Why you should care

Because messages of tolerance can sometimes arrive on wheels.

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The small towns of rural Saxony are some of the poorest places in Germany. The former East has faced many challenges since the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago: brain drain, high unemployment, rising violence from the far right.

But a mobile “makerspace” — a big black bus of creativity — is bringing a message of tolerance to schools in small Saxon towns. And it’s all about tech entrepreneurship. In the Fabmobil, kids learn how to create their own futures using 3D printers, laser cutters and laptops. 

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At the festival Datenpuren in Dresden Saxony.

Source Fabmobil

It started as a crazy idea hatched in 2016 by two friends, Sebastian Piatza and Christian Zöllner, who were already working together as designers — both are originally from towns in Eastern Saxony. They pitched the idea of a mobile makerspace at re:publica, a big Berlin tech festival, and attracted funding from regional government agencies and foundations. The crew found a double-decker tour bus for €30,000 and then put in twice that for repairs and upgrades. (If they had to do it all over again, they’d buy a newer bus, Piatza says.) 

“Saxony is really important to us,” Piatza says. Rather than try to get kids into bigger cities with more resources, “we bring the tech to the kids.” He calls it the democracy of tools. 

Today, the 18-ton black bus is packed with creativity resources. On the main floor, multiple 3D printers allow students to build trinkets to their exact specifications: a golden snitch, a Pokemon ball, lots of little skulls. And there’s also a full-size laser cutter and a big stash of wood and plastic sheets to cut or engrave. On the bus’ second floor, students can focus on design with a collection of books and laptops. A CNC router (computer-controlled cutting machine) and other tools fill every nook and cranny.

When the Fabmobil departs for its next destination … it leaves behind a 3D printer for the school — and a posse of students who know how to use it.

When I visited in May, the Fabmobil was parked at a school in Schirgiswalde, a town an hour east of Dresden, and a group of 16 teenagers were wrapping up their projects. It was loud — as you’d expect — but there was a strong creative vibe in the chaos. Two ninth-grade boys were rushing to finish a simple video game they’d made with a Calliope Mini, a tiny computer with a 25-pixel light display. They’re thinking about studying electrical engineering or computer programming when they’re older.

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At the festival Datenpuren in Dresden Saxony

Source Fabmobil

The Fabmobil is politically independent, but creating a space that welcomes everyone, regardless of ethnic background, sexual orientation or creative ability, is itself a political act. The far-right Alternative for Germany party is more strongly represented here than anywhere else in the country, and the nation has seen a recent rise of violence against immigrants. 

Makerspaces create “an environment where one can find a community with very diverse backgrounds and skills to learn from,” says Vickey Twomey-Lee, maker advocate for Dublin Maker, an initiative in Ireland. In the past decade, these kinds of creative spaces have been rising in popularity, especially in conjunction with libraries. However, going mobile brings the opportunity for more rural communities “to experience what it’s like to share, experiment and make things in an environment like a makerspace,” Twomey-Lee adds.

On tour, the bus is staffed by a pair of leaders, selected from a pool of 16 designers, engineers or artists. During a visit, the Fabmobil parks for three or four days — the first day is mostly instruction, then the kids spend the rest of the time working on projects. “As soon as we leave the schools, they ask us when we’ll be back,” Piatza says. “And the young people don’t want to take recess. That’s how we know it’s working.”

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Fabmobil designers Christian Zöllner (left) and Sebastian Piatza, with engineer Jens Beyer (right).

Source Fabmobil

When the Fabmobil departs for its next destination, with all of the tools fastened or packed away, it leaves behind a 3D printer for the school — and a posse of students who know how to use it. (Most of the Fabmobil funding comes from local, state and national foundations and government programs, as well as donations.) And the group also assists towns who want to set up makerspaces, with the hopes of creating a network throughout the region. “That’s our plan for world domination,” Piatza says.  

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