a few of those things, you will be able to design real projects and solve real problems.
Artilect FabLab used to be a factory, with a lot of large metal pipes. According to its past employees, it cost a lot of money if a mistake was made during construction, so precision was important in the earlier design. These metal pipes weigh five tonnes and are very difficult to move. Once they’re set it’s almost impossible to make changes. If you go to a FabLab today, you can make a model, run tests on it and modify it. It’s like you’re given a chance to fail, which is much better than no chance at all. This process also changes the way we think, learn and work.
The Chinese version of this article is available here.