FabKit enables community transformation in Ioannina

Khalid* has always loved cars. The 18 year old Syrian boy used to draw cars for fun and dreamed of building them some day. That was before his family fled the war and arrived in Greece. But after a year stuck in transit limbo, taking care of his siblings and living in refugee housing in Ioannina, those dreams seemed impossibly far away.

Today, sitting at a laptop in a newly opened community centre in Ioannina, Greece, Khalid is back to drawing cars – except that now he’s drawing them using 3D software, then watching as those images are transformed into actual plastic models before his eyes.

One of many cars built at the Fab Lab

The person responsible for that transformation is Danai Toursoglou Papalexandridou, manager at the community centre’s new Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory). For the past month the 25 year old award-winning architect specialised in digital fabrication has been introducing children, teenagers and adults to a suite of digital fabrication tools and providing them with the software and design skills needed to use them.

Containing a 3D printer, laser cutter, vinyl cutter, digital sewing machine, and CNC mill,  the Ioannina Fab Lab is designed to be an enabling environment, targeting disaffected and vulnerable children and teens, and providing them with an engaging hobby, digital literacy and some vocational skills, and hopefully restoring a sense of empowerment and inclusion to people who are stuck in transit for indeterminate periods of time, with few intellectual or creative stimuli.

Ioannina Fab Lab Manager Danai Toursoglou Papalexandridou

The concept itself was co-designed by Terre des hommes (Tdh) and the Global Humanitarian Lab (GHL)  to complement Tdh’s child protection and non-formal education activities in north-western Greece. It was made possible thanks to financial support from the UPS foundation, and equipment donations from Ultimaker and HandiBot, the project was developed in consultation with the refugee communities and locally active NGOs such as Oxfam and Habibi Works.

The Fab Lab is part of GHL’s ‘bottom-up’ pillar of operations, which explores the potential of digital fabrication and other exponential technologies such as online communities and e-learning, as essential ingredients for the enabling and empowerment of affected communities in humanitarian settings.

Girls using the lab’s laptops to design

The Ioannina Fab Lab is part of a greater Fab Kit project which GHL is developing with a global network of partners. It is designed to be a modular and palletised system, complete with training materials and consumables, for easy shipping and rapid deployment in the field.

As part of an integrated network of supporting partners, mentors and communities of interest, Fab Kits have the potential to empower affected communities in the development and delivery of solutions to their self-identified needs.

GHL and Tdh co-designed the Ioannina Fab Lab in a series of co-design workshops and scoping and stakeholder field-visits in late 2016 and early 2017. Components were assembled and shipped in March and April, and assembled in Ioannina in time for the opening of the Mikri Poli (little city) community centre in April 2017.

“The idea of teaching affected communities how to work with digital fabrication is really new, but it really fits the situation here,” explains Danai. “First by functioning as a connection between the refugee community and the host community of the city of Ioannina, and the university through common activities, and second through activities and workshops, showing people how they can address their needs and the needs of others through the philosophy of making instead of buying.”

Danai introduces another visitor to 3D modelling

Khalid, our budding car maker, has been coming back almost every day since the lab opened. When the lab is crowded he even helps newcomers how to use the facilities. “For example, the other day I asked him to help a young kid from Greece who was designing a superhero in the computer. The kid didn’t know how to use 3D software, but Khalid sat with him and gave him some tips about designing on the computer that he learned in the Fab Lab.”

The child, an 8 year old local boy, had met Danai outside the Fab Lab one day. “He asked me ‘if I draw something, can you make it real?’” Two days later the child brought his mother with him to the Fab Lab, “He’s already been here three times now. He brings his drawings, mostly superheroes, and fabricates them in the 3D printer. Now he’s interested in learning how to program the Arduino so he can make his superheroes move as well.”

Engagement with the local community has also been very promising, starting with the local university. “Quite a few students have been coming to print their class projects,” says Danai. “There are three girls who come almost every day from the morning to the afternoon. In the morning we design together and I show them new things and new machines, and in the afternoon, when we have a lot more people from the refugee community, they share with them what they learned in the morning.”

Local students learning to use the 3D printer

This has helped drive female inclusion in the space, which was a key goal of the project, and is already showing promising trend with women represented in 54% of visits in the first month.

“In the beginning I targeted women by inviting them to workshops about making toys for their kids. But I soon learned they were interested in being more disconnected from kids, and making their own things. They’re interested in learning about the digital sewing machine, which has brought a lot of women to the Fab Lab. But when they see people, like the girls from the university, making other stuff like stickers in the vinyl cutter or do things with the laser cutter they become more interested in the other activities as well.”

While it is still very early in this project’s life, the initial turnout has been very encouraging. In just its first month of operation the space has already attracted over 500 visits, averaging 25 visits a day.

An important part of GHL’s bottom-up pillar, we will continue to closely study this project, and the outcomes and key learnings used to further develop the Humanitarian FabKit.

For further information, or to get involved, please contacts us at fabkit@globalhumanitarianlab.org.

* Name changed to respect privacy.

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