How Fab Lab London is changing the face of digital education

Fab Lab London is a one of over 500 labs operating under an identical charter all round the world. The concept emerged from the Bits & Atoms lab at MIT in 2004 at a time when everyone else was going digital, converting Atoms to Bits, there was a bunch thinking about how to turn Bits back into Atoms as it would be needed at some time.

This thinking has become a movement known as Digital Fabrication which we can now understand as 3D printing, CNC (computer numeric controlled) machines and Laser Cutting. Digital Fabrication is all about repeatability. Like music that became digital and could be created in perfect copy for no new marginal cost, so digital fabrication allows bits (plans and designs) to come to life and be the same wherever it is produced. When this capability is added to cloud services and electronic platforms such as the Raspberry Pi, Arduino, SparkCore or many others you end up with an idea that you can make one of anything - which is what you can do in a Fab Lab. What makes this a revolution is that the access is everywhere and to anyone and the cost of such production is rapidly falling to zero.

Read: Does technology have the power to transform education?

The reason I founded Fab Lab London was that I could see seven converging trends creating a perfect storm. The first is that the cost of the machines and platforms has fallen from the inaccessible $1 million each to a mass market entry price starting at a few tens of dollars and with this falling price has come an increase in performance - meaning you get more for your money when it comes to tech.

Secondly, software for 2D and 3D design has become free and easier to use, meaning that with minimal time and training anyone can start modeling. The third trend is how software hides its complexity. Software can now hide all the complexity of design, connectivity, and deep black arts in electronics, computing, maths, design and machining which makes the barriers to playing fall to zero. 

Trend four is a global movement that's promoting the importance of learning to code and how easy it is to do, which means that computing is no longer the domain of the geeks. The fifth trend is people like Barack Obama getting on board with the maker community and running a maker day on the White House lawn, which helped boost personal craft and making to the mainstream. 

Meanwhile, digital fabrication means that it is repeatable and scaleable which enables anyone to start to make a scalable business using the machines. And the final trend is the advent of crowd funding and crowd sourcing which enables people with ideas to gain access to sales and equity. These trends mean that anyone can now create a personalised or product based business which is a revolution.

Whilst I realise there are many impacts from such a converging trends, it is worth focusing on two big economic ones: jobs of the future and current education. There is a lot written about robots and Artificial Intelligence taking all the jobs, but I see an opportunity that Digital Fabrication brings: individuals can be released to build an income from something that has purpose to them, as they can now get access to the tools and skillls which will enable them to add value to themselves and socitey in a new way through making. But thinking about jobs of the future means thinking differently about current education. 

Read: Students must overcome their fear of STEM

The focus of education has tended towards higher academic standards at the cost of music, art, design, engeering and practical subjects; driven by a move from manufacturing to service based economies. The shift has to be re-assessed in the light of Digital Fabrication as future jobs will be more evenly distruboted accross skills and knowledge. To this end a significant focus of Fab Lab London has been on bringing our next generation of workers into the lab to play.

Fab Lab London is part of the global network offering free access to anyone once a week. The logo, brand and charter identifies with three interlocked ideals which are Learn, Make, Share. Anyone can come to the lab and learn about the machines, design, methods, tools and platform. The lab allows the learner to immediately apply their new knowledge and develop skills by making something in 2D or 3D. The making brings ideas to life. 

Core to the community and thinking of Fab Lab is to share. This means open, untethered, accessible sharing of what has been learnt and made to help and encourage others. Learn, make, share crosses every discipline from creative art to logistics, engineering to accounting, legal to management and is affecting every industry including healthcare, pharma, media, services, utilities, sport, engineering, design, agency, finance, medical, property, banking and insurance.

The three legged ethos of Learn, Make, Share are both the principals and how Fab Lab London is  organised. Learning means reaching out to schools, teachers, educators and indeed anyone who can help others learn. Making means delivering  accessibility to anyone for the machines, tools, platforms and materials including taking out the Fab Bike as a mobile lab. Sharing emerges as the community collaborates on ideas that are personal all the way to life changing, delivering stories that are life changing.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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