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The laboratory nurturing the creative minds that can help us all lead more sustainable lives

It is literally a place where great ideas become physical reality.

Where digital technology – 3D printers, laser cutters and world-class scanners, turn simple concepts into something you can feel, touch and be inspired by.

Welcome to Fab Lab Plymouth, a truly innovative ‘digital fabrication laboratory’ in the heart of the city, where designers, makers and creatives can see their visions turn into reality thanks to a suite of remarkable cutting-edge tools.

It’s home to the Smart Citizens Programme, which hosts a range of free events, workshops and training in digital design and fabrication, such as 3D printing and laser cutting.

This is just one of the select locations and programmes in Plymouth where the creative community’s next generation is being nurtured, being given the skills and platform to produce urgent new work that helps us understand our world better.

Fab Lab Plymouth and the Smart Citizens Programme, based at Plymouth College of Art, sits alongside locations such as The Market Hall and Immersive Dome in Devonport and the multiple buildings at the University of Plymouth where extraordinary creative talent is being fostered.

A collaborative network of organisations in Plymouth – joined together for the iMayflower project – is working together to support this upcoming creative community and the stories it has to tell.

And those stories are ever more urgent.

Creative solutions to global problems

Artists and creatives have always sought to help us understand our world better and inform how we shape it.

But never before has the creative community been needed so much to communicate the drastic change taking place in our natural world, and find innovative new solutions for us to live more sustainably.

In Fab Lab Plymouth, you’ll often find work doing just that by local groups and individuals – such as Art and Energy CIC, a collective of artists, thinkers and makers specifically responding to the climate emergency.

Formed in 2018, Art and Energy worked with 20,000 people in 2021 for the mass participation installation Moths to a Flame, shown at international climate conference COP26. It involved making thousands of moths, live-streamed moth-watching, upcycled craft activities, poetry, an illustrated story book and augmented reality colouring. It was turned into a breathtaking immersive installation at the Immersive Dome for the Illuminate festival, organised by Real Ideas, in 2021.

The remarkable project, an urgent call to action about the climate crisis that touched thousands across the UK, has its roots in iMayflower.

They first connected with Fab Lab Plymouth in 2019, forming the year before and joined by Plymouth College of Art graduate and glass artist Jenny Ayrton. In November 2020 Plymouth Energy Community and Art and Energy CIC launched a campaign with iMayflower partners CrowdFunder to hold free Moths to a Flame creative activities in Plymouth throughout 2021.

Theirs was one of seven within the Plymouth Climate Challenge hosted by Plymouth City Council – raising more than £45,000 – and they also hosted workshops for local people as part of the Smart Citizens Programme, where they learned to create their own sustainable illuminated artworks. During the workshops, participants learned new skills in reverse glass painting, soldering solar cells, computer aided design and laser cutting.

Transforming waste plastic into inspiring designs

Art and Energy are just one of an array of groups benefiting from the Fab Lab and Smart Citizens Programme, as well as the network of organisations supporting creatives as part of the iMayflower project.

In 2021, more than 300 local people visited ‘Fab City hubs’ in Plymouth for an open day – led by the Smart Citizens Programme at Fab Lab Plymouth. The Fab City initiative champions local production, circular economies, digital social innovation and global collaboration and its hubs include Digital Fabrication and Immersive Media Laboratories at the University of Plymouth, and The Market Hall in Devonport.

Creative solutions for sustainability was a core focus for the day, and exhibitors included the innovative Precious Plastics Plymouth.

They began working with Plymouth College of Art back in the lockdown summer of 2020, taking part in the Smart Citizens Programme ’s renowned Design & Make training at Fab Lab Plymouth

Now, they’re shredding plastic waste to mould it into new creations, in an inspiring ‘low tech’ way. They take your old plastic and turn it into useful things such as plant pots and buttons – skills they picked up at Fab Lab, where they returned in 2021 to to run a Smart Citizens workshop using CAD to create 3D printing moulds for long-term lasting items such as soap dishes.

They’re working alongside fellow iMayflower partners Real Ideas – the Plymouth-based organisation committed to finding solutions to social change.

They have a space at Real Ideas’ Ocean Studios and have started Real Ideas’ Start Something programme for new enterprises. They’re also working with the University of Plymouth to recruit students as volunteers and collaborate with staff, while their successful Crowdfunder – another iMayflower partner – has seen them raise £20,000 to upgrade their equipment and reach new communities.

The sustainable glassblowing revolution

The extraordinary array of equipment at Fab Lab Plymouth has given businesses, individuals and organisations the opportunity to literally ‘make’ their visions. But without the right people to train them, these great ideas of tomorrow would still be sat in the concept stage.

Step forward the Fab Lab team, including Principal Technician and Smart Citizens tutor Ian Hankey, who embodies its sustainable ethos and collaborative vision.

After initially leaving school with no qualifications due to undiagnosed dyslexia, Ian has since developed world-leading expertise in glass, including working in the glass industry for over 40 years, from his first apprenticeship at Pilkington Glass and later managing the hot glass workshop at the Royal College of Art and managing Teign Valley Glass Studios, to his work to establish in 2014 and subsequently manage Fab Lab Plymouth at Plymouth College of Art.

Ian is also the brains behind the Upcycled Glass Company, who collect waste glass that often cannot be recycled and turn it into handmade art and design products.

They use a mixture of new technologies, modern farming methods and historical glass mixing processes that go back to the 17th century from their farm in Dartmeet on Dartmoor.

So far £10,000 has been raised via a Crowdfunder, with £5,000 more awarded by Devon Climate Challenge to create the sustainable glass blowing workshop on the moors.

Alongside his work with glass, Ian has developed his own skills in the Fab Lab, learning specific and advanced CAD CAM processes, and researching historical glassmaking processes. 

Ian said: “Whether we like it or not, we’re living through a climate emergency. Everything I’ve seen and done in my life points to the fact that for every environmental problem that we solve, someone with money is going to come along and try to use that solution to create more money for themselves, undermining the positive change that could have benefited society.

“The only way to tackle societal problems of sustainability is to change the framework we’re working in and find new ways to work together. The Upcycled Glass Company CIC is my attempt to bring into the world one small part of the change that we need to live in a more sustainable way.”

The enormous challenge of raising our society’s sustainable standards and overcoming the climate crisis is overwhelming. But if a supported creative community can show us solutions founded in spaces where innovation is fostered, we stand a much better chance.

Find out more about Fab Lab Plymouth here and the iMayflower project to nurture a creative digital city here.

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