Obstacles to Digital DIY (and risks from it): notes from Rome

On May 30st, 2016, we held in Rome a meeting to present and discuss some "Legal and regulatory barriers to large-scale digital DIY". Below is a bullet-list summary, by topic, of some of the most interesting issues emerged during the debate (*). This material, like the similar one collected in Greece or Veneto, will be useful input for our final models and policy guidelines on Digital DIY in Europe. We hope that it will stimulate more discussion and awareness on certain Digital DIY issues, and welcome any feedback about them.

The conflict inside all Fablabs (and single DiDIYers?)

Two conflicting positions, both equally present in the meeting:

  • the principle to acknowledge is that fablabs are purely places for hobbysts/personal activities, or experimental/research labs
  • calling makers "digital craftsmen" is misleading, when compared with the maker culture worldwide. In USA Maker Faire, even the last (least experienced/active) makers is already thinking that, someday, she will be like Steve Jobs"... "I'm interested in serial  production: digital design implies  serialization, and (mass) reproduction!"

Digital DIY and Makerspaces in (or "versus"?) workplaces

Digital DIY for companies

  1. According to the italian association of professional tools makers and distributors, due to end of investments the machinery in italian factories has sensibly aged in the last ten years
  2. Whether Digital DIY and automation will, in the long run, destroy italian jobs is still an open issue. At the same time, there is no doubt that today Italy has lost jobs because it has not invested in innovation. In the last 12 years there has been a huge decrease of low skilled workmen, a big increase of employees and skilled workers
  3. The real challenge there is to give more value to people, and have them increase/expand their skills: specifically, the system must favour the growth of digital/high-tech skills, which of course include Digital DIY
  4. Sending employees to work, or train, in fablabs, however, is not so easy:
    1. by and large, proposals for "agile work", or at least training (organized and paid for by one's employer's, at least) in external facilities like fablabs, are not welcome in companies.
    2. currently ongoing negotiations for renewal of the nationwide contract for mechanic industry workers include the proposed institution of a "right to training", which would consist of eight mandatory hours per year of training paid by employers, and even that is seen as too much
    3. another big obstacle in this sense is that italian employers retain full civil and penal responsibility for the safety of all places where they keep or send their employees.. including the fablabs where they may send such employees to get trained, which in most cases are not fully certified, or compliant, from such points of view

Digital DIY for for independent craftsment/single person businesses

The situation for these workers is even more complicated: using, even part time, digital fabrication machines may greatly increase, if not the profitability, the very possibility for many small businesses to survive, and in certain cases it may be the only option. However, according to current italian regulations, these businesses must have their own independent laboratory, and only use that space for their activity.
They must, that is, have a space exclusively devoted to that specific professional activity, compliant with all the corresponding workplace safety rules, inspectionable in any moment by a government employee. And they must have their own machines, even if they only use them a few hours a week. They cannot legally go to a fablab when they need it, and only pay for the actual use of space, or certain machines of that fablab.

Uncertainty from place to place

The situation is worsened by variability and uncertainty in the application of the same, or similar rules, in each region, province or town (as we already saw talking with Veneto fablabs): in Lazio fablabs are by default under the jurisdiction of the regional Productive Activities Department.

In Rome, however, depending on how they are formally constituted or what is their main formal goal (e.g. research vs prototyping vs training...) fablab/makerspaces with very similar activities and equipment may be considered "much safer" (that is less needy of control and regulation) than e.g. an indoor climbing gym, or as dangerous as to "you'd better have anti-explosion infrastructure and protection in place, you know, just in case..."

Makers: just like everybody else?

According to several participants, a big part of the problem is that the very definition of craftsman, artisan or single-person business is really obsolete. Others, however, (again, like in Veneto), point out that the burocratic/compliancy problems faced by makerspace managers are basically the same that, for example, woodworkers have to face.

    Are more/different laws needed? or less?

    The underlying topic was, not surprisingly, very debated. The main positions may be summarized as follows:

    • Italian laws and regulations are very complex, based on a vision of predicting and regulating in advance every possible situation, and forbidding everything that is not explicitly allowed
    • New or more specific rules are needed, period. The sooner the "lawless" phase of fablabs ends, the better. Deregulation may have perverse effect, like allowing existing illegal garment workshops, which may even exploit child labour, to become legal, by posing as "textile-oriented educational/recreational fablabs"
    • In such a landscape, the only solution is to group, that is to form a consortium, trade union, professional association or guild... of makers, and pool in it the resources to hire lawyers, lobbysts, etc, that make makers life simpler.
    • a less pessimistic vision is that there is no need of any new, or more specific laws that, for example, attempt to explicitly define and regulate makers (or, for that matter, any other specific, constantly changing "category"). If anything, laws must be made less heavy, because in Italy, existing laws already cover all possible cases. Civil responsibility as in traditional "consumer protection" scenarios only applies when there is profit, and in such cases the corresponding law applies. In all other cases, Article No. 2043 of the civil code applies, and that's pretty much it
    • a separate issue may be the one of environmental responsibility, that is how to deal with "makers activities" resulting in environmental pollution. This needs further study

    (*) all notes are grouped by topic, and each point synthesizes the comments, questions and remark of several participants. None of the information or conclusions reported here should be meant as official! Any errors in the transcription, especially in the last paragraph, are by the editor, and will be corrected as soon as they are noticed!