Meet the Innovator – Interview with Tomas Diez

 

Tomas Diez3

Tomas Diez is a Venezuela born Urbanist specialized in digital fabrication and its implications on the future cities models. He currently leads the project Fab Lab at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) and coordinates Fab Academy program offered by the worldwide network of Fab Labs. His research focuses on the use of digital tools for the transformation of physical reality to find a more fluid relation between machines and humans.

___________________________________________________________________________1. How did you end up joining the #maker movement? By coincidence (some people even say that ‘makers’ don’t exist…), as every other big change in my life. I was about to finish my studies in Urbanism back in Venezuela in 2006, when I decided to leave the country and move to London, or Madrid or Barcelona. I did send more than 25 applications for internship at offices and research institutions since I needed to do my final thesis for my undergraduate studies. I got accepted into a couple, but I decided to go to Barcelona: I always loved the city, has been a reference during my whole undergraduate studies, and the offer at IAAC (Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia) was really attractive. Then at IAAC, I did a book about Taipei as my final project, but in the last weeks of my internships I got into the wrong meeting… I was sitting with all IAAC directors, and Vicente Guallart (IAAC founder and director at the time) said: “Neil Gershenfeld is coming in 3 months, we need a Fab Lab, and here is a book and the list of machines, which can do this?” There were only directors in the room, so it was the intern (me) who got the task. Once I started to read Neil’s book and research about digital fabrication I thought “forget about designing nice streets and plazas, this is the real way to change cities, by changing the production model and the role of citizens within it…” Then I started to get the Fab inventory and work with Victor Viña and Shane Salisbury (both great masters for me) to launch Fab Lab Barcelona early 2007.

2. What do you most value in the innovation/maker environment? I value the idea of bringing power to people, of having options and opportunities, which is the real idea of “equality” to me. I don’t believe in systems that establish pre-set paths for us, or systems that puts everyone at the same level by prescription. I think that we – as humans – need to have choices in order to evolve, and bringing to people both production tools and platforms to share and innovate is for me the most valuable thing we can do within the “maker movement” (even though I do not totally agree on this naming). We have been makers for many centuries, trying to re-balance industrialization that keeps production and consumption apart. It sounds odd for me to talk about ‘making’ as big news, as we have always been makers! I’d rather define us as protagonists of a transition time, once more, as we were back in the beginning of the XXth century, or at the end of the XVth century.

3What is your idea of a perfect innovation ecosystem? Many people say that all sectors should participate in this, which I agree. This might sound as a repetition but, for me, innovation should not only come from Silicon Valley copycats, or hipsterised makers: innovation comes from the unexpected, when you sit together with someone you are not supposed to be fitted with, when you find yourself in the same place with people that you would not even think to talk to in your life. So, yes: industry, government, society, education institutions, businesses… all should be part of this ecosystem and, for that – and for the unexpected – to happen, we need exchange spaces and platforms. I also believe that a good ecosystem is the one that can better adapt to its context, so better if we do not indulge in prescriptive formulas, or in formats to copy… Those ecosystems should be able to grow in each city or region out of their own skills and resources.

4. What kind of activities best defines your idea of a “smart city”? So far, “smart city” has been a branded term for companies and governments to sell services and products, and to justify related costs. I do agree that technology boast an amazing potential in enabling new approaches to city functioning and management. However, I share the “smart city” vision insofar it relates to the infrastructure but not when infrastructure are designed to control citizens! I was astonished when the Control Operation Room (COR) project at Rio de Janeiro won the best project at the “Smart City Expo and World Congress” in Barcelona, back in 2013: to me, COR is a kind of contemporary version of George Orwell’s “1984”. A NASA style room full of displays, monitoring the entire city. I could almost imagine the mayor of Rio acting like Doctor Evil, turning on and off traffic lights…This is not my idea of “smart”. 

On the other side, at the same event, our project “Smart Citizen” won the “Innovative Project” category, and again in 2014, the term “smart citizen” was by far one of the most used in the sessions with mayors, businessmen and researchers. The whole idea of the smart city does not make sense if is not happening through the empowerment of people: new infrastructures are ok but so are multiple opportunities to connect, share and learn allow to citizens. People’s empowerment goes in the opposite direction of control, so I bet we will see the two sides struggling often in the near future, as it has been happening for the Internet (without settling, yet).

5. How can cities solve the need of providing more and more diverse services, in a scenario of cutting budgets, while taking advantage of the opportunities that innovation brings up? To me, the key is where the money is being allocated. We are used to live in a surreal world, where almost everything is done by the government, at least in Europe. People just have to worry about going to work, earn money and go on vacations, being the Welfare State to take care of everything else. However, this model proved not to be sustainable any longer. In my opinion, we should push governments to create platforms and infrastructure for citizens to create their own jobs. I am not saying that everyone should pursue an entrepreneur career, or to launch his own company; rather, than we need to “diversify” how business is generated, and to pursue that goal, we need to be more willing to understand the contexts rather than just “import” global trends and create patterns of consumption. We need to work on creating new patterns of production, as they will have a domino effect, no doubts.  I am not calling for a revolution but for an evolution, an upgrade of current systems: what prevents from digitalize voting, for instance? What from implementing neighbourhood scale waste recycling hubs? Why are kids not learning computer science at school (properly), yet? Cities and governments should any longer be service providers but, rather, to become opportunities providers. It sound harder, I know, and challenging. Yet, it needs to be done.

6. What – in your opinion – are the characteristics of innovation as understood by urban planners? And by the local governments? To be honest, I think that “innovation” is risking becoming just another marketing tool. Every local government has been pursuing the dream of their own Silicon Valley, or their own “innovation ecosystem”. Some years ago it was the “green wash”; nowadays, the “fab wash” or the “makers wash” are somehow devaluating the cultural movement behind it. “Innovation” is becoming a marketing tool every time the impressive changes going on behind its scene are not properly communicated.

Nowadays, cities like Barcelona or Sao Paulo are seeing many initiatives, from public Fab Labs to public Maker Spaces. They will be the indicator to what’s next. Will the Fabrication Athenaeums in Barcelona just become like any other public space – operated by 9 – 5 people, just looking forward to leaving work asap? Or will it prove open to passionate leaders who will stay all night long if required to deliver a project? Will they be called to build an entirely new world on top of its infrastructure? We are facing a great challenge: will the fab labs end up being bureaucratized or being hacked and upgraded into something truly new? Urban planning is not only about the built space, and urban designers should not only design streets sections, roundabouts distribution or planning the transport strategies in a city. Urbanism is about the design of human interactions in the city, and for me is about building resilient platforms that can adapt the city to the needs of its citizens and anyone else that contributes to shape it. Empowerment of residents allows for better, more functional cities and an improved society. Technology allows us so; we are just at the beginning of a significant change…This is the time when many, diverse disciplines can eventually combine together and design a new development path

7. Ross Atkin, upon input by Bruce Sterling, recently released the “Manifesto for the Clever City”. Atkin goes beyond the idea of ‘smart’ to suggest a stronger attention to “inclusivity” as a key feature. How does the “clever” city idea fit into the scenario of “FabCity” you have been working on? I think technology is inclusive by itself, is part of its inherent value. We are gaining new capacities in order to design, develop and build solutions for whatever the needs, in different contexts, and technology allows us to do so. I like the “Manifesto for the Clever City”: it is simple and straightforward. Cities are complex: it is us, humans, who shape them, and humans are even more complex. Platforms are key to this process, as they can help to take it forward: regardless if digital or analogic, they should exist just to provide citizens a tool for self-empowerment. The public network of Fab Labs now developing in Barcelona is design to obey that need, as it provides citizens a new infrastructure. Similar to the libraries network, the Fabrication Athenaeums (the Catalan name given to public Fab Labs) project aims to “spread the news about innovation” all around town (each of the city’s 10 districts will enjoy its own FabLab) and being the “access gate to innovation” for all those citizens with no previous tech skills, to get them into digital fabrication, coding, programming and making. No entry level is required, and that’s very clever to me, isn’t it

8. Austin (TX) is foreseen to grow from 750.000 inhabitants to 2 million in a little more than 1 year, by massive investments in technology, connectivity and digital. Such a small city has become increasingly attractive and many are relocating to Austin from all over the world. What kind of model would you imagine for a European city, should it decide to pursue the same goal? In Europe we are seeing a reverse attitude: the young and talented are leaving big cities to go back to their parents, often much smaller, hometowns. Gentrification of previously dismissed areas or villages is an increasing trend. Europe moves slowly, and within many frameworks and regulations; that is often perceived as a limitation to independent initiatives. However, at the same time, some major European cities keep being attractive to an international, vibrant crowd: Barcelona, Milan, Amsterdam, London, Berlin and also Copenhagen or Ljubljana is polarizing knowledge and opportunities. The outlook seem to be different for Europe, many dynamics are involved.

9. In your opinion, what features should a Mediterranean city enhance in order to become more attractive to an innovation-oriented crowd? First: stop copying model from other cities. The idea that every city should boasts its very own Silicon Valley is just silly, and unfortunately has been pursued rather often so far. Mediterranean cities enjoy great value in culture, climate, social cohesion and some sort of freedom or informalism that make them vibrant and exciting. In Europe, especially in south Europe, we should work in order to enhance those values rather than trying to resemble San Francisco or NY. We should grow our own models out of our shared values rather than denying them. I understand that obeying the context and the local culture might take more work and cost far more, but the results will be priceless.

10. You seem to have been able to create a nurturing environment around your FabLab in Barcelona. Was it difficult to achieve? Have you ever experienced any ‘loneliness’ in your effort to establish a closer relationship with the neighbourhood it belongs to? We open the lab between 2006 and 2007; at that time there were less than 10 Fab Labs all around the world…the beginnings took with them some loneliness, indeed. We literally had to drag people in the lab in order to show and explain what we were doing. Take digital fabrication to a more personal level, closer to our FabLab users, was difficult but proved effective, in the end, also thanks to the joint effort with the IAAC’s Master of Architecture, the Venice Biennale with the Hyperhabitat pavilion and the Fab Lab House project. They all gained us lot of international exposure, and the challenge was local. When in 2011 a new mayor – Xavier Trias – was appointed and chose some members from IAAC and Fab Lab Barcelona to run the city with him, the whole idea about Fab Labs turned into a local policy, and Vicente Guallart (IAAC co-founder and Chief Architect of Barcelona) and I were called to lead the process. Nowadays is a different story. FabLabs are among the most visited place – we are booked almost every day – and we work with our neighbours on a different scale: from opening a restaurant within the fab lab, to act as a service and produce in behalf of third parties, to organize and host events or teaching at the local universities.

11. What is your greatest fear about the future of innovation? I fear some might approach innovation with superficiality, and turn it into a mere marketing tool, as it might endanger what has been done so far. I am also afraid of this eagerness for models to be replicated: each system has to find its own one; copying does not necessarily do well.

12. What do you consider your greatest achievement as a fablab director? And as a fabcity dreamer? I feel very honoured and lucky to be able to work with the team I am in at IAAC and Fab Lab Barcelona. We share visions, projects and ideas. I think our greatest achievement has been to keep existing, as we went through great difficulties. We are very proud of who we are and what we believe in, and want to keep evolving and improving

13. What innovation do you think we should start investing on to make our cities better ones? Sustainable digital fabrication for everyone. Bring people back to make and produce, teach kids computer science and coding whilst at school.

14. What talent would you most like to have (or would you most like to steel from another innovator)? I think we can all be whoever we want, there’s all the genius we need in each of us. To tell you the truth, I would like to be a better musician.

15. If you may give an advice on innovation to the local policy-makers, what would it be? Value, foster, promote but do not indulge in putting yourself at the centre of the picture. Enhance local talent, smooth burocracy and support innovation. Most important. believe in people, trust passion.

16. What are you currently working on/what’s latest project? There will be a lot of news about our “Smart Citizen” project during the year. We are also working on better defining what the FAB City project is going to be in the next 4 years. Before starting a new project we want to make the current ones very solid and self-sufficient.

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Tomas Diez has participated in technological and social projects such as rehabilitation plans for marginal areas of Caracas, digital manufacturing installation Hyper-habitat for the XI Venice Architecture Biennale, digital fabrication of the first solar house in Barcelona, for the Solar Decathlon Europe 2010, the launch of Fab Labs in cities like Lima (Peru), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Ahmedabad (India). He is part of the international team that drives programs Fab Labs and Informalism and Smart Cities by Smart Citizen, and of the team which will develop the Barcelona Fab City project in the upcoming years. Tomas is also co-founder of Studio P52 (http://www.studiop52.com) and now is launching the Smart Citizen project (http://www.smartcitizen.me) through a crowdfunding campaign.