Neil Gershenfeld, physics professor at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and the creator of the Fab Labs, is touring to promote his new book, Fab: The Coming Revolution On Your Desktop.I have his book, and will have a review in the coming days. He's speaking tomorrow night at the Bay Area Futures Society meeting in Palo Alto, but I got a preview of his talk tonight at my old stomping grounds, GBN. I won't try to relate everything that he said -- his talk relies on the visual presentation, and was a bit more wide-ranging and fast-moving than I could capture in my notes -- but I do want to pass on a couple of important observations.
[I encourage you to tune in tomorrow night to the streaming video of his talk. (Unfortunately, in order to support the anticipated demand for the stream, they're putting it out in Windows Media format. Good luck.) The talk is definitely worth paying close attention to; if he uses the same presentation at Friday's talk he used tonight, be forewarned that the beginning can be a bit confusing, but it all becomes clear later.]
The underlying logic of the Fab Labs is this subtle observation: "For all the attention to a digital divide, there's an instrumentation and fabrication divide that's even larger." It's important to make access to information as widespread as possible. But as we noted here the other day, innovation -- the application of new ideas -- is the critical development catalyst. Without tools for making real the new ideas access to information inspires, recipients of inexpensive computing devices and cheap access to the Internet are little better off than before.
Gershenfeld related the roadblocks he's encountered while trying to bring Fab Labs to more places around the world. Research funding doesn't support development aid; aid funding doesn't support research. The World Bank, the National Academy of Sciences, even the Pentagon all found the Fab Labs fascinating and clearly valuable, but ultimately not in their purview of support. For Gershenfeld, the catalyst for their spread will have to be bottom-up, in the marriage of microfinance (which functions as a bank, and tries to minimize risk) and venture capital (which actively seeks out risk, but with great potential upside). These "micro-venture" outfits would (like VCs in the developed world) provide financial seeds for risky start-ups, but would (like microloans in the developing world) only need to put out relatively small sums of money. Gershenfeld called it "Silicon Valley at the scale of the village."
Welcome to the era of the Silicon Village.