Prototyping Fabriken and the future of production

Here’s is an interview with Anna Seravalli, Ph.D. candidate in Interaction Design focusing on social innovation. At Medea she is, among other things, working with Living Lab Fabriken exploring alternative and open production models.

This post was originally published in the Medea publication Prototyping Futures.

What is prototypes and prototyping about to you?

Prototyping is one the most central approaches of working in a ‘designerly’ way. When you design a chair, to take a traditional design object as an example, you start sketching your ideas, then build small models and eventually 1:1 scale models to test your ideas. Is the chair stable enough, do you like the proportions, can you sit on it, is it comfortable? To come up with the most brilliant idea in the first try is almost impossible. It is for this reason that you prototype, experiment and try out your ideas.

What we are trying to do in our research is to extend this kind of prototyping approach into other areas, beyond the realm of traditional design, to more complex issues, such as social issues, and different kinds of problems that our society is facing. We live in a complex society and the problems we have to deal with have multiple causes.

You mean that prototyping can be used as an approach for finding solutions to some of the major challenges that we are facing today?

Yes, such as environmental issues, problems with unemployment or social inequalities. How can we tackle our environmental challenges and stop damaging nature? Can we keep on living the way we live, and if not, what could then be the next level? Where to start?

These are really big issues to tackle, and nobody has the right answer for how to deal with them because they are so complex and interconnected. What we can do is to try out different alternatives. Start on a small scale, prototype it, and see if it works – is our chair stable enough?

Are failures and mistakes of equal value in such a process?

That is one of the most important things in prototyping. Instead of trying to understand complex issues by studying them, by losing yourself in the extreme complexities, you start by experimenting with a few elements on a small scale. You learn by doing things, not by just analysing and talking.

Is that what you refer to when you say that you are prototyping the future?

Yes, that is one aspect of it. Another important aspect when we talk about prototyping is how it allows you to bring knowledge together and to collaborate. If we go back to our chair example, let us say that you are a designer and want to create a chair out of metal, which is a material that you have not worked with previously. What you do is that you get in contact with someone that has knowledge about that material, and initiate a collaboration with that person by starting out from very concrete problems: in which ways is it possible to bend a metal tube or what kind of welding finishes are possible?

In that same way we can start working with our big issues and complex social problems. When you start prototyping, experimenting and trying things out, then you realise what kind of external knowledge you need to bring in and who to establish a collaboration with. Instead of approaching people from a more analytical point of view, you involve them in doing something practical: prototyping for collaboration.

So could prototyping together be a way to overcome some of the difficulties of working across border and disciplines?

A really good example when talking about prototyping for collaboration is the set up of Living Lab Fabriken, which is one of the projects that I’m involved in. In the beginning, we were three stakeholders developing the lab together: the NGO STPLN, the interaction design company 1scale1 and us, Medea. We shared a common interest in building up the lab space, but had very different understandings of what it would be all about. To figure that out, we organised a series of workshops discussing how the space should work and so forth. However, in order to reach a common agreement on what the lab should be all about would have meant that people would have had to leave part of their agendas behind, which generated tensions and conflicts between us. This was quite a difficult moment, but it helped us to somehow develop a new strategy to work together based on making things together. One could say that we, in some sense, started to prototype the lab by organising events and workshops.

Since then we have been running different kinds of activities on various themes, such as electronics, sustainability, urban gardening, re-use/re-cycle/re-claim and handicraft to mention a few examples. By organising events, workshops and long-term initiatives, we have experimented with diverse ways of working together. Through this process, we found out was that it was not necessary to come up with a common agreement about the direction of the lab.

We realised that it was possible to have different meanings. For the guys working with electronics and digital media, Fabriken is a space for that. If you ask someone who is working with textiles, then it is a space for textiles. If you talk to someone involved in the projects that we incubated there, then it is an incubator entrepreneurial ideas. The interesting thing is that all these things can operate together in the same space. This is why Fabriken is such an interesting and rich place.

The space has been open for one and a half years, and now we are seeing some very interesting patterns emerge. In the beginning, we were the ones driving the activities. When I say “we”, I mean the NGO, the company and people from Medea. Slowly more and more participants have come to the space and started to initiate and run their own activities, creating the opportunity of prototyping diverse forms of organising and performing production. How can people establish a textile community based on mutual learning? How can people test activities and possibilities of a material bank and atelier using cast-over materials?

What is interesting about Fabriken is how it has become a hub in the city providing possibilities to experiment with diverse kinds of production: from building robots to music instruments, from testing how to create a community around crafts to trying out new educative formats for sustainability. This has become possible because the space is a facility, which gives access not only to technologies and production tools, but also to networks of people with skills and competences relevant for your project. Fabriken is becoming a space that empowers its participants to explore and get a little bit closer to the production system by, for example, taking care of your bike, by laser cutting a lamp, or by learning about programming. This gives us the possibility as citizens to going beyond being just consumers back to upper stages in the chain of production, that is, becoming a producer.

Read more about Fabriken.

Related publications (open access)
Building Fabriken: Design for Socially Shaped Innovation
Democratizing production: challenges in co-designing enabling platforms for social innovation
Design Things and Design Thinking: Contemporary Participatory Design Challenges