The Fab City concept – short version
Several global trends are shaping the present: climate change, a never-ending waste of resources, global supply chains, a world-spanning digitisation and a massive change in the world of work. These trends are mutually reinforcing, and the Corona pandemic has exacerbated them since 2020. At the same time, more and more people worldwide are moving to cities because the prospects of finding a job are better here than in rural regions. Currently, 50 percent of the world’s population already live in cities, and by 2050 this could be 70 percent.
However, cities or urbanised regions do not yet operate sustainably: their share of greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption is very high; and they are the hubs of globalised consumption and worldwide data flows, which in turn devour more and more energy.
However, this is an opportunity: while the international community has made little progress in environmental and climate diplomacy, it is much easier to set the course for a sustainable future in cities. What’s more, they are the places where alternatives to the current form of globalisation with all its problems are already being tested worldwide. This is precisely where the concept of the Fab City comes in.
Put simply, a Fab City is a city that increasingly manufactures everything it needs and consumes itself. The long-term goal of the global fab city initiative is to make the transition to a data-based circular economy on the territory of a city or region by 2054. Ideally, only data sets would then be imported and exported – energy, raw materials, materials, semi-finished products and products, on the other hand, would circulate within the city area itself, recycled, reassembled.
Firstly, it would be ecologically sustainable because the city can control its resource consumption and thereby keep its ecological footprint under control. Secondly, it would be economically sustainable because it promotes local value creation and is no longer dependent on global supply and commodity chains, the vulnerability of which to interruptions was recently demonstrated by the Corona pandemic. In this kind of globalisation, it is not large corporations like Amazon that get the profits, but local actors. And thirdly, it would be socially sustainable, because city dwellers would no longer be consumers of things produced elsewhere, but would be closer to the creation of value – which in turn would strengthen social cohesion. What’s more, the creativity of the entire urban society can unfold to an unprecedented extent.
The fact that the Fab City is not pure utopia is due to several developments. More and more open hardware and software is available – open means that construction, codes and use are freely accessible to all. This increasingly lowers the acquisition costs for means of production and more and more people can acquire technical know-how. The digitisation and networking of machines in turn makes it possible to no longer mass-produce things in a few places, but to manufacture them in a distributed and decentralised manner according to local needs. The data sets for manufacturing can be exchanged and adapted to local needs. With Maker Spaces, Fab Labs and Open Labs, the first prototypes for local production sites have emerged in recent years, where many actors can participate in the production of things. And these open production places can become the model for a new, decentralised infrastructure in the entire urban area. In addition, existing economic structures, especially crafts and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), can have a synergetic relationship with this production system.
Conclusion: As a Fab City, the urban economy can leave behind the current PITO model, for “Products In – Trash Out”, and move to the DIDO model, for “Data In – Data Out” (more on this below). Hamburg’s economy can benefit enormously from this.
In the 2010s, a network of open labs, research institutions and small companies emerged in Hamburg that have already gained experience with the above-mentioned developments. They form the Fab City Hamburg community, which aims to actively promote and expand the concept in the coming years. The community has become institutionalised with Fab City Hamburg e.V., founded in 2020.
If you want to be part of it, write to us!
The Fab City concept – detailed version
– The transformation to a bits-based circular economy
– From the digital transformation to the circular economy
– Scientific foundations
– What this means for the Hamburg economy
– What it means for ecologically sustainable development
– Practical examples
– Fields of action – Bits-based circular economy
The concept of the Fab City is an answer to several challenges: Resource waste, climate change, non-resilient global production chains, changes in the world of work and digital transformation. Consistently pursued, it enables Hamburg not to tackle these challenges in isolation, but to solve them step by step in a network. The concept of the Fab City can be broken down to the target of realising a circular economy by the middle of the 21st century with the help of globally networked digital manufacturing – which is ecologically, economically and socially sustainable at the same time. That is an ambitious goal, no question. But the means must be as radical as the circumstances demand. For the internet of things (atoms) will bring about a more profound change than the internet of information (bits) we are familiar with today has done: more opportunities, but also more risks than commonly assumed. This makes it all the more important to have a valid plan.
The shift to a bits-based circular economy
The transformation to a bits-based circular economy can be summed up strikingly with the catchphrase “PITO to DIDO”. PITO stands for today’s economy: Product In – Trash Out, which means: products in, trash out. This is neither sustainable nor resilient. The following graphic illustrates this way of doing business:
The alternative model presented by the global Fab City initiative is called DIDO: Data In – Data Out, in other words: data in, data out. This means that only data (bits) circulate globally, while substances (atoms) remain in the respective urban circular economy.
In the future, globally digitised information (bits) will circulate to close material cycles (atoms) locally. In good Hamburg tradition, the Hanseatic City should secure a central role as a transhipment centre (port/platform) by creating capacities for the co-design of globally used platforms for the exchange of bits. See “Digital Infrastructure – Hamburg as a Safe Haven of the 21st Century Global Bits-based Circular Economy.” below.
In particular, digitally-enabled manufacturing is already revolutionising industrial production. A trend towards local manufacturing can be foreseen. So the question is not really whether the city will manufacture more locally, but rather how. In particular, who owns or controls the physical (microfactories/open labs/fab labs) and digital (platforms) infrastructure for this. Should it be local operations of Amazon, Huawei or any other single mega-player? Who sets the framework conditions for the platforms on which the bits for local digital production are exchanged?
What is clear is that whoever owns the infrastructure has the power to decide how centralised the value creation and profit generation is. Amazon, for example, has displaced large parts of the book trade and centralised its once local value creation. Other jobs have been created, but research here sees a qualitative polarisation of labour into many precarious jobs on the one hand and some specialised professionals on the other (see Butollo’s Amazonisation of industrial labour).
However, this development is not inevitably determined. The state, in coalition with actors with overlapping goals (Fab City network), can set framework conditions and intervene in a guiding way so that local value creation continues to take place and thus a basis for taxation and action remains for the state.
Open source technologies play a fundamental role here. They are the vehicle for decentralised and local (subsidiary) value creation. The more the state invests in opening up the source of basic technology, the more decentralised and local the value creation becomes, the “healthier” the local market is.
The concept of the Fab City involves decentralising economic structures as far as it makes sense from a European understanding of values (rule of law, separation of powers, human dignity, data sovereignty, individual freedom and prosperity, etc.). Similar to previous technological-economic revolutions, it must be ensured that the new infrastructure – like canals, roads, border crossings and certain institutions in the past – does not exclusively serve individual but collective interests. As a tendency, those who are affected by (or dependent on) it should have control.
By allowing Hamburg’s Economics Senator Michael Westhagemann to join the network of global Fab Cities in June 2019, the Hanseatic city has begun to address the challenge outlined above.
A total of 34 cities and regions currently make up the global Fab City network.
Since July 2019, more than 30 Hamburg actors such as universities, accelerators, educational institutions and open workshops have come together and developed the following plan.
For a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the Internet of Things and the Digital Transformation, we recommend the work of Benedikt Seidel, “The Theory of Harnessing the Digital Transformation through a Mission-Oriented Coalition” (2020).
From the digital transformation to the circular economy
The digital transformation changes the chance of realising a circular economy. A distinction must be made between the cycle of bits (digitised information) and atoms (such as tangible objects and human actions). The global reproduction (copying) of bits (information) has low marginal costs. Therefore, the best economic solution is to make access as free as possible (open source). An investment in open source technologies can therefore have high multiplier effects (see India’s use of open source). Atoms therefore circulate locally (circular economy) and bits (information, such as construction plans, design and repair instructions) globally.
The local reproduction of a certain arrangement of atoms (such as the use of a blueprint for digital manufacturing), on the other hand, has higher marginal costs. From a microeconomic point of view, open-source technology can therefore create value or make a profit locally, which benefits the crafts sector, for example. For this, however, the state must ensure competition in the market and prevent monopolies and oligopolies, which it can do best if it retains direct influence on the infrastructure and does not cede it to private mega-players like Amazon or Huawei. Source opening of technology lowers market entry barriers, which benefits SMEs. This creates the opportunity for many good jobs in Hamburg.
With cryptotechnology, the creation of incentives (cryptotechnology is helpful for this, see Fab Chain) and for marketing motivation (e.g. Tesla sets standards with open source and dominates key technologies), companies make designs (bits) available. Network effects lead to major first mover advantages. Example is Facebook: The programming code of the front-end offer is relatively simple. Added value for users comes from the size of the network. The investment of the City of Hamburg at this early stage is therefore comparatively small. At a later stage, when there is a larger established network, Hamburg would no longer be able to cope with this investment.
The following scientists have contributed significantly to the concept of the Fab City with their research work:
Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press,
Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press,
Perez, C. (2003). Technological revolutions and financial capital. Edward Elgar Publishing, and
Redlich, T. (2011). Wertschöpfung in der Bottom-up-Ökonomie. Springer-Verlag.
What this means for the Hamburg economy
From the increasing digitisation of value creation, global competition is initially intensifying. Economic players are less and less separated by geographical or other barriers. Everyone competes with everyone else in real time. A global market operating on its own terms, which, as indicated above, owns the infrastructure for the exchange of bits. Without an economic policy framework, there is a risk of centralisation in this market of platforms, i.e. an oligopoly or even a monopoly. Two questions therefore arise:
1. How can smaller economic players hold their own?
It is clear that small Hamburg players (compared to Apple or Huawei) will have a hard time holding their own in the global bits-based competition of the 21st century economy. SMEs therefore need access to high-tech technologies (source openness and interoperability of basic technologies) in order to be able to develop faster (leapfrogging) and to secure skilled workers (education). This would mean lowering the capital intensity of market entry and better position Hamburg SMEs globally.
2. Who controls the infrastructure?
Hamburg can still become the safe haven for the global bit-based economy of the 21st century. If the Hanseatic city does not act now, another player, probably privately (USA) or state (China) backed, will become so dominant (network effects) that it would exceed Hamburg’s financial possibilities to build up a competitor. It is then difficult to regulate afterwards. This does not mean that the Hamburg state itself has to provide the infrastructure, but it should support those platforms with which it has overlapping interests and values.
Gaia-X (European data infrastructure project of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology) could be a suitable candidate here, on which a Hamburg semi-public company is building a platform for exchanging and generating bits in cooperation with other Fab Cities. This is explained in more detail in the section Digital Infrastructure – Hamburg as a Safe Haven of the Global Bits-based Circular Economy of the 21st Century.
If Hamburg invests in key open source technologies, the Hamburg economy benefits on several levels. For example, Hamburg would position itself as a global pioneer, which would attract skilled workers and companies.
What this means for ecologically sustainable development
The concept presented here influences the innovation process and thus economic growth in a socio-ecologically sustainable direction by opening up and spreading the empowerment to innovate. In this way, the innovation process is influenced by a broader spectrum of interests and thus the economy tends to become more regenerative. In concrete terms, this means fewer CO2 emissions and the closing of material cycles (circular economy).
It is essential to think about the circular economy not only from the end, but also from the beginning, i.e. from product design, or even from marketing (regulation), corporate accounting or education. In future, product development should also take place on platforms for globally distributed and collaborative product development, where the incentives are set in such a way that products with life-time design (eternal life cycle) can be manufactured locally in open labs. What is needed is a mixture of a Wikipedia for hardware and a GitHub/GitLab for hardware. The Manufacturing Technology Laboratory (HSU) has the necessary know-how for this and is in global exchange with partners so that no silo “solutions” are created.
Open source machinery and commons-oriented governance (cf. Ostrom 1990). Replication through open source hardware building workshops and a train-the-trainers principle. Local value creation through implementation of bits-based global information circuits.
Here are some typical devices of the open source machine park in an Open Lab:
3-in-1 Machine (mill cut, 3D print, laser cut)
D3D-Universal Prototyp (Open Source Ecology)
Sheetpress (Precious Plastic)
Libre Solar Box (Libre Solar Technologies GmbH – Hamburg)
We are participating in the development of Open Source Ecology’s Global Village Construction Set:
Fields of action – Bits-based circular economy
1. Open workshops with digital manufacturing (Open Labs)
The core component of a Fab City is a decentralised manufacturing infrastructure consisting of open workshops with digital manufacturing (OWDF), also called Fab Labs, Makerspaces, or Open Labs. In an OWDF, almost anything can be manufactured at a low threshold with machines such as 3D printers and CNC machines. The Manufacturing Technology Laboratory (LaFT) at Helmut Schmidt University (HSU) has acquired great competence in research and practice in this and related areas over the last 10 years. This competence should be used to establish several OWDFs in Hamburg. Examples are given in the funding document.
2. Digital Infrastructure – Hamburg as a Safe Haven for the Global Bits-based Circular Economy of the 21st Century
Hamburg could play a significant role in the development of the digital infrastructure of global bits-based digital manufacturing by contributing resources to the networking and further development of existing platforms and offerings. The more resources flow into this, the more Hamburg will become a central hub of the bits-based circular economy and be able to help shape its development. This would ensure Hamburg’s positioning as a global innovative power. As a central hub of the bits-based economy, Hamburg could also expand its image as a port and gateway to the world.
In concrete terms, Hamburg would have to set up a team that can make this contribution. If necessary, it would make sense to build Hamburg’s contribution on the Gaia-X ecosystem of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology as the technical component of the backend. This would ensure data sovereignty and security (European values). Trustworthiness is an essential element to attract the different user communities, which are currently still fragmented into many silos.
3. Sustainable intensification of agricultural production and (re)generation of soils (making agriculture attractive again)
Introduction to the topic of open source technology and agriculture, as example the “Open Source Story: Farming for the Future”:
4. Decentralised energy production
For a consistently decentralised approach, in addition to production (manufacturing in factories, workshops), the energy supply should also be decentralised. Energy efficiency losses compared to mass production can be counteracted by low marginal costs and replicable energy production plants. Fab City Hamburg start-up Libre Solar Technologies GmbH is leading the way here.
In contrast to many consumers in the household, whose use cannot be shifted well in time, industrial processes could be adapted to the available renewable energy in the future.
To explore this possibility, the OpenLabs are to be networked with local energy production. A cellular approach to energy production is to be pursued, in which resilient, decentralised energy cells are integrated into the existing power grid. Each energy cell consists of energy storage (e.g. lithium-ion batteries), energy generators (in urban regions mainly photovoltaics) and smart consumers. Normally, each cell interacts with the power grid, but it can also be operated autonomously and provide the basic demand for energy independently of the power grid.
Approaches for such energy cells have already been developed by Libre Solar Technologies GmbH as part of Fab City Hamburg. At its core, the approach is based on direct current grids (so-called DC nanogrids). Since all electronic components are developed as open source technology, they are suitable for decentralised production and commons-based further development.
For the connection of the nanogrid to the AC grid, a bidirectional inverter is currently still missing. This component is to be developed as part of the Fab City Hamburg project.
Children are often still open-minded and interested in STEM topics (mathematics, computer science, natural science, technology). The access to these topics decreases with increasing age, whereby between 10 and 16 years of age there is usually only a very low level of interest. At the same time, STEM education is becoming increasingly important for young people in order to successfully complete vocational or university-oriented training, even as technological progress continues, and thus to counteract a shortage of skilled workers in this subject area in the long term.
To this end, concepts and structures must be created to get young people excited about STEM again and to show them career prospects in this field. This is possible by showing young people key technologies and training them in their use. Such technologies include digital manufacturing, such as additive manufacturing/ 3D printing. This is where the present concept comes in. Beyond the ability to use digital devices, adolescents should acquire a comprehensive, collaborative and critical understanding of information technology and the implications of its dissemination for democracy. The concept outlined below creates an offer for young people, especially those between the ages of 10 and 16, that provides them with such knowledge at a low threshold.
This concept envisages enabling young people to get excited about STEM topics in open workshops with digital fabrication (OWDF). Ultimately, an OWDF should be set up in every neighbourhood. However, these do not have to be as extensively equipped as those described in the strategic field “decentralised manufacturing infrastructure”. The focus here is not on the manufacture of high-quality products, but on the low-threshold acquisition of key skills. Simpler and altogether fewer machines per OWDF are sufficient for this.
At present, there are isolated initiatives in this direction in Hamburg, but a systematic and comprehensive infrastructure does not yet exist anywhere. Thus, the core of this concept is to establish a procedure that creates such an area-wide offer. The newly created OWDFs are to be operated by dynamic communities in which the students are integrated. The concept is to realise this by having students, with the help of their teachers and specially trained instructors, build elementary machines for such workshops within the framework of kick-off events. The expertise gained during the construction should be brought into the existing OWDFs or those that are being founded. The construction should take place directly in the premises of the open workshops. In order to be able to carry out these kick-off events, the multipliers must be trained in special courses. These courses can be held at the HSU, where similar courses have already taken place. By making such a significant contribution to an OWDF, it can be assumed that students will identify with the extended OWDF and develop an intrinsic interest in regularly going to their neighbourhood OWDF.
A crucial partner for this is the Hamburg Social Authority, which can arrange for OWDFs to be set up in open children’s and youth facilities. In addition, the school authority for educational institutions and open book halls, for example, are ideal partners.
6. Re-generation of resources, life-time product design and support for free and open source platforms
he (re)generation of resources means closing material cycles. In Hamburg, for example, there are smaller initiatives such as repair cafés, but also larger organisations that are ideally suited for implementing ideas in this field.
Life-time product design means products that are built in such a way that they can always be repaired and adapted to changed usage requirements. Open innovation is crucial here. The more the users of the products are involved in the innovation process, the more their interest in sustainable products gains weight.
Open innovation is supported through the support of free and open-source platforms.