In Italy, as in most other developed economies throughout Europe and elsewhere, the 20th century was a century of profound change.
Globalisation brought material abundance and international standardization, but also stagnancy and unemployment; universal education brought general literacy, but ultimately failed to reduce inequality; industrialization brought wealth and efficiency in production, but also disrupted centuries-old social patterns structured around the practice of making things. At the beginning of the 21st century, throughout the "developed world", comparative material wealth goes hand in hand with an increasingly disengaged relationship with the process of production. The simple, primordial act of making things, of taking control of one’s environment - formerly one of the distinguishing features of a country like Italy, famous for being the custodian of a significant proportion of the world’s artistic heritage - is regarded as risky, complicated and best left to professionals.
As a consequence, a sense of deep disengagement separates citizens from their civic realm, disincentivizing them on multiple levels from the possibility of direct action towards its improvement. By the same token, a lack of confidence in their creative abilities permeates citizens in general and the younger generations in particular. The rise of the maker movement and the popularity of fab labs is perhaps an early indication that this generational crisis has reached an apex and that the pendulum might now be preparing to reverse its course, but such is the vastity and complexity of the econo-bureaucratic apparatus disincentivising individuals from substituting their own efforts to the convenience of readily available products and services that few take the trouble.
One of the primary methods that can be used to address this issue is to create and maintain the “climate of confidence” which has an integral role in the framework. Not everyone is going to become a designer or an electrical engineer – and it is not the vocation of these spaces to encourage them to. However, a form of sociality structured around collaborative creativity is crucial to cultural innovation and experimentation. The goal of many fab-labs is to provide training for an assortment of techniques in a supportive environment that fosters creative risk-taking.
“For newcomers and long-term project holders alike, participation in community life is another significant aspect contributing to increased self-confidence and individual creativity. Teamwork is a natural by-product at a Fab lab because each individual has his or her own special area of expertise (electronics, woodcutting, sewing, or the simple desire to learn and participate). Peer learning is a common approach at Fab labs. Intra- and inter-Fab lab exchanges are common, with co-operative projects drawing on the skills and expertise of users from different labs”.
Questions around the validity of institutionally-sanctioned learning are not new and have been questioned for centuries. Leonardo himself referred to himself as omo sanza lettere — an “unlettered man” — because he had not received the kind of liberal arts schooling that led to the university. He himself argued it was his lack of indoctrination into the reigning dogma taught in these institutions that liberated him from mental restraints. Unimpeded by the accretion of misconceptions that had fogged the lens of the educated, Leonardo was able to ask key questions and seek fresh answers. Although he could not quote learned books, he promised, “I will quote something far greater and more worthy: experience, the mistress of their masters.”