Fablabs the Italian Way: Emerging Patterns in the Creation of “Local Collective Goods”

Friday, 3 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW1.3.01 (Tower One)
Cecilia Manzo, University of Florence, Florence, Italy; University of Teramo, Teramo, Italy; University of Urbino, Urbino, Italy
Francesco Ramella, N/A, Italy; University of Torin, Turin, Italy
FabLabs (Fabrication Laboratories) are small workshops that offer tools and services for digital manufacturing. They are one of the most interesting examples of the so-called "maker movement". Who are the makers? Many of them are hobbyists and amateurs: Werner Sombart would have called them "Sunday inventors". Others, however, are proto-entrepreneurs who use their creative and artisanal skills to create new products and to start new business: Sombart would have called them "week-day inventors" or "inventors of any thing."

All the makers combine a strong passion for “personal fabrication” with the use of new technologies. When oriented towards the market, this passion can give rise to new economic phenomena: digital artisans and innovation processes of dispersed and collaborative type. These new companies combine the “do it yourself”(DIY) attitude with the use of IC technologies in different stages of the product lifecycle: for the creative process (through open innovation and online communities); for the financing of their projects (through crowd-funding platforms); for the design and scanning of products (through 3D scanner programs); for the construction of prototypes and small (or in some cases large) series of products (through 3D printers, laser cutters, online manufacturing services); and for the sale (through e-commerce).

The rapid proliferation of FabLabs occurred in recent years all over the world (440),  should be placed in this context. They function with mechanisms typical of the “sharing economy”: they provide a space with machineries that would not be available to individual users and small enterprises, and have two main goals: a) education, that is the diffusion of the digital fabrication culture; b) development, that is the promotion of innovation and entrepreneurialism. They operate connecting local resources to global networks and markets: as shared local spaces for mentoring, learning, and implementing creative solutions, FabLabs also guarantee access to a global community with shared practices and attitudes.

In this paper we advance the idea that FabLabs should be understood as providers of “local collective goods” capable of generating external economies, both tangible and intangible, useful for local development.

Empirically, the paper looks at the diffusion of FabLabs in Italy. If compared with other European countries, Italy has been lagging behind in innovation. Against this background, it is therefore quite surprising to note that FabLabs have mushroomed in the country (51), which now ranks third in overall number after the US (65) and France (52).

To solve this puzzle, and provide a preliminary representation of the “generative mechanisms” (agency and contexts) behind FabLabs, we will map their diffusion through the Italian territory, with the help of existing datasets and qualitative interviews with founders and key participants. We also show the different types of services offered by FabLabs to local communities and the links existing with local governments and other stakeholders in different Italian regions. Our twofold objective is to elaborate a typology of the FabLabs, starting from the Italian case, and to understand whether they are (or can become) new providers of local collective goods, thus supporting new paths towards entrepreneurship and innovation.