Cindy Kohtala - Making sustainability : how Fab Labs address environmental issues
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.