fab lab

The Maker Movement

Katie Rast, founder of Fab Lab SD, discusses accessible innovation, maker culture, I.D.E.A. District and the future of digital fabrication technology.

katie_rast_headshotWhat makes a city ideal for startups? According to Fab Lab founder Katie Rast, the answer to this question goes far beyond traditional quantifiable data. San Diego is inarguably securing its status as a hub for startups, technology and innovation – the goal now is to continue its expansion in the right direction. It’s all happening right here in the I.D.E.A. District and its surrounding neighborhood. So just what is it that makes this area so appealing to the creative class? Rast explains that the culture of a city is similar to that of any organizational structure: “It really helps to decide what types of companies are going to exist and thrive there. Right now, this idea of East Village’s renaissance is very attractive to a lot of startups, because startups are usually people at the forefront of a movement, and so they see the potential even before the ground is broken.” Startup culture is a key component to maintaining the forward momentum in downtown San Diego, and the opportunity to build from the ground up is a unique one. As the physical space becomes increasingly desirable, it draws an influx of the highly coveted creative class – an invaluable resource even on the most basic levels of urban growth. Economists have identified correlations between cities that attract young talent and a region’s overall economic prosperity; Fab Lab and similar organizations are exactly the type of magnets that attract said talent. The combined efforts between I.D.E.A. District and these organizations as we strive together to foster a community built around the creative class is now on track to follow a serious recipe for success.

We got together with Katie Rast to talk Fab Lab, East Village, and the future of I.D.E.A. District and the downtown community overall. Fab Lab originated in 2007 as a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rast’s San Diego-based nonprofit. Together with co-founder Xavier Leonard, Rast established the San Diego Fab Lab as part of MIT’s Global Fab Lab network. Rast explains, “The idea was basically to see what happened when you gave access to advanced digital fabrication tools to anyone and everyone.” In other areas of the globe, Fab Labs were producing products that were tailored to the specific needs of the local community. These products ranged from sheep tracking devices in Norway to bicycles that converted energy to power a school in India, even to more classical architectural applications in Barcelona. Here in San Diego, the organization focused on providing a community maker space while also making the technology more accessible, i.e. for students from areas with low college matriculation rates who needed to prepare for college and the workforce. Today, Fab Lab is a fully functioning digital design and fabrication laboratory (hence the name) that is open to the community at little to no cost. The lab provides everything from laser cutters, 3D scanners, computers, printers and open-source software to double-sided tape, scissors and glue; offering the incredible opportunity to create – literally – whatever you can dream up. Even better, it is now located inside Maker’s Quarter, directly in the heart of I.D.E.A. District.

Throughout the conversation with Rast, it was clear that the Fab Lab’s mission was contingent upon three major elements: accessible technology and innovation, collaboration between makers and entrepreneurs, and community cultivation.


Accessible Technology + Innovation

Let’s start with the fact that Fab Lab provides opportunities to people of all ages. Both adults and youth have gotten major benefits from the programs available, whether they are improving on current skill sets or learning entirely new areas of expertise. The classes and workshops are completely immersive, with a constant emphasis placed on application; an instructional style that delivers a tremendous amount of knowledge in a relatively short time. Education is made available to anyone with an interest and the willingness to walk through the doorway.

Accessibility is a recurring theme throughout Rast’s work and at Fab Lab. The organization strives to “bridge the digital divide” and deliver the tools of creation to all. Rast refers to it as “democratizing innovation.” Who knows where the next great invention will come from? While user-friendliness has always been a goal of the program, the means of achieving it have shifted over time: Rast says, “We’ve definitely pivoted from the beginning. We started with a very high-level, idealistic vision. It was very broad and was essentially rooted in a belief that if invention were democratized, amazing things could happen. So our goal was to see what we could do along the lines of democratizing innovation and making it as accessible as possible.” They have certainly succeeded. Amid the hustle and bustle of the busy lab, there are a number of exciting projects happening. One such project is a drone designed specifically to film action sports: Users can wear a tracking device and the drone will follow them in order to capture video footage. Another product in the makings is a bio-feedback system that helps athletes to maintain their body’s alignment. The creations range from these inventions designated with very specific purposes in mind to the more traditional art forms of furniture, lighting and jewelry.

Long story short, the tools of technology are being placed directly into directly into people’s hands, giving everyone the potential to be a fabricator and turn their ideas into realities, and the results are fascinating. Rast says, “It’s exciting because you know that things will shift and change, and you know that something creative is coming.”


Collaborative Ideation

Collaboration is at the backbone of the new and innovative world that is developing in East Village. A bridge is forming between makers and entrepreneurs, and the resulting system is one that spans the gap between idea and actual product, fostering a collaborative process that begins with a concept and results in the tangible execution of that concept. In their recent move to Maker’s Quarter, (inside I.D.E.A. District), Fab Lab has formed yet another relationship that will unite groups under the umbrella of innovation. Thanks to the open door policy and ample community access time, everyone involved is able to interface with a wide range of people. Rast explains, “My hope is that what happens in our shop is seen as an example of this bigger picture: What can happen when entrepreneurs and basically hands-on people are brought together to ideate and create their inventions?” This new organizational model is more comprehensive, more collaborative and has a far higher potential for innovative ideation, creation and production.

fablabopenWhile Fab Lab will continue to focus on community building and helping inventors and entrepreneurs to work through the initial stages of ideation and prototyping, Rast will also be working to cultivate more extensive ties with San Diego’s startup ecosystem. This includes efforts to realize the regional potential for manufacturing. She explains, “technology is shifting towards a synthesis of software and hardware as a coexisting entity rather than two separately functioning tools,” and as a result, San Diego can only gain from a greater proximity between software and hardware production. The city’s strengths “give it the potential to be a space for innovation and a center of production.” Furthermore, this regionalization would create a far more sustainable business model that would localize manufacturing and drive the economy in the area as well. This is another form of collaboration from which East Village’s tech scene could benefit immensely.


A Maker-Centric Community

In order to keep San Diego’s developing urban ecosystem successful, it will be crucial to continue cultivating an ideal environment and community. With entities like I.D.E.A. District, the NewSchool of Architecture and Design, Urban Smarts Farm, Silo, Makers Quarter and more joining the mix, East Village is definitely headed in the right direction. Rast says, “What we’ve been working on in San Diego over the last seven years with Fab Lab is much more than just one space that people can visit and utilize tools. The idea is to cultivate a community, and that is something that we are really privileged to do.” Fab Lab has actually created the physical location for this community to take root and flourish, and as the system grows ever more interconnected through startups and other organizations, it will be sure to do just that. San Diego already has the entrepreneurial spirit and an increasing population of young, motivated, tech-savvy innovators. With the right space at hand, the stage is set for some pretty incredible ideation and development.

Rast explains that what it now comes down to is branding said space – a process that I.D.E.A. District will play a major role in: “When there’s a place that’s really designated and acknowledged and branded as a gathering space for entrepreneurs, artists and innovation, people will be more likely to gather there – especially when the place itself lives up to the brand and is actually designed with the user in mind.” She predicts that people will be more appreciative of such a space and will act as a more responsive community. This more conscious form of development puts the human at the center of the thinking and planning, and in Rast’s words, “It’s not just development for developers, it’s really development for place making.” This more holistic and comprehensive approach is being applied to the entire 93-acre East Village neighborhood and is already forming a true maker-centric community.

So what is it like to be surrounded by innovators and creators all day? Rast sums it up for us: “What I’ve been doing in the lab for the last seven years has been a very big risk and there have been many times when I’ve wondered if I am completely crazy for doing it, but one of the things I come back to is that every day I get to interact with truly inspiring people. We really do get to play a role in creating new things, and there’s something inherently inspiring about creating new things.” Fab Lab has created an environment in which anyone could be the next genius. It’s an exciting shift and it’s taking place right here in front of us. Rast says of the overall experience, “We interact with dreams and ideas every day and the invention process is always fascinating. It can be stressful, it can be dramatic, it can be everything else… but the process of an idea becoming a reality is always a very inspiring process.” We are thrilled to have Fab Lab as a part of our community and we can’t wait to see what they bring to I.D.E.A. District and East Village next.


By: Julie Riggert
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