Interview with Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms

In despite of his guru’s aura as founder of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT and creator of the Fab Lab model, Neil Gershenfeld proved at Fab 10 in Barcelona that he enjoys being on everyday’s work and making things turn real. During the meeting you could see him everywhere: on stage introducing the speakers, with young volunteers guiding their work, solving technical issues with sound system people, struggling with computers to connect call conferences on time…

If by chance somebody there didn’t knew who he was, by his humble and zealous attitude perhaps they wouldn’t suspect that Neil Gershenfeld is the cornerstone of Fab Lab movement. With essential books as <<When things start to think>> or <<Fab, The Coming Revolution on your Desktop>>, and his magnificent work on the Center for Bits an Atoms, he builded a completely new model of understanding how to make things. In fact, it can be said that he has triggered a whole new way of understanding productive economy, with crucial consequences that we will see in the years to come.

Some days ago, President Obama hosted the first White House Maker Faire and there he discussed with Neil Gershenfeld about the digital fabrication implications now and in the future. In the midst of frantic Fab City Symposium, Gershenfeld was so kind of granting us some time to ask him some questions about his activity and thoughts. We were really keen to have the chance of talking with him and hearing his thoughts about the influence that Fab Lab movement is gaining day by day.

P.N. Fab Lab movement is growing unstoppably, and in great speed. Did you thought that it would be like this when you started with the Center of Bits and Atoms?

N.G. No, our vision was for one Lab. We set up just for one Lab, and everything outside of this was not us… it was the world. When we helped to start this one Lab we had not vision for what was happening: it was the response of the world, not us. And even now we don’t control it, we just help. But it is a common misconception to think that there is somebody centrally running Fab Labs: there is not, it is really the people which makes it and then the network grows.

P.N. In the past month even the US Government has openly backed the maker movement. This is a truly important milestone…

N.G. Yes. What it is happening has a good historical analogy on computing history, the moment when computing became personal. There is an strong argument about if this is going to disrupt traditional industries, but in fact it will create new industries. So things are pivoting… And the White House has valued the role of this in US economics: in basicness but really in a candid way, really understanding it from its raising, not trying to turn it into something that it is not.


Neil Gershenfeld at Fab 10
Neil Gershenfeld at Fab 10

P.N. During Fab 10 we have also realized that commercial companies are starting to collaborate with Fab Labs. Do you think this can create new business structures?

N.G. This is another interesting thing, certainly new business are being created, but many of the presentations here were from Google, Airbus, … Actually, this is not one versus the other. This is about hybrids: there are somethings that big companies can do and there are other things that Do-It-Yourself Bottom-Up companies can do. And the mixing of this is very interesting, its strength and growth, instead of picking just one or the other.

P.N. By the other hand, here at Fab 10 gathering we have a crew of people really engaged… but what happens with people outside of this, the bulk of the population? I feel there is something like a gap, how can we solve it?

N.G. I’m not sure if in the end this Fab Lab Maker movement is for everybody or only for a subset of people… But one of the things Barcelona is doing, which is very exciting, is putting these tools in every district to expand access. It is really an experiment and we need to see how far it goes, how many people wants to participate. In fact, I think a good model for this is the history of libraries: when libraries started they were a lead, and now everyone uses them. I think it might come out like that.

P.N. And after achieving so many goals, what’s the next challenge for you?

N.G. For me, the most immediate one is machines making machines: making self-reproducing technology.

PostDigital Node

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