#futureofwork #ubi #universalbasicincome #economy #economics #fablab #fabrication



When exploring the future of work, most people focus on the jobs that will be replaced by technology, the new jobs created by transformational technologies, the jobs that will be upgraded or downgraded by technology, and key trends, such as the growth of ‘gig’ jobs.  Understanding this entire blend is important, but incomplete.  The discussions are missing a category of work that is at once ancient and new – which we term “self-sufficient production” – making what one consumes at a personal, family or local level.  Today, this category is expanding through the accelerating advances in digital fabrication and it is notable because it does not involve traditional employment, but shares many of the attributes of “work.” 

Digital fabrication technologies have the potential to redefine how we think about work.  When most people think about work they think of standard dictionary definitions: “the place where one is employed” or “the period of time where one spends in paid employment” – conceptions of work that are inextricably tied to paid labor.  Self-sufficient production is a new category that keys off a different dictionary definition of work: “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” What if a growing portion of the annual household budget for purchasing goods needed by typical individuals or families only required the purchase of raw materials, with the production taking place in local community fab labs, maker spaces and, even, in-home fabrication capabilities?

If the performance and accessibility of digital fabrication technologies continues to improve at its present, exponential rate, then the potential for a redefinition of work itself is not just an abstract thought exercise.  It becomes possible for individuals, families, and neighborhoods to literally own the means of production.

In order to unpack how this new category is expanding around the world, we begin with an overview of digital fabrication as a third digital revolution, followed by an analysis of the implications of this technology on the future of jobs debates, and then a dive into what the technology can and can’t do.  We also explore how many people need to be on path where they are increasingly making what they consume for this to be truly a transformation in the landscape of work.  

In our book, Designing Reality, we offer a fifty-year roadmap that begins with the first digitally controlled machine tool to massive prototyping facilities to community fab labs to personal fabrication to a stage that sounds more like science fiction than science.  This is a stage that is analogous to universal and ubiquitous computing, which involves not just digital fabrication with analog consumable materials, but fabrication with digital and programmable materials in ways that begin to look like the Star Trek replicator.  There are early examples of these very advanced stages of the roadmap already visible in research labs today (Gershenfeld, Gershenfeld, and Cutcher-Gershenfeld, 2017).

For today’s jobs debate, however, we just focus here on the current stage of community fabrication and the emerging shift toward personal fabrication.  This parallels the where the first two digital revolutions were at in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The key question at this stage concerns the degree to which people can make things in a fab lab or with emerging personal fabrication machines that replaces, to a substantial degree, their need to work.  Were that to happen, it would be a historical inflection point – requiring a rethinking of the nature of work.

In the context of digital fabrication, this way of thinking would draw our attention to the 1,819,300 assembler and fabricator jobs in the BLS Occupational Handbook in 2016, for which there is a predicted 14% decline by 2026 or a loss of 261,900 jobs.  With the growing interest in bio fab, it would also draw our attention to the 82,100 biological technicians employed in 2016 (projected to grow by 10% or 8,400 jobs by 2026).  This is an important and related analysis, but it is not our focus here.  

Our focus is on people that fit into a new emerging category, those who are able to reduce their household costs by increasingly assembling and fabricating what they need.  The ability to make more of what one consumes also has benefits beyond the cost savings.  One of the big criticisms of the universal base income is that it doesn’t acknowledge the meaning, purpose, dignity and social aspects of work.  Making things for oneself, one’s family and one’s community is not easy, but extremely rewarding. In fact, when coupled with potential base income and fab training could create a powerful new blend of work.

A potential vision for this new blend is represented in the inspiring work of Blair Evans, an accomplished automotive engineer and educational leader who is now developing a local ecosystem of fab labs in an economically distressed part of Detroit.  His vision is about what he calls “thirds” -- building out the digital fabrication capability to the point that people might spend one-third of their time in paid labor to buy what they can’t make, one third of their time using digital fabrication facilities to make what they can (with a focus on furniture, housing, aquaponic food production, and other practical things), and one third of their time to follow their passions in whatever way they choose to do.  This is a very different assumption about what constitutes a work week.  And emerging new models are not only urban.  Many are happening in rural communities where just a few generations back many individuals and families were completely self-sustaining – using local materials to fabricate local solutions.  Given more powerful tools, this may be the leading edge of where this new category of self-sufficient production emerges fastest.

Documenting the emergence of new categories of work is difficult. In a 2016 study of alternative work arrangements, Larry Katz and Alan Kruger found that: “The percentage of workers engaged in alternative work arrangements – defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers – rose from 10.7 percent in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015.”  They point out, however, that most of these are not new categories of work, such as what are termed “gig” jobs.  On this subject in the U.S., they find that: “Workers who provide services through online intermediaries, such as Uber or Task Rabbit, accounted for 0.5 percent of all workers in 2015.” There were approximately 150 million people employed in the U.S. in 2015, so that would put the number of what might be called new “gig” jobs at 750,000.  

Apparently, a half of a percent is enough of a shift in the job market, if it is happening with sufficient speed, to get people thinking that we are at or approaching a historical inflection point.  So, let’s consider what it would take for digital fabrication technologies to fundamentally change work for half a percent of the U.S. workforce, and for similar proportions of people’s work to change around the planet.

If people are to genuinely own the means of production, the key question is whether they will be producing a sufficient proportion of the goods purchased in a year to reduce their dependence on commercial industry, with its global supply chains.  In 2017 we conducted a survey of 179 fab lab leaders from around the world.  Responses came in from fifty countries.  Among the questions we asked folks was a request for examples of the most practical thing they had seen produced in their fab lab, as well as examples of the most innovating things they had seen produced.  

A scan of these entries reveals both the breadth of what can be made in a fab lab and the unique nature of many of the items.  Some of the entries could be the basis for larger-scale production, but the technology in a fab lab is not designed for production at scale.  Instead, people might make one or a few of something and often do so with a high degree of personalization.  Moreover, there was no single dominant response from the 179 fab leaders.  Even the most common responses, such as furniture or prosthetics, were not mentioned by more than a half-dozen people in response to either question.  So, the challenge of filling the basket of goods for even 750,000 people will not follow the standard BLS methods of looking for common purchases of a representative sample of households.  

When the machines make the machines needed for digital fabrication, there is further multiplier effect on the spread of the technology – fab labs can make more fab labs.  This does increase the capacity to reach 750,000 people with productive capabilities.

In order for the category of self-sufficient production to increase to the level where it is a meaningful part of the future of work blend, critical issues around fab access, literacy, enabling ecosystem and risk mitigation will have to be addressed.  With the first two digital revolutions, we have seen the impact of digital divides, where half the planet does not have access to the internet and billions more have very limited access.  We could see a growing fab divide, where only the well-off have the access to the powerful tools and therefore the option for self-sufficient production.

Fab access is necessary, but not sufficient.  Once individuals, families and communities have access to digital fabrication tools, they need the literacies to be able to use them to meet personal and local needs.  To cultivate broad-based fab literacy we need fab-based learning pathways in K-12, higher-ed and lifelong learning and an ecosystem of mentors (local and global).  In fact, a number of the responses to our survey emphasized learning and community building as a key value of the fab lab experience, even when the focus of the survey question was on things produced in the lab.  For example, some of the responses on the most innovative thing produced in a fab lab were more about learning and community building, such as these three examples: 

  • “Having youth serve as fab stewards, providing open access and meaningful making experiences for both youth and adults.”
  • “Co-created public space structure blending digital fabrication and local traditions.” 
  • “Placing a fab lab in the heart of an underserved community in Northern Ireland as a social experiment to work with the unemployed and disengaged has provided an innovative service in place that has been starved of investment and access to technology.”

At this stage in the third digital revolution, access to the design and fabrication experience is at least as important as the ability to make things.  While our focus here is on the basket of goods, in the conclusion we will come back to the value of the intangible benefits of digital fabrication as well as the tangible goods produced.  Finally, it is also essentially that while we work on maximizing the benefits of fab labs, we most also mitigate the potential harm – everything from bad people making dangerous things in fab labs to safety and other ‘workplace’ protections.  Not addressing the risks early while the culture and core assumptions of the ecosystem are forming, could set back the entire movement.

The first fab lab was established in 2003 and the number of labs in the world has been doubling approximately every eighteen months.  There is the prospect of this doubling continuing at least through 2025, after which the technology may have been taken over by smaller, personal fabricators, that won’t need a room-filling fab lab. 

Observers differ in their counts of technological inflection points.  Michael Piore and Charles Sabel suggested in 1984 that we were entering the second industrial divide in which mass production would give way to new forms of flexible production serving specialized niche markets (Piore and Sabel, 1984).  Carlota Perez, in 2002, counted five different technological and market shifts over the last two centuries (Perez, 2002), with financial capital abandoning old technologies and pouring into new technologies with each shift.  The World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab counts four industrial revolutions (Schwab, 2017) and has spawned a mini industry of economy 4.0 consultants across Europe.  Just focusing on digital technologies, we count three digital revolutions (Gershenfeld, Gershenfeld, and Cutcher-Gershenfeld, 2017), each marked by exponential rates of change.  While different underlying logics lead to different counts, one thing is common in all the analyses, which is that these changes in technology and markets are inflection points that bring great challenges and opportunities for society.  

If the reach and capability of digital fabrication continues to expand at present rates, it will bring unprecedented productive capacity to large numbers of individuals and neighborhoods.  We have suggested that bringing sufficient digital fabrication capacity to approximately 500,000 to one million people – enabling them to significantly reduce their household spending – might be compelling as the early indication of a historical inflection point.  Looking ahead, we welcome others to join in fleshing out more fully this scenario.

Will access to digital fabrication ultimately be sufficient to constitute revolutionary change in markets and society?  The potential is there, but it will only be realized through choices made to ensure a social infrastructure that can co-evolve with the technology.