Published on January 30th, 2020
By Gabriel Pereira¹, Pedro Torres², and Lisa Parks³, with an interview of Paulo Gomes⁴
In Brazil, much of the plastic gets thrown away and picked by “catadores,” people who scavenge trash bins and dumps looking for recyclable material. The “catadores” go on to sell whatever they collect to companies for pennies, as the plastic makes its way up the recycling supply chain. The final result often are Chinese-made souvenirs, that get sold back to Brazil, in an environmentally unfriendly and economically unjust cycle. In face of such a problem, Professor Paulo Gomes decided the value transformation of these recyclables should happen at the source: the underpaid “catadores” who collect the material. His solution: creating a simple DIY kit that allows these workers to melt and mold the plastic into a new material that can be used to construct many things, from shelves to table tops to stool seats. The project is called “Zero: no plastic left behind.”
This project and many other innovative solutions are being developed out of IhacLab-i, an open space of creation and innovation at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), in Salvador, Brazil. The lab emerged in 2015, when the university administration asked Professor Gomes to help support the university’s technological innovation programs. He understood that there was a need for something different, a space that would support the students and the community to build and develop innovations that are connected to society. Most importantly, this would be a space that was not built in a hierarchical structure, but rather in the spirit of open access, knowledge sharing, and collaboration.
Figs. 1 and 2 – The space as it was found: an unused storage room.
The lab space runs in a large room with long tables and various makerspace equipment, in an area that used to be an abandoned storage room in the university. Professor Gomes and a group of students, finding the room unused, decided to exercise what they called “social appropriation of underutilized public goods.” They cleaned up the space and repaired the chairs and tables that now furnish the lab. They also painted the walls and floor, and found and repurposed electronic equipment.
While gathering materials to equip the lab, they also began to think about what kind of innovation space they wanted to be part of, and collectively decided upon one that was horizontal and connected to society’s needs. Among the few rules governing the lab space are an emphasis on equality (“Here everybody is treated the same,” in Gomes’s words), and the need for mutual support to keep the space lively (“How can we help you? And how can you help us?”) Lab assistant, Adriano Puglia, describes the lab as “his second home.”
Figs. 3 and 4 – Students and staff fixing found furniture, setting up electrical installation, and cleaning the space
When the GMTaC Lab team visited in January 2020 we learned that the space is utilized by about 100 people every week, including students, faculty, and community members. The equipment, including 3D printers, laser cutters, hand tools of all kinds, and repurposed computers, are all free to use. Since the maintenance costs of such equipment are often too expensive for the lab, which has no official funding, the students and faculty also take responsibility for repairing the equipment. As Gomes explains: “Machines are the soul of the lab, but everyday we have to fix the machines. We don’t stop… People learn to fix a lot of things.”
As people come and go, the lab space serves as a catalyst and educational space that tries to redefine innovation and develop technosocial solutions with multiple impacts.
Figs. 5 and 6 – IhacLab-i as it looks today, and the weekly meetings of the space
In January 2020 the GMTaC Lab ran the Social IT Solutions workshop in partnership with the IhacLab-i, and, a member of our team, Pedro Torres, had an opportunity to interview Professor Gomes. The interview was conducted in Portuguese and was translated into English by Torres.
Pedro Torres: How did you manage to build a space like Lab-i from scratch? What are some of the strategies you have used to establish a new culture for this space?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: The Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) is a traditional University in Brazil, which means that younger people usually have fewer opportunities to advance their own ideas in more formal educational environments. So, we thought about creating a space on our campus that would allow people of all backgrounds and walks of life to come together and benefit from the building tools we have available –– regardless if you are a doctor, an undergraduate, a graduate student, or even a high school student. Our University has hundreds of research laboratories and the tendency is that these places are organized in a more hierarchical structure. In spaces of education and research, often occupied and led by professors and graduate students, I noticed that it is precisely the younger ones –– often with a greater capacity to create new things and thus promote innovative ideas –– who have little voice or very little decision-making power. So, we thought that in order for UFBA to establish its own space for innovation, we would need to build something from scratch –– one that was completely different from these long-standing standards.
Pedro Torres: What were some of the main difficulties you have come across throughout this process? Were you able to obtain institutional support in putting forth your ideas?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: When we decided to create IhacLab-i within UFBA, there were a couple of initial challenges regarding which available spaces we would be able to get on campus. This is because many researchers and new professors want to expand their laboratories, leaving us with fewer options for more informal spaces of collaboration. There was no space available for us, given that we needed about 100 square meters. While walking around the University campus, however, we managed to find a storage room that had been previously used for unused material. With that at our disposal, we were able to enter this space and, collectively with some professors and a dozen students, managed to do some cleaning, re-do all the painting, assemble the partitions inside, work on some of the building’s electrical installations, build a new security system, and ensure that all the machines were operating safely. All of this was done in 2015 collaboratively between teachers and students. Overall, this was very good for the lab because it helped establish a culture for IhacLab-i as a place for everyone. And the students who helped set up this space five years ago continue to participate in the lab up to this day.
Pedro Torres: Who are the people who come to the lab routinely? Can you tell us a little bit more about the activities in a given week?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: IhacLab-i is neither a program nor a project. I prefer to call it an open space for creation and innovation. The users of the lab space include anyone who is interested in developing and advancing their own projects. We have about 100 people visiting IhacLab-i every week. Since our space is located within the UFBA’s campus in Ondina (a neighborhood in Salvador), there are a lot of students and faculty from nearby departments and institutes such as the Polytechnic School who also benefit from our lab space and community. Every other week, we receive students and college professors, independent inventors, entrepreneurs, and so forth. In general, our lab functions as a space where anyone is welcome to occupy and enjoy the facilities and the communities that we are forging with it. For anyone who comes here and wants to use our space, we basically ask two questions: how can we help you and how can you help us? And the people who come and use it, in some way, end up collaborating with one another so that the lab remains open and functional. We have had no budget to maintain the lab since the time it opened five years ago. We depend on the collaboration among these people for the lab’s success.
Pedro Torres: How does the lab deal with scarce conditions of funding and institutional support?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: There is institutional support for the IhacLab-i, but not in terms of materials and other important resources. We are facing a very difficult situation in Brazil and, in recent years, there have been even fewer resources that UFBA has been able to give to this space. One of the things that keeps us going is that, due to the institution and the country’s situation as a whole, the waste of useful things is prominent. Most of the things we have inside our lab space come from reused materials we found in the trash. These objects are often broken or defective. Despite all of that, we managed to repair some of this collection and brought them inside. And that is the case for everything one can see when visiting the lab. The furniture that we are sitting on during this interview was created from materials that have been thrown away by someone else. The bench and the glass, used on the table inside, were all found in the University’s disposal. Even technological equipment was found in the garbage. For example, there were 14 fans that were being thrown away. We brought here and fixed 12, among which we took six and managed to return the other six to UFBA working perfectly well. We have many underutilized resources here that we try to make the most of.
Pedro Torres: The recent advancements in technology are often used as catchy slogans for Big Tech companies, but often the social side of technology remains unexplored, as the facilitators from MIT emphasized during the SITS workshop in Brazil. That said, how does your lab function as a space of convergence between the social dimensions of technology and sustainable development?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: The IhacLab-i gives users total freedom to develop whatever they want. There is no censorship here. The person comes in and does whatever she or he wants. I, specifically, focus my research and development activities working on relevant social problems such that the next generations after me can seek technological solutions to issues involving things like sustainability. To decide whether or not to join a project, I analyze whether this project brings us closer to any of the objectives of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). When I see a project with the potential to work on some of the issues mapped out in the SDGs, I always try to modify the project in some way so that it can fulfill as many of these objectives as possible. For example, if we are doing a technological development project to improve water use, I already think about how this could also empower women, so that the Gender Equality objective, for example, can also be tackled. So, the social issue for me, specifically, and for everyone in the lab is very important. Given the problems we are facing in Brazil and the world more broadly these days, I find it hard not to direct attention and energy into these issues.
Pedro Torres: One of the projects you commented on addresses the issue of recycling plastic materials via a simple, accessible and inexpensive machine. Could you tell us a little more about the creative, social, and technological processes behind this idea and how it could help people who economically rely on this practice?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: The initial idea behind the plastic recycling project came from the realization that the recycling industry we currently have in place is extremely unfair. The collectors and plastic collectors in the dumps have a very difficult life because they live in a context of social vulnerability. The value of the resources generated from plastic recycling is too far removed from these waste pickers, which makes it hard for their families to leave the poverty cycle. What we encountered in our field research included the second and third generation of waste pickers. It is a situation of misery that is largely perpetuated because of the industrial structure of the plastics recycling system. Thus, the question that arises is how does this social structure keep functioning? The waste picker sells the plastic to a local intermediary, who sells it to a regional one, and then sells it to a large industry or sends it off to countries like China, for example. It is in these large corporations that the plastic that was in the garbage gets transformed into some valuable object or material. But this product is a long way from the person who collects it. Our idea is that the collectors themselves can transform plastic into a valuable object. For this, we develop machines and methodologies using simple DIY technology that can be reproduced in this context. It is a technology aimed and centered in the individual levels –– often people with little formal educational training and who generally do not have the required skills to operate robust machinery. We developed this project so that these people can work in a non-industrial environment, such as a waste pickers’ association or cooperative, and there they can build valuable objects to sell or use for their own purposes with the hope that it can improve, even if slightly, the reality they are facing.
Pedro Torres: In the context of innovation and the social dimensions of technology, over the past five years of the IhacLab-i’s work, what were the main changes promoted?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: IhacLab-i is part of UFBA, and the main mission of any university is to educate and train people. The University is a traditional environment that is still forming citizens for an industrial society––which, in my view, is ending or has already ended in some parts of the world. So, we are training students for a society that, in reality, is in constant decline. For these students, our laboratory is a portal for the 21st century. Here, they have contact with digital manufacturing techniques, three-dimensional modeling, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and several other technologies that are following the current technological flows. That, in itself, is a big impact. However, from a social point of view, the laboratory is still very new. We have had only five years of operation. Many interesting things were developed here, but few of them reached society and were able to have an opportunity to make an impact. I believe that the first project that will have a positive and strong social and economic impact will be this plastic recycling project. We are moving forward with it. There is a City Hall in the interior of the State of Bahia that is financing a “transformation workshop” with us. This will be our first workshop outside the University. It will be a great opportunity for us to multiply the project in different locations. Brazil has more than three thousand open dumps, all of them are filled with tons of plastic. The country has more than a thousand associations of waste pickers and about 500 thousand people who live only on the income obtained from the garbage. We believe that by developing a technology to tackle this structural problem, the possibility of a greater possibility of social ascension and having a positive impact is significant.
Pedro Torres: How many projects have been incubated here?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: There were dozens of projects, though we are not alway monitoring and therefore cannot provide a specific number. This is part of the spirit here. We do not have any kind of conditions for the person to work, so it is up to the person to register a project or not. I am sure dozens of interesting projects were born and developed here, but we do not have statistics or quantitative numbers because that’s not our goal.
Pedro Torres: What is expected for the future of this space and of all the people involved in the project for the coming years? What are the main legacies that you hope this space will promote?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: Traditionally, the University trains people for private companies and for the public sector. It has to continue training these people because it keeps society and the economy functioning, but it also needs to train social transformers. People who will not only keep this society functioning, but who will also transform the difficult realities that we live in. We have imminent problems that are knocking on our door and we need to change course. Those who engage with the lab have the potential to truly become transformers of society, and this is our main legacy. If we continue on the path we are on, we will train many interesting people with the potential to truly transform aspects of the society we currently live in. From the point of view of the lab space, I think it is important to foment ideas so that we can build a network with more examples like this in other units of the University and in other educational institutions as well. IhacLab-i is interesting and has an important impact, but if we worked in a network with more laboratories of the same type, the impact would be enhanced and there would be a synergy that would allow us to make much more progress. It is not easy because there are a number of conditions, but we remain super open. In this SITS-Brasil workshop with students from the GMTaC Lab, the UESB staff came to us talking about how interesting it would be to set up a lab like these in Vitória da Conquista. It would be very interesting to maintain more spaces like this within the public University environment in Brazil.
Pedro Torres: It is interesting that when projects like IhacLab-i become part of the priority within an institution, they often can reach better outcomes and thus inspire students. After all, this is the kind of initiative that transforms the scientific and social life of the University and, also, other non-academic communities.
Prof. Paulo Gomes: If there is a resource and the will to promote an innovation policy as a priority, the paths are much easier, but this is not a reality in all institutions. Innovation takes place in environments of exchange and freedom. Any highly regulated and hierarchical environment inhibits people’s innovative capacity.
Pedro Torres: How do you think the partnership built through the SITS-Brazil project with MIT and UESB is contributing to the mission and vision of IhacLab-i at UFBA?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: When we were contacted by the MIT team to co-lead this workshop it was like a dream come true: it was an unbelievable opportunity for us. First, we would have direct contact with a well-established institution with an internationally recognized research center on global media technologies; and, then, for the opportunity to expose our students––usually people from low-income and who are mostly the first ones in their family to go to college––to be exposed to students who know the world, who have an impressive set of experiences, and who are used to very interesting work methodologies. So, just the prospect of doing the SITS workshop here for us was very exciting. When the SITS team arrived, the rapport between the teachers and students of UFBA and UESB with the MIT team was impressive. This affinity was almost immediate. We started to work intensively and constantly from the first moment. The results are surprising for both us and, I believe, the MIT team. We believe that with the success of this workshop, many doors can open. We would like to continue involved with the MIT-Brazil program and the GMTaC Lab, and perhaps explore the opportunity of a student exchange program with MIT. And I think that this positive experience puts us in a favorable position. It is a bridge to connect our students with other worlds and other possibilities. For us, not only is this contact an honor, but it is also a great pleasure to work with the team. The impact of SITS was intense and none of us will be the same. Now, the impact on the lives of these young people who are developing these solutions using Social IT Solutions will be much greater. We do not know where they are going because they are only the beginning of the trajectory. But, regardless of that, we are seeing beautiful projects being carried out and this can be a turning point in the lives of many of the students involved.
Pedro Torres: Is there anything you learned from the team of facilitators and SITS students that you did not expect to learn?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: I find their whole methodology to be very interesting. I had already studied and somehow tried to implement it, but I had never succeeded in doing it. This technique of raising problems, quickly going to society to interview people, taking pictures, filming, talking to the secretary of education and even the school’s cleaning lady, is a very interesting methodology that I was never able to implement. And what I saw is that this is an absolute success due to the impact it has. Now it is hard to imagine doing a project that does not follow these principles of human-centered design.
Pedro Torres: How do you expect MIT and UESB students to continue to engage with IhacLab-i after SITS is over?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: I believe that the first thing we have to do is create a communication system to follow up on the projects. They do not end once the workshop ends. These projects, in fact, have just begun and we hope they continue. The MIT team are going home and we will continue to support each initiative here. I believe that if any of these projects become a real product that will arrive in society and promote change––and I hope and trust that this will happen––the people at MIT will want to spread this throughout the community. I hope this partnership continues.
Pedro Torres: What is the message you would like to share with other students interested in the intersection between technology and social change?
Prof. Paulo Gomes: Developing technology for social transformation is not easy, but it needs to be done. Our planet is moving in the wrong direction and our civilization is threatened. We cannot continue to reproduce everything that has been done so far and continue to think that it will work. It won’t, in fact. Is it difficult? Absolutely, but it needs to be done and someone needs to start it from the bottom up. The more people who can get involved in this quest for innovation, the better it will be for all of us. It can be the lifeline to avoid major catastrophes that we are envisioning. We have no more options. A person who continues to live today as they did 20 or 30 years ago is like that guy who walks over the precipice with headphones on. You can pretend that nothing is happening, but the cliff remains in front of you. The only thing that will prevent us from falling into that hole is that more and more young people decide to get involved in social and environmental transformation projects.
We want to thank Professor Paulo Gomes for taking the time for this interview with us, for sharing his experiences as the head of the IhacLab-i, and for providing us the space at UFBA during the second week of the GMTaC Lab’s Social IT Solutions Workshop in Brazil.
¹Gabriel Pereira is a PhD fellow at Aarhus University (Denmark). Previously, he was a visiting graduate student in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. His research focuses on critical studies of data, algorithms, and digital infrastructures. He was one of the workshop leaders of SITS-Brazil, continuing his collaboration with the GMTaC Lab.
²Pedro Torres is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in journalism at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. His research interests lie in the intersection of journalism, technology, politics and literature. During SITS-Brazil, he volunteers as a journalist.
³Lisa Parks is Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, and is a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. Parks is the Director of the Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab at MIT. She studies media globalization with a focus on technology use in low-income communities. She is the author or editor of 7 books and many articles and book chapters. Some of her books include Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual (2005) and Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (2015).
⁴Paulo Gomes holds a bachelor’s degree in physics and a Ph.D. in Electric Engineering. He’s currently a professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). He recently finished a one-year postdoc position at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain through the UNESCO Sustainability Chair. His research focus lies in the development of technological solutions for sustainability via 3D modeling, techniques of digital fabrication, electronics, and robotics.