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Fab Labs: Improving Urban Resilience with Digital Fabrication

Fab Labs empower people and communities to make almost anything in order to satisfy almost any need in almost any circumstance

Photo of M Norris
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The problem being solved is related to the connection between local challenges, technology, and logistics in urban aid scenarios. Ideally, victims of disasters brought about by climate change could rapidly and effectively deploy tools to save lives, or improve their living conditions. For many reasons, however, the tools available to aid organizations and cities often fail to empower victims to do this. Victims can languish, even when they are capable of helping themselves. Fab Labs, however, offer communities the tools necessary to make almost anything, almost anywhere to meet almost any need. Fab Labs contain tools and equipment for design and fabrication which allow individuals to create solutions which solve emerging challenges in a disaster or which meeting everyday needs. With over 500 Fab Labs globally, people all over the world since 2001 have been empowered to do this: to make almost anything. Fab Labs could be deployed in urban areas and "hardened" to be resistant to disasters. Having these facilities and tools available, along with stockpiled raw materials, would empower communities to respond immediately to help themselves or even other communities. In non-disaster scenarios then the labs could be used to provide educational or economic development opportunities. Background is available at


Fab Labs benefit a range of individuals and communities who have a desire to design solutions to solve their local problems. Since 2001, Fab Labs have been deployed in developed and developing countries, in urban and rural areas; and they are so useful because they are completely adaptable to local circumstances. Time and again, individual and community creative efforts have produced tools and products that have improved lives and added joy to everyday life.


Fab Labs offer a twist on social outreach and municipal services with a focus on design and fabrication as social forces in urban slums in the face of climate change. This new twist offers opportunities for NGO's, communities and state entities which were previously unavailable...opportunities for community collaboration through access to technology, design and fabrication tools which produce real products that make a real impact on people's lives. Fab Labs are a resource for communities, organizations and governments to meet overwhelming challenges; urban poverty and natural disasters chiefly among them. They are also a crossroads where they interact with each other in ways that they might not otherwise interact. The design principles are core to the functioning of a Fab Lab. They operate in ordinary circumstances, as well as extraordinary, offering possibilities for relief of a community's chronic and acute conditions through educational, social, and economic development. Fab Labs are at the heart of human centered systems which empower people to focus on human centered design for their own lives. Fab Labs are flexible, and capable of using a variety of materials in a variety of circumstance; and flexible enough to be used by men, women, children and adults. A Fab Lab's users and uses are as unique as the challenges and designs they encounter.


  • Not yet


  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for at least two years


  • I'm not sure


I have been affiliated with the Fab Lab movement since 2008, having founded one of the largest and best organized labs in the world. I have an interest in the intersection between humanitarian relief and technology and was recently able express it through a recent connection to

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Fab Labs, Cities and Disaster Relief FULL LENGTH REVISED.pdf

Cities have a growing responsibility to provide effective means of disaster response and relief. What should a city consider in deploying rapid prototyping technology in the service of its citizens during a disaster? An example of a product, a wheel barrow which might be produced to aid in disaster recovery, is described. Finally, the potential role of Fab Labs in disaster relief is proposed.


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Photo of Shane Zhao

Exciting initiative M! This is an intriguing way to provide slum communities with the tools and skills that they'd need to create small scale interventions. Can you share with us a bit more about the previous fab labs you've founded and the takeaways that you'll plan to apply to this project? Also, we'd love to know if there are implementing partners you've been working with to pilot this fab lab on the ground with local communities. Looking forward to hearing more!

Photo of M Norris

Thank you for the questions. I was the leader of the founding team for Fab Lab Tulsa (, in Tulsa, OK USA. That was a 3 year effort planning, community building and raising money. Unfortunately, I've not had the opportunity yet to launch another lab but there are a number of lessons we've learned since 2008 that have universal appeal. 1) Raise friends before funds. This simple lesson is about the importance of building a community around the lab from the start. A Fab Lab isn't something that you do for a community, its something a community builds for itself. The technology in a lab is great but the socialization within the lab is the key. Starting a lab in a slum community would require understanding that community, its needs and its character before opening the doors. Developing local partnerships would also be included in this. 2) A full Fab Lab is like a giant swiss army knife. A slum community may start with something more like a single blade knife in order to build skills and trust, at least initially. In real terms, this lab would probably start with a laser cutter then mature to a Shopbot CNC router, depending on the community's needs. 3) Helping the community learn how to use the lab would be absolutely essential, so a targeted set of project "kits" tailored for the needs of the community would be the first step. These kits would scaffold skills, both technical and personal, while at the same time building a community of users. Kits would also help with planning budgets and materials early in the lab's lifecycle. 4) Identify and value your lab's "super users". These are often the early adopters who learn the technology and processes first. These individuals become the lab's "local ambassadors" that are essential for building trust and training others.

Really, we're talking about identifying the "minimum viable product" i.e. what's the simplest that can be done that will provide the most value. Working this way simplifies the start-up, when there are already so many unknowns and complications that could come with a slum community.

As for partners, there's likely no shortage. First of all, I was actually encouraged to enter this by, a connection I made at the recent FAB11 international Fab Lab conference in Boston this past August. We've already discussed locales where they have operations, and so understand the situation on the ground. They have the humanitarian experience and the Fab Lab would bring the "maker" experience. Second, there are a number of Fab Labs already operating in urban and rural areas. A map can be seen here: It would not be difficult to make contact with an existing (nearby?) Fab Lab using my existing connections through the Fab Foundation, MIT, and the general Fab Lab network.

When I imagine starting a lab in a slum community, it all seems difficult (but doable) but the most daunting task is building the community. Early on I would anticipate external non-local expertise to be heavily involved in order to kick start the effort, but once those resources are called elsewhere the challenge shifts to the ongoing operation. Who locks up at night? Who orders materials and how are they restocked? This is where local partnerships with established organizations become essential. Community building is about nurturing. I have 3 young children, and the scariest part was leaving the hospital with my first-born daughter. She was birthed by professionals but then she was left to amateurs, namely me and my wife, for the nurturing and growing.

A new Fab Lab is the same. It requires energy, sleepless nights, friends, family, and a little bit of luck. It starts slowly with small simple projects (we call them "key chain" projects) before eventually picking up steam, when users start designing, sharing, teaching, learning and making almost anything.

That's probably more than you wanted to hear! I appreciate the questions, and I'm happy to share more.

P.S. I would also add that Fab Lab Tulsa recently launched a state-of-the-art mobile Fab Lab, the concept of which we're exploring with Field Ready for applications in refugee scenarios. With a little luck we'll get the American Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross involved too! Tulsa, OK is in tornado alley so we're exploring the possibility of deploying our mobile lab into an area in Spring 2016 which has been struck by a tornado in order to examine the impact a mobile Fab Lab might have in that situation. Stay tuned!

Photo of Andrew Lamb

Thanks for putting this idea up Matt and for referencing Field Ready! Glad Shane asked the question to give you a bit more space! I'm the connection that Matt met at Fab11 in Boston.

Field Ready is currently supported by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and is regularly asked to speak at humanitarian innovation events. However, Matt's idea is a great example of the link between development and relief - tied together through the lens of increasing resilience / reducing vulnerability.

So I'd just like to say that Field Ready is 100% behind this idea. Our innovation of deployable digital manufacturing in disaster relief settings has to be complemented by building of local capacity - particularly since local people in a disaster response are the first to respond anyway. I can really see this becoming an essential part of the disaster response / recovery / resilience infrastructure of every major city in a developing country that is threatened by the effects of climate change - and not just cities that have poor supply chains, but every city.

This idea has HUGE global potential and could be connected with the FabCities initiative of the Fab Foundation and the 100 Resilient Cities initiative of the Rockerfeller Foundation if there was a bit more investment in a 'proof of concept' first.

We'd recommend Nepal, Haiti, Philippines, Ethiopia, Mozambique or Sierra Leone at this stage, but more work would need to be done.

PS: Yes, I too should declare that we are working with Matt and the incredible mobile FabLab that he has helped to developed to study the benefits of such capabilities in disaster response in the USA - to inform work done elsewhere. This is quite a separate project to the idea being proposed here, but they are of course related.

PPS: Matt and I are thinking of putting forward a keynote / conference theme at Fab12 next year in China on FabLabs in urban resilience and disaster relief. This would be a huge opportunity to raise awareness amongst nearly every FabLab on earth!