Writing on behalf of the World Bank, Saori Imaizumi and Samhir Vasdev note that a new model of democratized production is turning consumers in developing countries into innovators, entrepreneurs and manufacturers. Powered by Makers, this new world of digital fabrication leverages machines, such as 3D printers and laser cutters, to spark innovation in education and healthcare among a number of other sectors. Using the power of the Internet and open source principles, products designed with digital fabrication tools can be instantaneously shared, modified and created among collaborators anywhere in the world.
As a result, long distance shipments that were once so heavily relied upon between producers and consumers can be drastically diminished, while Makers equipped with the right machines can now simply download these products’ digital files to fabricate them locally and in a more cost-effective manner. Given the reduction in costs, product design can be customized depending on the availability of local talent, resources and materials and the needs of local customers, on-demand.
Recently, in celebration of the U.S. National Day of Making and the White House Maker Faire, members of the Oslo FabLab made a special present for the President. They adapted their “Grandson Slippers” design to make “Grandma Slippers” for Barack Obama himself. The shoes featured an engraved image of Sarah Onyango Obama, etched from a photo taken when she received the “Grandson Slippers.” What’s promising here is that the same pair of leather slippers with a laser engraved image of President Obama, designed in Japan, can now be manufactured in Kenya with a laser cutter within a day — turning into a present for President Obama’s grandmother, using local materials.
The Maker Movement has already spread throughout several countries and continues to emerge in communities worldwide. DIYers collaborate with a wide variety of people, ranging from designers and engineers to academics and students, on projects to drive positive change. One example of where these groups congregate to help ‘make a difference’ is a Fab Lab, a concept that originated 10 years ago at the MIT’s Center of Bits and Atoms. According to the World Bank, there are approximately 350 Fab Labs spanning across 40 countries, where Makers come together to share designs, talent and know-how amongst each other. The Maker Movement also complements the spirit of innovation that has been credited to developing countries; for example, “Jua kali,” Swahili for hot sun, describes the open-air industry of inventors common in many African cities. This has led to the popularity of Maker Faire Africa, which held its inaugural event in Ghana in 2009, followed by Kenya in 2010, Egypt and Nigeria in 2012 and now in South Africa 2014.
In order to encourage and learn from this growing movement, the World Bank’s Transport and ICT Global Practice team was one of the sponsors of this year’s International Fab Lab Conference and Annual Meeting in Barcelona. The event, which was held during the first week of July, was organized by the Fab Foundation and Fab Lab Barcelona. The conference surfaced various local innovations and provided an opportunity to learn from the Maker themselves about how they were approaching problem-solving with their clients.
For instance in Kenya, the Kenyatta National Hospital — the largest referral clinic in East Africa — teamed up with the University of Nairobi’s Fab Lab to address a problem: The hospital needed equipment for maternity and infant healthcare. Led by its manager Kamau Gachigi, the Fab Lab developed a portal that links with Fab Labs around the world to surface, design and test equipment that could be manufactured locally. By pooling the world’s wealth of brain power to drive towards regional solutions, Makers like Mr. Gachigi are mobilizing the power of the Maker Movement to address local challenge, the World Bank explains.
In the Philippines, Makers confronted a different challenge: in the rural area of Bohol, the plastic recycling process is inefficient, long and costly. Using this plastic waste, such as plastic bags and food packages, a Fab Lab, led by Yutaka Tokushima, housed at a local university is creating products ranging from filament for 3D printers to heat-pressed pipes. These new “upcycled” products are not only helping keep plastic waste off the landscape of Bohol, but also creating jobs and providing a stimulus in the local economy. The same principle is being applied in post-disaster environments, where debris from destroyed houses is repurposed in Fab Labs to create building materials for new temporary shelters.
Aside from these activities, representatives of the World Bank and the clients are participating in study tours of digital fabrication spaces, including Tech Shop, the White House Maker Faire and the upcoming Maker Faire Africa. These engagements offer an opportunity to study an emerging, evolving and relatively undefined field. They also help test the hypothesis that digital fabrication holds the potential to support the Bank’s mission of elevating shared prosperity and reducing poverty by lowering barriers to entry for entrepreneurship, local manufacturing, and providing skills development opportunities.
Recently, there have also been a number of innovations helping to enhance the lives of those in developing countries. For instance, Makers have designed a $25 Arduino-based device that may soon make the rising trend of remote diagnostics an everyday reality across the globe, while another Maker has launched a life-saving inflatable incubator inspired by the harsh living conditions in Syria.