Fab Labs or Fab Fads: A critical assessment of the potential of the lab Fab Lab Network to influence traditional manufacturing towards circularity

Katrine Jul Nielsen & Tim van den Bergh

Student thesis: Master thesis


The purpose of this study is to understand how the Fab Lab Network, as a global network of distributed digital fabrication laboratories, could influence traditional manufacturing towards circularity. The potential of the Fab Lab Network as a social impact innovation system is well known (UNCTAD, 2017), yet its potential in regard to circularity has not yet been extensively explored. The literature suggested that this Network and its subsequent Fab Labs can function as innovation niches that bring forth new socio-technical configurations towards circularity. It is then through their interaction with the traditional manufacturing regime that a shift from linear to circular production could be brought forth (Geels & Schot, 2007). This study is qualitative and exploratory by nature, following an abductive research approach. Due to the complexity and scale of the case, it would not have been valid to impose any considerations beforehand, rather letting the data speak. To this end 21 semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with key actors from the Fab Lab Network, with 18 nationalities present to represent the global scale of the Network. In analysing the data theories and concepts from the fields of Socio-technical Transition Theory, the Multi-Level Perspective, Strategic Niche Management and Mainstream & Grassroot Innovations were used. By defining the Network as a socio-technical phenomenon a technological sub-system allowing for circularity has been identified, while the divergences in visions within the social sub-system hinders a coherent effort towards this. This is due to the niche instability resulting from the niche internal processes not being in support of circularity. As such the Fab Lab Network, in its current shape, has to be appreciated as an innovation system that empowers entrepreneurs and students to start circular businesses, and to a lesser extent shows promise to develop new organic materials for production processes. However, currently, the Fab Lab Network does not provide a complete case, lacking the scale, scope, complexity and stability, as to establish a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing. Therefore, in answering the research question: To what extent can the Fab Lab Network influence traditional manufacturing towards circularity? The concluding answer is that the Network has a limited ability to exert influence: in an incremental emergent transformative manner, as a coherent effort towards circularity is lacking.

EducationsMSocSc in Organisational Innovation and Entrepreneurship , (Graduate Programme) Final ThesisMSc in International Business and Politics, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2020
Number of pages134
SupervisorsKristjan Jespersen