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The world's first digital fabrication lab (Fab Lab) in a refugee camp.

Inspiring space to crowdsource and co-create innovative solutions for basic needs provision: a platform for moonshot humanitarian innovation

Photo of Dave Levin
11 15

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The UN High Commissioner for Refugees calls the Syrian conflict “the worst humanitarian crisis of our times, combined with the worst regional destabilization in any part of the world, and the worst threat to global peace and security.” Over 220,000 people have been killed and a million injured, in part due to Assad’s use of barrel bombs – water tanks filled with shrapnel and often chemicals, such as chlorine. Meanwhile, the High Commissioner warns, “The humanitarian financing system is nearly bankrupt," and the number of forcibly displaced persons globally is the highest since WWII. We desperately need innovative approaches to reducing the costs of basic needs provision for refugees.

Za'atari Refugee Camp, which lies on the Jordanian border with Syria and hosts 83,000 Syrian refugees, has become the 4th largest city in Jordan. Idleness and unemployment are rampant, half of the children do not attend school, and pervasive smiles of resilience belie profound psychological trauma.  


We are building an innovation space for educational programs, vocational training, business development and psychological treatment through interactive art. This facility, built with and for the community, will be the world's first digital fabrication lab, or "Fab Lab," in a refugee camp. 

A Fab Lab is a technical prototyping platform for innovation and invention, sharing common tools and processes with a global network of 450 labs across the world -- all affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Fab Labs provide a platform from which a community’s technical challenges can be shared with this international network, which can help problem solve and design solutions with and for the community.

Fab Lab Za’atari will increase the self-sufficiency of Za’atari Refugee Camp, mitigate the burden on Jordan from hosting the camp and reduce foreign aid dependency. The lab will build upon existing informal training programs in Za’atari, offering a set of computer-controlled fabrication tools currently unavailable in the camp.

Examples of machines in a Fab Lab include 3D printers, laser cutters, sign-cutters, milling machines, CNC routers to make furniture and shelter, and programming tools for low-cost, high-speed embedded processors. Furthermore, we will provide a full suite of conventional manufacturing tools, including a metal shop, a wood shop, a paint shop and more. 


Our mission cuts across all of the categories of the research and ideas phases. 

  • Teaching Approaches: A Fab Lab provides students with the tools to create real, practical and fun products that advance their learning of cutting edge technology and positions them for future employment. For instance, a Syrian refugee volunteering with our team taught himself how to use our 3D printers using free online resources, with minimal support from our experts. He has since trained Jordanian medical professionals on the use of the equipment, and he is now learning how to program a do-it-yourself (DIY) robot to teach electronics to children. Furthermore, the lab is open to everyone, and our instructors teach the community how to use all of the machinery, safely and productively. 

  • Learning Spaces/Transforming School Environments: An award-winning humanitarian architect has created the plans for our facility (a glimpse is provided in the attached photos). The building will be modular, making it easy to expand over time. It will be built with local materials, to reduce costs and to support the local economy, and it will be non-permanent (i.e., easy to disassemble and remove). Most importantly, it will be an inspiring space with sculptured walls and ample room for community members to meet and exchange ideas. Beyond the physical structure of the building, the space will engage the community with a gallery of art and products made by refugees, including 3D-printed objects and small educational robots. 

  • Adult Education/Vocational Training & Entrepreneurship: A Fab Lab epitomises hands-on, informal training. The Syrian people are known to be extremely good with their hands, and more than 3,000 shops have sprung up in Za'atari -- many providing services such as carpentry, tailoring, blacksmithing, electronics repair, etc. We are providing tools and training that improve their ability to earn a living. A Jordanian professor of conflict studies has conducted an in-depth needs assessment in the camp, consisting of a survey and multiple focus group discussions. Out of 255 survey respondents, 87% said they "strongly agree" with the need for the lab, and an additional 10% said they "agree." More than half of the respondents said the lab will have a "very strong impact" on their well-being, and an additional 30% said it will have a "strong impact." The need for more and better tools was heavily emphasised by survey respondents, one of whom said, “There are many tools in the camp. But these are primitive. We started from scratch here. It is all handmade primitive tools that refugees made to manage their needs and daily lives. Now the camp is developing, and we can make more tools as we need in the facility.”

  • Skills Exchange/Informal Knowledge Exchange: Our facility will provide co-working space that facilitates informal knowledge exchange / skill exchange. As one refugee told us, “When people are working together they can help and teach each other.” There is a strong interest in sharing skills. During one of the focus group discussions, a tailor remarked, "Suppose next to me in the lab is someone who is not very skilled. But by working on machines next to each other, we can both learn from each other. I can teach him how to use a machine, and he will learn by observation.”

  • Student Wellbeing/Overcoming Trauma: The technology in our facility will allow community members to create interactive art for psychological treatment. For example, a Jordanian mechanical designer on our team built a robotic camera connected to a virtual reality device. The camera was placed on one woman and the virtual reality device on another woman confined to a wheelchair. Through a choreographed dance, the woman in the wheelchair could experience what it's like to dance (see Dancing on the Feet). 


Our facility will prepare refugees to co-create innovative solutions with international Fab Labs, providing leverage to the resources Jordan and the donor community contribute to refugees’ basic needs. Rather than telling the refugees what to make, the lab will provide training, raw materials and access to tools that let them create solutions to the problems they identify as most important. The following are illustrative examples of working prototypes developed with the equipment of a Fab Lab, most of which are open-source, meaning the designs and instructions can be downloaded for free from the internet (photos attached). We are not saying these designs and products are ready to solve basic needs in Za'atari. We are saying that we will provide refugees with the tools, training, raw materials and linkages to international experts that will allow them to rapidly prototype and develop their own innovative solutions. For instance:

  • Shelter – easily assembled and disassembled WikiHouse made with a CNC machine; easily assembled and dismantled Pabal Domes, made with locally available materials and cut with a CNC router; AtFAB/Open Desk CNC furniture

  • Transportation– bicycles made with a CNC, laser cutter and 3D printer; FabCar, developed by Fab Lab Barcelona and four other Fab Labs around the world, which can be produced entirely in a Fab Lab (still in development; other examples of open-source vehicles).

  • Food Security – home-based DIY food production system featuring 3D-printable components

  • Renewable Energy – portable 3D-printed wind turbine

  • Environment – 3D-printer created at a Fab Lab in Togo for less than $100 out of recycled computer parts; 3D printer filament made from recycled plastic

  • Healthcare – low-cost, DIY wheelchair made with a CNC router; low-cost, 3D-printed prosthetics -- one example of which is provided in the attached video, which our team produced here in Jordan. Importantly, prosthetics will not be made in Fab Lab Za'atari. Instead, we are supporting a separate medical innovation lab in the country's leading prosthetics center in Amman (1.5 hours from Za'atari), and refugees will be brought their for low-cost, cutting edge treatment. 

Again, besides creating a physical platform for humanitarian innovation, the lab will simply increase self-sufficiency. As one focus group member stressed, "If you need to fix something at your caravan, the fee for a skilled person to finish the task is around 60-75JDs. But if you take that item to the Fab Lab, transport cost will be 4JDs. So instead of paying 60JD for someone to come to your place, you can pay the 4JDs for transport and fix it for free at the Lab."

The consortium

The lab is being built by a humanitarian innovation consortium called Refugee Open Ware (ROW), with implementation in the MENA region led by 3Dmena Social Innovation, one of the consortium's Founding Partners. The consortium comprises academic institutions, NGOs, companies and public sector agencies. Leading members include NextFab, the Fab Foundation affiliated with MIT, Ultimaker and Fab Lab Barcelona

The mission of ROW is to employ disruptive technology to improve human rights fulfillment for both refugees and host communities in conflict zones. We seek to attenuate the immediate effects of conflict while driving long-term economic development, productivity growth, venture creation and employment generation -- particularly for youth. We aim to do so by building physical platforms for open innovation in conflict-affected areas -- leveraging open software, open hardware designs and the knowledge of global experts.

Ours is a journey of moonshot humanitarian innovation, with and for the most violent and unstable areas of the planet. 


Join the conversation:

Photo of AMPLIFY Team

Hi Dave,

As you know, we've had experts review your idea. Below is a comment for you regarding your idea. If you could please spend some time answering the question and providing a response here that would be great.

"I'd recommend checking out this two programs that use humble approaches to changing the lives of their communities. It is very alluring to drop state of the art technology into a underserved community, but without the necessary introduction, the potential can be more distributive than beneficial. / / There maybe learnings to apply from this program of how to introduce new technologies and education into a community / / / Also, The Barefoot College, specific targets grandmothers in villages to ensure the education and training stays in the community and doesn't flee to the nearby cities. They also ask the whole community to select the individual who will attend as well ask have the community pay for the training and therefore access to electricity. This set up ensure the community is involved and has a stake in the success of the program. /"

Thanks so much!

The Amplify Team

Photo of Hugh Bosely

Awesome job Dave!

Photo of Dave Levin

Thank you, Hugh! Your application and your work, as always, is tremendously impressive!! Look forward to working with you to make it happen.

Photo of Thane Richard

If you are looking for a way to get up to date information into your Fab Lab, check out Outernet ( We broadcast free information from space. We would love to help if we can.

Photo of Dave Levin

I love the concept. Read about this earlier. Can you contact me at, and we'll set up a time to speak? To get started, I'd like to build a DIY receiver here and demonstrate the technology.

Photo of Thane Richard

My email bounced.

Photo of Dave Levin

Just emailed you. We are actually helping incubate a cool Jordanian startup working on picosattelites for space education in Jordan. He is keen to work with us to get Outernet into Za'atari. Hope we can make it work...

Photo of Sarah Lowe

Reading your proposal makes my heart beat a little faster. Amazing and innovative. Thanks for the work you're doing. It's truly inspiring.

Photo of Dave Levin

Thank you, Sarah! That is so kind of you. We are working on a crowd-funding campaign and definitely welcome all forms of collaboration on that. Warmest regards. Take care!

Photo of Shane Zhao

Thanks for the post on Fab Labs Dave! Our Ideas Phase will begin in a few short days on April 23rd. We'd love for your team to contribute this idea or another idea in the Ideas Phase. See you there!

Photo of Dave Levin

Thank you very much, Shane! Will do.