In the wake of the Paris agreement on climate change, cities have increasingly been seen as the laboratories where smart solutions for radically curbing global emissions are being cooked up.

Unlike countries, which are generally too large and unwieldy to make for good test subjects, cities represent ideal environments, in terms of both scale and governance, for understanding how to design for sustainability through resilience and circularity – arguably the two most critical features of future-proof societies.

When proposals fall flat, as some inevitably will, cities can go back to the drawing board without too much fuss. And when they strike on scaleable solutions to intractable problems, cities can help disseminate them while at the same time reaping the benefits of their ingenuity through innovative public procurement models.

Nimble public services

The suite of new technologies now coming online – from low-cost complex sensors to big data and machine learning – have the ability to map the inflows and outflows of goods and services, allowing cities to precision-track patterns of consumption and waste production. These datasets are the foundation for designing shorter supply chains, which result in ever more circular local economies.

While large bureaucracies are notoriously slow to adapt, makers are already coming up with better, smarter, more efficient solutions for producing goods and delivering services. As we speak, maker communities around the world are helping to create blueprints for a new generation of nimble public services that are tailored to local circumstances and deliver increased value at a lower cost.

This new understanding of cities’ crucial role in forging a common route ahead has sparked a renewed interest in smart city initiatives. Smart city projects have had a checkered record, with some projects failing to deliver on their mandates or proving too expensive to maintain. But the addition of a new element – the maker movement – could prove the secret to making smart cities smart.

 Google searches for makerspace, hackerspace and FabLab over time.
Google searches for makerspace, hackerspace and FabLab over time.

How makers are keeping it local

When the maker movement burst on to the scene in the early 2000s, it was widely seen as a DIY phenomenon that brought bricolage into the digital age, providing enthusiasts access to 3D printers, laser and vinyl cutters, CNC mills and other tools at so-called makerspaces, hackerspaces or FabLabs.

Over the past decade, though, the movement has morphed into a global ecosystem for prototyping software-hardware integration. What used to be an informal testing ground for advanced production methods is rapidly becoming the place where next-generation technologists – who can both code and build sophisticated electronics – are honing their skills.

Makerspaces are quickly becoming places where everything from Internet of Things devices to renewable-energy power stations can be conceived, refined and pushed forward. These spaces also appear poised to become the laboratories for macro-scale urban experimentation, potentially helping forge a new public procurement model.

The movement is also working to reverse urban decline in non-capital cities. Makerspaces help grow the skill base of local populations, bring state-of-the-art manufacturing back to city centres and offer people the novel opportunity to make the items they consume in situ. Not only is on-site manufacturing an effective way of reducing products’ carbon footprint, it’s also a way of building enduring employment opportunities and giving residents the skills to succeed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Where did it all begin?

The maker movement has its roots in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Centre for Bits and Atoms, the brainchild of MIT's Professor Neil Gershenfeld. In 2001, Gershenfeld helped spread the concept around the globe by establishing guidelines for recreating similar spaces – known as FabLabs – elsewhere, and there are now 1,244 FabLabs worldwide.

As the project mushroomed, Gershenfeld and collaborator Vincente Gallarte, of the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, recognized the multiplier effect of clustering several makerspaces in a single city. This interconnected web of urban FabLabs, they reasoned, could provide digitization taskforces, simultaneously servicing local citizens and inspiring a new generation of professionals.

And so, in July 2014, the Fab City Global Initiative was officially launched at the Fab10 annual conference in Barcelona. There, then Mayor Xavier Trias committed to the goal of producing locally in Barcelona half of everything consumed in the city by 2054.

That decision resulted in part from the mayor’s clear-eyed understanding of the importance of creating new economic opportunities in the wake of the devastating 2008 financial crisis, which hit Spain particularly hard. In FabLabs, Mayor Trias glimpsed a win-win-win opportunity – to provide the framework for the emergence of local solutions that can blossom into local companies providing local services and local know-how and jobs.

The Fab City Initiative now includes 18 cities and regions, including Boston, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Kerala and Shenzhen, with new member cities joining every few weeks. It’s currently developing a blockchain-based information-sharing platform to help cities ramp up local production and become self-sufficient and circular.

Fab City in Amsterdam

The next big gathering of the Fab City Global Initiative is slated to take place in Paris in July 2018. Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who heads the C40 network of megacities addressing climate change, has thrown her weight behind the initiative in an unequivocal sign of support that’s likely to draw other top global metropolises into the Fab City fold.

Many projects are already under way

London’s Maker Mile, a creative cluster of fabricators, tech start-ups, studios and workshops in east London, represents an interesting case study in the power that is unleashed when maker communities come together.

One particularly interesting project to emerge from the area is Precious Plastic. Started in 2013 by Dave Hakkens, Precious Plastic is an open-source project that reengineers plastic trash into everyday essentials like bowls and cups, as well as larger items such as tables. Precious Plastic is not only giving garbage a new life but also touching off a vital conversation about local upcycling solutions.

 Precious Plastic re-engineers plastic into bowls, cups and tables.
Precious Plastic re-engineers plastic into bowls, cups and tables.

Opendesk, an online furniture store that uses open-source design and manufacturing to circumvent the traditional global furniture supply chain, is another Maker Mile start-up.

Opendesk allows customers to select furniture online and matches them with the closest fabrication lab where their product will be made on site. This cuts the costliest and most polluting step of the supply chain – logistics – out of the process. As mass customization grows in popularity, Opendesk stands to disrupt – or at least inspire – massive players, such as Ikea.

An Opendesk workshop

Barcelona has looked to London’s Maker Mile for inspiration for a similar hub of makerspaces currently taking shape in a one-square-kilometre cluster in the city’s waterfront neighbourhood of El Poblenou.

Rethinking urban design and supply chains

The Fab City Global Initiative enables cities to harness the energy of many disparate groups in service of urban development goals without a large, upfront investment. The model represents a cost-effective way of making an impact in key areas, including technical education, startup incubation, corporate interest and direct service design for both cities and citizens.

Other main benefits include:

• Prototyping circular solutions at the neighbourhood and city level and getting public buy-in;

• Forging next-generation public procurement models that are cheaper, more nimble, resilient and adaptable than top-down protocols;

• Supporting innovation, developing a skilled workforce and stimulating the transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution;

• Strategically regenerating marginalized areas through progressive reindustrialization;

• Accelerating the path to lowering emissions and meeting the goals of the Paris accord;

• Providing an excellent opportunity for urban branding, with strong job creation potential.

The maker movement has overcome its growing pains and matured into an enabler of citizen-centric solutions and social innovations that transcends the general understanding of the circular economy by incorporating the tools of the sharing economy and the crypto- economy.

Local authorities, academic institutions and major corporations are waking up to the potential of the movement, which is shaping up to be a key player in urban transformation over the coming decades.

The Fab City Global Initiative shows how cities, working in concert with local communities and global business partners, can blueprint the next generation of nimble and reactive public service solutions; provide residents with the skillset to succeed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution; attract business clusters to improve competitiveness and build urban resilience; and, in time, reduce environmental footprints. In short, it offers an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the movement that’s spearheading the shift to a circular economy.

Thomas Ermacora is an award-winning Urbanist-architect, technologist, author and regeneration entrepreneur currently serving as the Resident Futurist of the Xprize Foundation. Founder of the London Maker Mile and the Machines Room impact Fablab, he is a founding partner of the MIT FabCity Initiative, an investor in a number of early-stage Fourth Industrial Revolution start-ups and advises the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Urban Development and Services Initiative.