A pioneering institution, a trailblazing magazine, a legendary region and a networked culture. Fabrica’s new CEO talks us through the realignment and new outlook energizing the centre.

Fabrica is a communications research centre, based near Treviso, Italy. It is perhaps unique in its focus on communications, and in its model—it is an integral part of the Benetton group, and was an inspired creation of Luciano Benetton in 1994, yet most of its work is for others.

It hovers somewhere between a school, a studio, a research centre and a contemporary form of factory (‘fabrica’ from the latin, faber), and this comfort with ambiguity is highly characteristic of the place. Fabrica is comprised largely of young researchers (25 or under), drawn from all over the world. We pay their airfare, lodgings and food, a monthly stipend and access to Fabrica. They get into Fabrica on the basis of their portfolio, and a two-week trial. As a result, we end up with a highly skilled, highly diverse group of researchers which has a quite unique feel and capability.

I’ve been CEO since late 2012, and we’re now engaged with designing Fabrica to be a form of 21st century organization, something that can face this century on its terms. Unlike most other institutions with one foot in education, we do not have to organize in silos—we believe that new thinking and practice will come from the sparks that fly when different things collide—different craft skills, different perspectives, different cultures, different languages. As Marco Steinberg [Director of Strategic Design at Sitra] says, we have 18th century institutions facing 21st century problems—we aim to figure out what a 21st century organization might be.

This means a kind of transdisciplinary practice—beyond disciplines—which not only enables a richer decision-making environment, but also a facility with hybrid objects, hybrid media, hybrid organizations and hybrid spaces. We use ‘the studio’ as our organizing principle, suggesting as it does a kind of organization, a kind of space, a mode of enquiry and practice. Within that, we can increase the possibility of the filmmaker bumping into the coder, the product designer bumping into the musician, the journalist bumping into the graphic designer... Or rather, enabling the creative output of all these people, these disciplines, collide to form something entirely new. To go between, across and beyond the disciplines, as [developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean] Piaget had it.

But this is not just untrammelled creativity for the sake of it. While we make our own projects and products, we also work for others. And the research work we do is quite particular. Unlike most think tanks and research centres, we do not produce reports to convey our research—we make things. Making things tangible means making important decisions about how ideas might be realized, about how they become manifest, or sit within the world. Without making, research can stay nebulous, uncommitted, ill-thought-through. We make a series of tangible propositions to enable our clients and collaborators to poke at them, interrogate them, adopt and adapt them. And we aim to excel in communicating it.

For example.

With issue 86 of Colors focusing on journalism, the Colors team produced an extraordinarily diverse set of stories around the subject, and then told these stories by reinventing what the magazine as a physical ‘device’ for storytelling could be—foldouts, cutouts, pullouts, different sizes and qualities of paper stock and so on. Equally, we produced an interactive installation, the News Machine, which subtly unpicked the culture of contemporary news media at the Perugia International Journalism Festival. People could tweet to the machine, and then watch and listen in delight as various digital and analogue processes rendered their message into an accidental poetry, echoing the errors and anomalies that creep into our increasingly automated news media.

This vivid array of artefacts, interactions and events presented our solid and far-reaching research into journalism in a way that captivates and connects. It ensures our work cuts through. It ensures our work can be critiqued, discussed and built-upon.

Whilst it builds neatly upon Fabrica’s legacy, this practice of ‘research through making’ has become one of our organizing principles. It means every studio must be able to create almost anything—short of a large vehicle or building, anyway—and so it must organize via non-hierarchical networks. To do this in an Italian context is a challenge, as the culture can sometimes be innately hierarchical, and despite being a highly diverse organization, that context occasionally becomes explicit. Then again, Italian culture is also innately social, and the naturally easy flow of information and interaction around the building is a huge advantage.

But we’ve also made a few material changes to bring things together and dissolve hierarchy or unnecessary boundaries. We’ve massively increased the number of external lecturers and collaborators coming to visit, meaning a more diverse set of inputs present at Fabrica. We’ve created Project Meadow, an ideas competition for various spaces around Fabrica, leading to the sense that the building is a tool, a platform, something to be hacked on—rather than simply a ravishing view. That one of the winning entries was from our beloved caretaker Maurizio indicates the openness around Fabrica. The ‘Fabricanti’ got to make their own ‘Residents’ Handbook’, as a kind of survival guide to Fabrica, to be redesigned each year. And our internal strategy processes have taken the form of intense one-on-one conversations between all staff and the new CEO, and with a collaborative ‘ideas book’ given to everyone, littered with blank pages for comments, scribbles and suggestions. This is not the dreaded ‘change management’, which is a largely empty corporate process that has no place at Fabrica, but simply a mélange of open conversations, different practices and new projects which begin to sketch out a new organization.

In terms of culture-changing projects, we have some new areas of focus, all related to our role as a new kind of communications research centre.

The world of connected objects and spaces—known sometimes as ‘Internet of Things’ when it relates to objects, or ‘smart cities’ when it relates to buildings, infrastructure and spaces—is an emerging specialism. Given the unique asset of our building, a 17th century villa augmented and expanded upon by the legendary Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and the multidisciplinary group of researchers and makers that inhabit it, we aspire to create a world-class centre for imaginative, meaningful research into connected spaces. We can prototype on ourselves; in this sense, we are our own lab rats, learning daily what it might be like to live amidst connected objects and spaces.

Yet we need to alter our own understanding of our spaces too. Although Fabrica has a purpose-built campus for a communications research centre, the practices of communication have quite radically changed their modus operandi since the mid-90s. Where once communication at Fabrica was largely graphic design, writing, filmmaking, photography, music—all capable of being pursued individually to some extent, and relatively tidy, relatively abstract—now communication is within and between objects and spaces as well as media and people. Thanks to code and networks, ‘things’ can have character, narrative, and interaction embedded within them, as an inherent part of their fabric and behaviour. Objects and spaces can become infused with essence of internet. So our range of communication disciplines has become broader, deeper and messier, colliding with all those earlier modes. This is a good thing, but means we need to fundamentally rethink our space, and how we interact with it.

Pursuing this idea, we’ve partnered with London-based design firm BERG on a collaborative research project called Sandbox, using the BERG Cloud platform first seen underpinning their Little Printer product, and now augmented by ‘dev boards’ for a maker community—like ours. We’ve installed numerous BERG Cloud ‘bridges’ across the building, with which we can rapidly prototype connected products, exploring what it means to create objects that respond physically, and in real-time, to patterns of activity on the Internet and in the immediate environment. For BERG, given Fabrica’s creative community continually playing with the platform, this gives invaluable insight into what their platform might be capable of, where its conceptual or physical limits are, how it performs in a complex building hosting a complex and diverse organization. For Fabrica, it places us at the cutting-edge of this emerging creative field. The relationship works both ways, and we intend to extend the Sandbox project to other colleges and studios accordingly.

Fabrica workshops often continue this idea of the building as platform. A recent workshop was facilitated by British artist and writer, James Bridle who worked with Fabricanti for three days, developing applications for low-altitude balloons, such as aerial mapping, sky-writing, and a form of low-cost disposable drone for manifestations. Coincidentally, Treviso (the nearest town to Fabrica) was the first place that balloons had been used in aerial warfare, in 1849; 164 years later, Fabrica spent a few days under a more benevolent form of attack, from Fabrica’s researchers armed with helium, GoPro cameras and balloons, under Bridle’s direction.

Equally, the building can become host to events in new ways. In June, we hosted a public speech by the famous anti-mafia writer and journalist Roberto Saviano at Fabrica. Saviano is well-known for writing Gomorrah, concerning the mafia’s grip on his hometown of Naples, the success of which led to him living under police protection. Given these conditions, we could only announce the event two days beforehand, yet 800 people filed into Fabrica’s central ‘agora’ to hear an impassioned speech by Saviano about his new book on the global cocaine trade, ZeroZeroZero. Never before in its almost 20-year history had Fabrica hosted so many people for an event; even given the unique draw of Saviano, it is clear that using the building as a platform in this way can also open up Fabrica.

Finally, we’re building the first real workshop at Fabrica, and just placed the order for our first 3D printers (via Formlabs, the Kickstarter-funded MIT spin-off.) We tend to use the Veneto region around us as our workshop, and we will continue to do so—it is abundantly stocked with some of the finest craftspeople in Europe, and we know where they live. However, we must also take advantage of new prototyping technologies that fit in the space between our drawings and those Veneto fabricators. In this way, we marry matured Italian craft tradition with cutting-edge (literally) rapid prototyping technology, Murano glass blowers with stereolithography.

So our understanding of what the highly abstract Internet of Things concept might mean becomes intensely physical and situated—articulated through functioning objects, through physical spaces, with real communities, and through actual events.

Another new area of focus for Fabrica will also speak to this vivid understanding of the network—how it is affecting our cultures of decision-making, of political organization and communication, of protest and activism. Our studio on networked politics will explore the potent combination of piazza and social media that link the diverse protests seen in Cairo, Istanbul, Rio, London, Madrid, New York, Athens and beyond, as well as the citizen-powered emergent urbanism of civic crowdfunding platforms. It will explore how the network might change the cultures of governance in Arabic city-states as well as European nation states. Again, practical prototyping will look to flush out how new platforms for civic literacy, helping ‘decode the city’, might help defeat corruption as well as engage more people in city-making. Media, apps and installations will be supported by public symposia and new publishing ventures.

As humans are social animals, communication defines what we are, and what we can be, and this includes social contracts, the relationship between citizens and governance. In the past, design and communications has often pretended to stand outside politics. Not only is this position disingenuous—or perhaps more charitably, childish—but it misses the opportunity for design and communications to be genuinely useful, to help address the uniquely 21st century issues and opportunities that our existing institutional approaches appear to have no answer to. For Fabrica, a communications research centre, re-drawn along 21st century lines as a networked organization, this opportunity to make a difference—no matter how small the difference—is too great to pass up.

These new areas of focus will sit alongside Fabrica’s existing agenda, such as our highly successful design studio’s work producing artefacts in order to tell stories of people in places, or our award-winning documentary work, or the strong body of work emerging around sound, code and interaction design, or our provocative campaigns for social change, or our ground-breaking photojournalism, or the ongoing, and highly-acclaimed, reinvention of Colors, one of the most influential magazines of all time.

Re-oriented as dedicated transdisciplinary studios, rather than the discipline-oriented departments common to most existing organizations, these themed units work as networks, pulling in expertise and collaborators where necessary, expanding and contracting to fit the size and shape of the problem at hand, and constantly in flux, with researchers coming and going throughout the year. They are able to draw on the global network of almost 600 Fabricanti alumni, dotted across the globe from Malaysia to Manhattan.

All of these activities speak to the changes within communications since Fabrica was founded—how the network is changing almost every aspect of how we live, work and play, and how understanding and developing new forms of communication has never been more important. We have a lot to learn.

Hybrids can be hit and miss. The original Swiss Army Knife brings a valid combination. The Pontiac Aztek... not so much. There is, however, much value in a well-thought-out hybrid—whether for an organization, a space, an object or a person’s path—when it brings more agility and resilience. Fabrica is such a hybrid, upgraded and remoulded to adapt quickly within a networked society. Such combinations draw our attention time after time and are mainstays of the world as we envision it. Dan also took some time with us to look deeper into other components of today’s landscape, addressing Dark Matter, design, diversity and the spinning of myths in the interview that follows — AR

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