We are in the midst of the greatest industrial revolution in human history. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4ID) is an economic transformation a thousand-times wider and deeper than anything that has come before it.
“The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril,” according to Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
The 4ID is characterized by the confluence of next generation technologies like: quantum computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, autonomous transportation and robotics, the Internet of Things, additive manufacturing including 3D printing, biotechnology, and more generally; the merging of the digital and physical worlds.
Alongside profound economic transformations, we are witnessing systemic shifts in the types of job-skills that will be required to secure gainful employment in the wake of the 4ID. Job seekers that know how to leverage 4ID technologies for productive means will be more capable of finding employment opportunities in the 21st century over those who don’t adapt, and over those who don’t have the opportunity to.
The big questions we must now ask ourselves are how can we ensure that the 4ID and the subsequent job-skills revolution will lead to positive outcomes for those who might otherwise be excluded from opportunities to adapt?
Moreover, how can we ensure that the right skills and technologies are percolating into our communities and augmenting our own productive and creative capabilities? Rather than merely replacing human-labor and making tasks easier to automate.
Fab labs are a part of the solution
Fab labs are workspaces where people with common interests, often in computer science, machining and hardware development, science, and digital fields can meet, socialize, collaborate, innovate, and invent. These spaces are a critical grassroots element in fostering relevant job-skills amidst creative-destruction in the 4ID.
“To prevent the concentration of value and power in just a few hands, we have to find ways to balance the benefits and risks of digital platforms (including industry platforms) by ensuring openness and opportunities for collaborative innovation," Schwab writes, regarding the possible economic ramifications of the 4ID.
Fab labs were started by Neil Gershenfeld at the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT’s Media Lab around 2005, inspired by an MIT course called How to Make (Almost) Anything. The Fab Foundation is a US non-profit organization that emerged from MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms.
These fab labs are one way to provide communities with open opportunities to collaborate and innovate. According to the Fab Foundation: “First and foremost, public access to the fab lab is essential. A fab lab is about democratizing access to the tools for personal expression and invention.”
This global movement is growing. According to Fablabs.io, as well as data from Hackerspaces.org, there are between 1,200 and 2,000 fab lab-esque spaces that are currently operating around the world. Furthermore, analysts at Popular Science determined that there has been a 14 times increase in the number of 'Makerspaces' (similiar to fab labs) worldwide, since 2006.
Fab labs are explicitly founded on the principle that they offer access to a certain set of core tools. Many of these tools are the building blocks of 4ID technologies. A comprehensive list of fab lab tools can be found on The Fab Foundation’s website. These tools include 3-D printers, motors, laser engravers, vinyl cutters among many others.
WEF says the economic transformations of the 4ID “will lead to a net loss of over 5 million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies by 2020”. Already, MENA has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world. MENA countries also graduate fewer students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields annually, compared to other regions.
In tandem, the demand for 4ID relevant jobs is on the rise. According to WANTED Analytics, the number of global job ads requiring workers with 3D printing skills increased 1,834 percent in four years, and increased 103 percent from just 2013 to 2014.
In MENA, fab labs are scarce, but rock stars are emerging
3Dmena and Refugee Open Ware
Loay Malahmeh, cofounder and CEO at 3Dmena and a founding partner at Refugee Open Ware (ROW), says that the fab lab in Amman is “focussed on new venture creations coupled with community-driven training in advanced digital fabrication techniques that rely on additive manufacturing technologies and other breakthrough elements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
3Dmena is also developing another fab lab in Irbid, with the aim of engaging Syrian nationals and connecting them to existing Jordanian SMEs.
Dave Levin, founder and executive director at ROW, the humanitarian innovation consortium with the fab labs in Amman and Irbid, says that part of “ROW’s mission is to contribute to solving some of the biggest challenges that have historically plagued the Middle East, namely education and unemployment.”
ROW piloted its operations by co-creating 3D printed prosthetic limbs, such as an open-source Flexy Hand for a six-year-old Yemeni boy treated by Doctor’s Without Borders. When asked who his superhero was, the boy said, “Ben 10”.
Salman Oraibi is a cofounder at Fablab Bahrain, launched in 2014 in Adilya, with two other founders: Rafed Almannai and Ali Rajai. Oraibi's inspiration to spread the fab lab mantra in MENA developed at a young age.
“Since we were kids we were all passionate about invention on our own terms, but then there were no platforms for people to convert ideas into something physical and tangible, we’ve changed that.”
Oraibi believes that fab labs can have a greater impact on his country, “especially to transform the economy into manufacturing innovative products.” Oraibi knows that, “first, this kind of innovation requires a generation of people who are allowed to access these resources, [4 ID tools and technologies].”
For Oraibi, the movement is bigger than just Bahrain.
“Fab labs are all over the world, in Afghanistan, India, and Africa,” he said. "We are proud to be an active part of this global network, even as we focus on trying to spread the ideals of this movement in our own community, it is still very much about accessing a global network.”
Fablab Bahrain is one of five labs in MENA that offer (or are soon to offer) a diploma from the Fab Academy. The Fab Academy is a distributed and collaborative learning network that leverages 4ID technologies in fab labs around the world. Graduates are certified to set-up and operate fab labs.
Participants in the Fablab Bahrain program are offered a 16 week course to help jumpstart their knowledge of digital fabrication techniques. Diploma seekers learn to: design a circuit, mill it using a fine milling machine, solder the electronic components, program the project, and add some sensors, with the goal being that those who earn the diploma can perform all of those tasks in under four hours.
One of the oldest and most developed fab labs in MENA is Fablab Egypt, in Giza. The lab was the first in the Fab Academy in MENA and has gone on to support five other graduates of the Fab Academy.
Fablab Egypt and MIT have since worked together to install two labs in the first two STEM focussed schools in Egypt. In addition to that, Fablab Egypt took the responsibility of training teachers and over 850 students on using the machines and tools.
“Right after the revolution we were enthusiastic to do something beneficial for the community and for our country,” said cofounder and general manager at Fablab Egypt, Omar ElSafty.
Fablab Egypt’s founding moments came, according to ElSafty, when members of the Cairo Hackerspace team met two other founders who were seeking Fab Academy certificates, and they all collaborated to establish Fablab Egypt.
“We started with the goal of empowering Egyptians to make their own ideas into physical realities, converting mindsets from just consumers into producers… The two main drivers for us were: a lack of options for hands-on learning opportunities in Egypt, and limited opportunities for applied learning in engineering.”
“Back then, there was no fab lab community at all, people said we were silly and didn’t think we would succeed,” he said.
“We are proud that after starting this with our own money, and after two years, we became a sustainable business... Mainly, the revenue comes from workshops and training programs. In Egypt, we have over five locations and the capacity of the workshops and programs we provide is about 80 percent.”
Next, Fablab Egypt is establishing five mini labs in five smaller Egyptian governorates in collaboration with Mobinil. ElSafty says they are planning to build a mobile Fab lab as well, to move throughout underdeveloped governorates across Egypt.
“Everyone should have access to these technologies, this is about boosting the quality of education in Egypt so that we can participate in the 21st century economy," said ElSafty. “Those who control information control the world, but those who can spur imagination can own the future.”