While traveling through the states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil last week, I often found myself dwelling on the challenges and intricacies of the supply chains of various goods and services in both the densely populated cities and the sparse, remote areas that I visited. As far as emerging markets are concerned, Brazil is one of the most developed, but its infrastructure—though rapidly developing—and its trade policies dictate that goods are often priced at a premium to their perceived fair market value. For years, multinationals have struggled with the challenges confronting distribution in markets such as Brazil, but what about the local entrepreneurs and manufacturers?
I spent two days on Ilha Grande, an island paradise a few kilometers away from the mainland, 45 minutes by high-speed water taxi. Everything anyone could need – tourists and locals alike – had to be brought in by boat. I watched from the pier as crates of food, souvenirs and various widgets were hauled in by hand, one load at a time. Not only are these goods more expensive because of the high costs incurred in transporting them to an island – as Manhattanites can testify – but they also dictate a larger environmental footprint.
I was reminded of a recent talk at Digital Capital Week where RTKL architect Kashuo Bennett discussed the concept of “fab labs”, small-scale fabrication laboratories that democratize manufacturing by providing local innovators with access to digital fabrication technology and rapid prototyping. Fab Labs, which originated in MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, have opened in dozens of countries around the world, and their potential applications in developing countries and remote regions are particularly interesting. Instead of paying significant premiums to move goods around the world to places such as Ilha Grande, perhaps local entrepreneurs could harness local Fab Labs to design, develop, and manufacture products.
The application of Fab Labs in developing countries and elsewhere holds numerous benefits, as well as significant challenges that cannot be ignored. Firstly, fab labs allow local entrepreneurs to stimulate the local economy. When goods from large multinationals are sold in a given market, that money flows back to the corporations, rather than staying in the local economy; however, if products are designed, manufactured and marketed locally, the economic benefit created stays in that market. Additionally, one can argue the sustainability aspect of manufacturing locally, as well as the benefits of educating, training and hiring local workers needed to manufacture Fab Lab products.
Granted, it is a pipe dream to think that any community could just give up trade and manufacture everything locally – particularly given the various resources and inputs needed to manufacture anything designed in a Fab Lab in the first place – but it does seem that there is significant momentum behind such movements, and myriad markets in which the application of such “local” elements could produce innovative solutions.