Looking to Providence for inspiration – again

For about a year I’ve been working with a tech-savy young man named Sam Antonaccio to find a way to use the latest communications and gaming technology to bring Lowell’s history to life for a new generation. As we wrapped up a meeting this past Saturday, Sam mentioned that he was heading to Providence with a group from Lowell to tour a place called AS220 which is described on its website as a “a non-profit community arts space in downtown Providence . . . that is part incubator and part bazaar.” Recalling how more than a decade ago, City Councilor Grady Mulligan similarly visited Providence and returned with the idea of artists live/work spaces, I asked Sam to send me an after-action report on the trip. Here it is:

In the mid 1990’s, a city councilor from Lowell brought a small delegation down to Providence, RI. In exploring the prospects of what an open citizenry of artists can contribute to the social economic condition of community and with the passing of time, Lowell began the process of replicating that model. Creating an artist district in the historic backdrop of our national park’s reserve we live by our motto that “Art is the Handmaid of Human Good”.

Over a decade later on a beautifully warm January day, a small gathering of Lowellians retraced those steps along with their newly elected Mayor. With youth and exuberance in step no consternation of formalities partook the reinvestigation of a thriving creative economy class. To truly understand the grandiose concepts of what is being created by the digital fabrication labs of AS220 and the possibilities that come with it, one may not need to travel as far. Neil Gershenfeld is a Professor at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms in Boston, MA. This was where the concept of modular low cost fab labs that can create and replicate themselves first took shape. While Lowell’s artisan community proliferated the causeways of canals, bridges and cobblestones in Lowell, Gershenfeld condensed and miniaturized the physicality and costs of his avant-garde take of science and math.

As a city we have always stood on the precipice between novelty and heritage; brought on by deeply shared immigrant identities and blue collar industriousness. Harnessing this spirit, in collaboration, letting it fuel a drive for progress not just for ourselves, but for our fellow kin, is intrinsic of the human condition seen throughout our local history. From Chief Passaconaway, Walker Lewis, Benjamin Butler, Miss Alice Parker, An Wang, and even the pride of Lowell Irish Micky Ward; they all paint a kaleidoscope patchwork of the city’s colorful history. Here one learns to dream big in the shadow of adversity, to take risk doing the hard thing, and face constant struggle. It gives humility to the true character of Lowell.

We learn that good works come from sweat equity. The recently updated Lowell Master Plan and in particularly adjunct of that; the 2007 Lowell Plan “On the Cultural Road… City of World Culture: Strategies for the Creative Economy in Lowell.” frames much of our discussion. Proposing a technologically progressive initiative, however grounded in a historical and cultural context that capitalizes on existing community strength is still a risk for doing the harder thing. In the existing infrastructure, we have the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Middlesex Community College. A budding collection of technically skilled designers and artists compounding with an ever increasing number of engineers in various fields of science; all of whom will likely go on to make our world a much more visually stimulating and interactive place to be in may sadly do it elsewhere. Why is there no draw bridge from the self-isolating ivory walled campus of UML? Why are MCC students somewhat disengaged and unaware of Lowell citizenry, young and old. Economic tough times are a shared burden and although the art has been a good medium to bring some of those communities closer, in some respects, the gap in the social backgrounds of the two cultures of what’s here and what’s out there widen over time. Commuting to Lowell makes for a distant memory of
late night ethnic fair to curb a hunger of stomach and mind. There is something missing; the bridging infrastructure is incomplete. For those visiting at a glance, it may seem Lowell has no heart or soul for the technologically inclined but again history tells otherwise. As our community is at a crossroad looking to the past to inspire a new future we see a story play out in partial vision; Lowell’s next renaissance. During the industrial revolution the city was alive with makers and tinkers of iron works and metal foundries producing some of the most beautifully sophisticated machinery of loco motions and gizmos that awe inspired. Contemporary culture is a hallmark of our fair city with its ability to blend new and old. Looking ahead to the future, digital fabrications labs are becoming my generation’s cultural history. When given to communities less fortunate they have the ability to solve problems we never knew existed.

Fab labs have become an international commodity for openness and understanding between cultures. In the past and even today, Lowell is a gateway city for the influx all the world’s refugees. Outside the realm of food and folk music our ethnic diversity has always been difficult to truly capitalize on. Peer 2 Peer technology (P2P) has changed that. In a globalized world made smaller by the Internet, a webcam in Cambodia and one in the U.S. is a classroom for a village. The modular nature of Fab Labs cross well into new time zones and are a humanitarian cause that brings third world countries to the digital age. They teach a community how to be self-sufficient, eco-friendly, and entrepreneurial. If Lowell wants to honor the title of gateway
city we will need to gather our existing ethnically diverse community and share with them the tools to teach their home countries. It’s a win-win situation for all. The cultural exchange increases our combined capacity to produce a much more productive, creative, sustainable and culturally aware society. The cost to build a fab lab is quite small in comparison to all the good it can do in the world. With pricing ranging from $5000 to $60,000 creates a mini fab lab to a standard sized lab, respectively. A cost benefit analysis would say it is a good short term social investment and long term financial one. So while we move forward in building the infrastructure that will bridge the gap between oceans something quite magical will begin to happen in our old Mill City. The self-imposing ivory walls crumble between the socially diverse and an understanding of collaboration organically
replicates itself here. If we are to weather the storm of economic uncertainty it is best done with friends and colleagues. With a modern twist on new found industries old gaps of understanding between separated pockets of communities shrink and what takes form as we enter an envisioned plan of Lowell’s creative renaissance is the budding of a third industrial revolution; one that is light weight, low power and ecologically friendly; all the while being socially responsible, but competitive enough to innovative from its creativity. For it to be a reality we need to dare to dream it, then to build it, then lastly to always teach it forward.

If you like this little piece of thought and are interested in helping in the cause or would like to stay informed on our progress, please email us your name and contact information to Gizmo@techmar-concepts.com