[Open Design + Hardware] my dissertation!

Kohtala Cindy cindy.kohtala at aalto.fi
Sat Mar 12 09:37:19 UTC 2016

Hello all, 

I’m proud to announce my dissertation is available to download! 
scroll down a bit for the link to the pdf. 

Prof Adrian Smith from SPRU, University of Sussex, was my opponent at yesterday’s defence. 
He was probing e.g. if Fab Labs are indeed a good observation unit and, based on my findings, Fab Labs are actually conservative in how they work with sustainability solutions, not to mention catering to a select elite, and therefore perhaps not the ideal partners if we want sustainability transition. He also wished for more discussion in my thesis on the wider implications - setting the discussion within the broader societal context. 

From my part, I argued that Fab Labs are worth specific study because they differ from other makerspaces, being more in communication with each other, having the Fab Academy and Fabx meetings, etc. They have potential, therefore, to build and spread a more sustainability-oriented agenda if this was done with more critical discussion and conscious reflection (than is done now). (I suspect my answer was not as concise yesterday as when I’m writing it now.) ;) 
I do agree that the broader implications need to be articulated, but I argued that I could not do that in the scope of my dissertation. I had decided to limit my scope and especially focus on the task of describing and interpreting the details of what actually goes on in Fab Labs on a daily basis, as there is very little on this published yet. Based on this detailed knowledge, we can go forward to discuss wider implications, how this sits in the wider context of today (and yesterday), and what this might mean in terms of policy. 

I argued there is still great potential for Fab Labs to have a role in pushing the discussion on *values* and the meaning of consumption and post-consumption - this might be their greatest potential contribution. I see Fab Labs as the potential gateway drug to other kinds of making, encouraging participation not only in understanding and building technologies for prototyping, but sustainable solutions of all kinds. People see that it is possible and desireable to become more involved in things. Openness and p2p dynamics play a key role in this.
I must admit - saying this is more me as an activist-participant-researcher and less me as researcher-proper. As Adrian pointed out, it is important to see where and how Fab Labs and makerspaces *are* actually engaging people who might otherwise not have become involved.  
I was able to point out a couple of promising examples where this has occurred during my observations, but I have not yet examined this question systematically. (thank dog for post-docs!) ;) 

It was truly an engaging discussion, due to Adrian’s making it a relaxed yet critical debate, and some audience members also said they found it interesting. (I always wonder what people get out of dissertation defences when they don’t have an invested interest in the topic. In Finland, these defences are open to the public so all my colleagues were there, family members, interested others.)

Feel free to browse through the pdf and make comments on anything you find interesting or disagree with! 

Regards from Helsinki
Aalto University 

The full abstract: 
Digital manufacturing technologies are proliferating and can enable socially significant, innovative new forms of production and consumption. This thesis examines the environmental sustainability issues in peer production and how they are addressed in Fab Labs (fabrication laboratories): shared spaces where users can design and make their own artefacts outside of conventional mass production channels, using, for example, laser cutters, 3D printers and electronics stations. Fab Labs are open to members of the general public, who learn to use the equipment themselves and are encouraged (or required) to document and openly share their projects. ‘Making’ in Fab Labs and the ‘maker movement’ are often endorsed by proponents as a better alternative to mass consumption and consumerism, whether through enhancing skills to build and repair, answering one’s own needs as opposed to ‘satisficing’ through passive consumption, or distributing production within local networks as opposed to long, transport-intensive and large-volume supply chains. However, Fab Labs and makerspaces are contexts rife with paradox and complexity concerning appropriate use of materials and energy. Little empirical research on material peer production currently exists, and the environmental impacts, and benefits, of digital fabrication are largely unknown.

Primarily through ethnographic research methods and Symbolic Interactionist analysis, the thesis examines daily practices and discourses in selected Fab Labs and how sustainability is represented in these communities. The findings articulate how the actors’ interactions, expressed intents and contextual conditions serve to shape the Fab Lab. The key finding is the conflict actors encounter between – on the one hand – setting ambitions, promoting particular ideologies and espousing sustainability-oriented values, and – on the other hand – realizing and enacting these values in the mundane and constraining routines of everyday practice. Even actors with a clear ecological mandate struggle to engage with emerging sustainability issues in a rapidly changing sociotechnical environment. Present topics of concern and everyday tasks overshadow future strategy and vision work as well as engagement with environmental issues and rapid technology developments. However, actors who consciously and visibly strive to enact the espoused Fab Lab ideology, i.e. offering access to empowering, distributed technologies that enable people to meet their own local needs by design, appear better able to identify and tackle the environmental sustainability issues as they arise. Environmental issues are also intertwined with and embedded in other ideological concerns, but they are rarely promoted in their own right.

The thesis also details the current landscape of research literature on distributed production, who is studying these environmental issues and how, and the potential opportunities and threats in this new mode of production. The thesis thereby contributes to research on peer production communities, social shaping of technology and sustainable design. Knowledge of current maker practices and their sustainability implications have value for the peer communities studied, but also potentially technology developers and policy makers. As Fab Labs are experimental spaces for new digital manufacturing capabilities and activities, the wider implications of the findings may indicate how increasing digitalization and citizen involvement in production will transform design and production – and the sustainability implications therein.

Keywords: Fab Labs, environmental sustainability, digital fabrication, distributed production, peer production

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