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FabLab Kamakura: Forging bonds between places, and a more creative life, by making things

Yuka Watanabe
In May 2011, co-founded FabLab Kamakura, one of the first FabLabs in eastern Asia, along with Hiroya Tanaka. Currently serves as President. With the aim of bringing together the region and the world, and creating the kind of 21st century creative learning environment made possible by the spread of computerized machine tools, Ms. Watanabe pursues activities that transcend the barriers of time and geography. Works include the book "What Fab Can Do" (2013, Film Art).

Have you ever heard the word "FabLab"?
Do you know what a FabLab does?
The "Fab" in FabLab represents two terms: "Fabrication" and "Fabulous". A FabLab serves as the base "Lab" for a movement that seeks to harness the freedom of the "possibilities of creation" by individuals, to bring those individuals together with a variety of people from their areas, and to share the results with the whole world via the Internet.
I asked Yuka Watanabe, President of "FabLab Kamakura" in the city of Kamakura, about the art of "monozukuri" ("making things") cultivated at FabLabs and how it brings together people, regions, the ages, and the world.

Interview&Text:Rumiko Ozeki

It turned out that this workshop with the cutting-edge digital equipment was a 128-year-old sake brewery!

From the otherwise calm western entrance of Kamakura Station, which is packed with tourists on holidays, it was about a five minute walk to where I could see the palpably historic storehouse that turned out to be "FabLab Kamakura."

--That this workshop, furnished with cutting-edge digital equipment like 3D printers and laser cutting machines, is also a renovated storehouse from the Meiji period is neat, but why choose a storehouse?


Watanabe:This "storehouse at its end" was originally a 128-year-old sake brewery in Akita Prefecture. It was taken apart and rebuilt piece-by-piece in Kamakura in 2004.
FabLab Kamakura was founded in 2011 as the first FabLab in Japan.
The workshop, outfitted with the latest in digital manufacturing machinery, arose in Kamakura, which has a bit of distance from the urban centers, and lots of greenery and traditional culture. The workshop isn't just any place for making things; it's a new type of place, meant to convey the ideals of the "FabLab" concept, and so this sake brewery makes a perfect symbol for the local and the global, as well as ancient culture and new technology.

--It's definitely an exterior that gets your attention, and makes you think, "What's that building doing here?"
So, I could understand that the FabLab is a workshop for "monozukuri," but in practice, how is it used?

Watanabe:The FabLab is a workshop for "bringing monozukuri closer to home," but the point of it is a little different from that of the DIY section at a home improvement store. It's also not a place where you can just use manufacturing equipment or have something made.

It's a workshop where people who think, "It would be great if there were something like this," or "I want to try making this myself" can come, make a design while having an exchange of ideas with other members, make things themselves while being instructed in the operation of the machines, and make the results public online so as to share ideas with people around the world.

It's also a base for creating a network in the region, one that can be passed through the ages, through "monozukuri."

On the role a FabLab fulfills in a region

--I see! So, why did you want to create such a workshop?

Watanabe:For one, while it's not mass production with large-scale machinery, it does bring the ability to produce small lots of compact-sized products closer to home.
In the period between the start of modern industrialization and today, with regard to manufacturing, there has been a division between "the people who make" and "the people who use," or "consumers." Ordinary people have lost touch with the notion of making things themselves.

--That's true. I think that constructing things ourselves is something that ends in our student days, at best.

Watanabe:"Creating" is one of the abilities that humans have. It's said that in the near future, due to further technological innovation, the work people do will be steadily taken by machines (artificial intelligence). I've also heard talk that when people who are primary school students today reach adulthood, 60 percent of them will take up jobs that don't exist today.

Being able to handle these "not-yet-known jobs" will require the ability to create, and to collaborate.
Now that it's possible to use the latest digital machinery even in a small workshop, we would like to bring "monozukuri" closer to home, and increase the number of "people who make things."

Another reason is to build connections between "people who make things" within the region. Since the Great East Japan earthquake, there has been more discussion about the importance of regional bonds. And regions are supported by the people who are there during the day.


--Yes, for many people, there's a separation between where they live and where they work. Working people don't have a lot of time in their area.

Watanabe:The people who are in the region are seniors who have retired from their companies, mothers who are raising children, and children. For them, it's not school or the workplace, but our workshop performs a role as a place where they can make things and learn.
For example, when you see a grandfather, who before his retirement was an outstanding engineer, giving a consultation with middle school students about their invention prototypes, that's a link between "people who make things," where age, gender, and title have no bearing.

What do we need to do in order to participate in the FabLab?

--So, connections between people in the region are being born through monozukuri.
When I think, "I'd like to take part in that FabLab," what should I do first? It's not that I'm thinking I want to make something specific, but more a sense that I'd like to take a look at what the atmosphere is like because it seems interesting.

Watanabe:At FabLab Kamakura, every Monday morning starting at 9:00, we do the maintenance work for our storehouse with a lab in it. To put it more simply, we do the "cleaning." People who take part in the cleaning are then able to use the machinery until noon. We do not charge by the hour for the equipment or facilities.

--Oh, so you start by helping with the cleaning! When you do the cleaning together, you can see what kind of members are there, and what goes on.

Watanabe:That's right. Appointments are not necessary, so if you have an interest, please start by taking part.

Operating machinery that you're coming into contact with for the first time can be difficult and dangerous, so for people who genuinely want to make something and handle the machines, we offer courses. They're held on the weekend, and through a class of about two hours, you can learn how to use 3D printers and laser cutting machines. The classes are by appointment and require a fee.

--We can properly learn the basics that way. But, even if I suddenly feel like I want to make something, I really have no idea what I could make...

Watanabe:To actually make an idea into something real, you need to have the appropriate skills and take the necessary steps. We have a ten-step foundational course for learning the skills needed to turn ideas into real things (FAB), which includes everything from data creation to programming and electronic manufacturing. Even as a beginner, if you take these classes, in the end you'll be able to make a piece like this (photograph).


--These are really fun! A case that brings up a colorful scene of Yokohama fireworks when an iPhone flash goes off, a calendar case with a sky that changes color with the time, a sunflower case that greets you when you get close, and a case with a smell sensor that tells you when to change the cat's litter box? So many ideas!

Watanabe:If you start with steps like these, you can experience for yourself the joy of coming up with ideas and creating. Monozukuri is fun!!

On the activities and products born at FabLab Kamakura that have spread across the world

--It seems like a lot of fun!! What kind of real FabLab-only works and activities have there been so far?

Watanabe:A leatherworker learned how to use a laser cutting machine here, and came up with a kind of slipper kit. The design data was shared with FabLabs around the world under a Creative Commons license, and slippers were made. Making data and knowhow open is a FabLab guiding principle.
Using laser cutting machines, based on the blueprints for these slippers, new slippers are being made at FabLabs in every country where they're found, with original designs influenced by each country's own culture and topography.

14905471153_e0e248bf41_bKULUSKA slippers

--So design data created in Kamakura is being shared around the world!

Watanabe:We aim to make every project that arises at a FabLab open, and to share them. To use an example, there's a recipe site called cookpad. Users can post and make available recipes, and people who made them can offer their own versions. This is similar.

--Right! That makes it easy to understand. What other experiments have there been?

Watanabe:There's a project for making wood products with timber from forest thinning. It's called "FUJIMOCK FES" Thinned wood from Mt.FUJI is used for an idea made into something real "MOCK-UP", and we call it a festival (FES), so that's the meaning of the name.
We do the fieldwork, starting with the gathering of wood under expert guidance in the forests at the base of Mt. Fuji, and in the end, based on various ideas, we make the wood into products. People who normally do desk work in the city get the opportunity to go into the woods and learn about them, and everyone brainstorms together about what to make from there, then makes it.

--They get to learn about, and appreciate, what's done to protect the natural environment as well as monozukuri.

On what's next for FabLab Kamakura

--I had some awareness that the FabLab was a workshop in town equipped with computerized machinery, but I didn't know just how deep the ideals and concepts were.
Finally, can I ask about what you'll be working on after this?

Watanabe:In 2011 the first FabLabs in Japan were founded in Kamakura and Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. Now, there are about 16 FabLabs in the country. Globally, the movement has grown to over 600 locations in 89 countries.
On the tangible side of "monozukuri," technological innovation has made things compact and low enough in cost to have nearby. On the abstract side, though, we still don't have the opportunity or the educational environment to cultivate the spirit of creativity that says, "I'm going to make something myself."

We want to expand our role as a place where people can make things they need for their everyday life themselves, make things needed as a region or as a town, combine knowledge and power with lots of other people when it's something they can't do on their own, and have those kinds of experiences, as well as a place where people who feel this way can grow.

In Kamakura, there are many creative people with skills such as carving, woodworking, and dyeing. It's also a town with a lot of stores dealing in handicrafts and general goods. When things created in Kamakura are shared with the world, the appeal of Kamakura also extends around the world.

If we view Kamakura as a town as one big FabLab, it could be a place where people could experience the fun of making things, improve their skills, and even more than that, where everyone would be able to design for themselves their own ways of working and living. We want to be a place that can offer that chance.

The international conference "FabLearn Asia 2017" is scheduled for next year. It will be the second time this event has been held in Japan. It will be about digital fabrication and the possibilities of education going forward, and we'll see what kind of views and practical ideas will come up. It's all yet to be determined, but I'm hoping to test a variety of things.

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