Paul Altidor is not the kind of person to shy away from a challenge, whether personal or professional. As Haiti’s former ambassador to Washington, D.C., he worked tirelessly to shift the public perception of his birth nation as little more than a destination for disaster relief. This built on his legacy as Vice President of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, focused on long-term stability for Haiti through job creation, workforce development, and the promotion of economic opportunity.
It was our pleasure to welcome Altidor to FAB23 Bhutan recently as a Keynote Speaker at our Economic Opportunity Symposium. And he was gracious enough to give us a bit of his time outside of the conference to discuss how the challenges he’s confronted over the course of his career might be applied across the Fab Lab network.
Fab Foundation: How can a Fab Lab become a catalyst for economic growth, sustainability, and perhaps even prosperity in communities around the world?
Altidor: Thanks to the Fab Lab concept, complex ways of making things have been democratized enough that your average person can now have access to this technology and use it to better themselves economically. This is a very powerful tool that people throughout the most remote locations can maximize. If they use it efficiently, this can be a turning point in the way development is tackled.
The network has been able to demonstrate the very idea that many folks, regardless of their background, can utilize those tools. And, if you look at the size of the network—there's more than 2,500 Fab Labs around the world connected together in some form—it's a testament to the ability of this community to grow and mature. So, it's reaching a lot of people. Now it's a matter of whether those who've been reached can use those tools to really transform lives where they are.
I have great expectations for the ability of this network. If these labs are properly deployed on the ground, they can really be transformational. And that's where I'm trying to put my time, my resources, and my knowledge—pushing the envelope and helping people address real needs and real challenges that they're facing on a daily basis. Fab Labs can be especially good avenues for creating opportunities that many young folks may not have seen on the horizon. Once these tools are made accessible, this can be a game changer.
Let’s explore that a bit further. Where might digital fabrication tie in with youth engagement?
The notion that folks in remote locations are now able to make things that would otherwise take a long time and a complex process to get to them is really disrupting the value chain of products that we utilize on a daily basis. In terms of its potential, I do think that this is revolutionary enough that it should and can be part of a curriculum for young kids, to help them develop an understanding, conceptually, of how things are made and their ability to make things themselves.
What if these tools and concepts were to become a mandatory aspect of the learning curriculum? If tackled strategically—putting these tools in the hands of young folks at an early stage of their learning process so the concept of making things becomes second nature—this could really facilitate the revolution that's already underway in digital fabrication.
I see a huge need for advocacy around the idea that these tools be part of the K-12 curriculum moving forward. And it's incumbent on those of us who are involved in this network to demonstrate what digital fabrication can really do. If that information is disseminated well and strategically targeted to educators, policymakers, and others, this could become an idea that everybody embraces.
For me, that's the next challenge: getting the message out there to ensure that transformative changes are happening where they are most needed. We’re barely scratching the surface of the network’s ability to be a catalyst for major changes around the globe. To reach a critical mass of people, I think it's a messaging issue.
What role should external funding play in enabling and strengthening this network?
For these labs to not just survive but eventually thrive requires financing. It requires a lot of intelligent capital. There needs to be engineering put in place so that these labs are not dependent on financial resources that have nothing to do with their particular challenges and goals. They need to be set up to be somewhat independent, not overly reliant on a charitable entity that may or may not be able to sustain them in the long run.
Aid money flowing into a country can do more damage than good if not utilized smartly. The intent of donors might have been really good, but I have witnessed up close the disastrous impacts of aid in a place like Haiti. Too often, donors are eager to throw money at a perceived problem, yet lack the proper understanding of the terrain where they are intervening. Aid agencies, governments, and philanthropic entities are a critical piece of this, but we need them to be smarter in terms of how they're using capital to fund this movement. And we, the Fab Lab community, need to focus on how we become sustainable enough so that this movement can go from where it is right now to the transformational change we’re hoping for. We need to ensure that the community of makers out there doesn’t lose sight of the ability to connect with the financial world to ensure that there's money for this movement to survive and then thrive.
For example, we’re in the process of opening a lab in Haiti, and we're trying to create an endowment so that the entity can actually live on its own. Hopefully, we can also commercialize a piece of it so that we become truly sustainable. We can’t allow the movement to lose its foundation simply because there's a lack of capital or a lack of interest on the part of funders.
There's a real need for collaborative effort between government, philanthropic entities, aid agencies, and the private sector, as well as the community of makers. We can take this from a simple movement of “making things” to something that becomes transformational for society. There needs to be more strategic thinking in our community—understanding that, yes, we are in the business of making things, but we must also be in the business of communicating intelligently enough so that we attract smart capital.
So much depends on effective communication. We must maximize our ability to really connect communities, understand and demonstrate how those connections enable us to thrive. There are so many things that Fab Lab communities around the world have in common, especially the challenges that we’re facing. If communicated properly—candidly and openly—we'd be surprised to learn how many of the solutions that we’re trying to find are within our reach. At this stage of the movement, communication has become a critical component of our success.