"Let's pool money, buy a 3D printer and see what comes out of it." That was one of the first projects which Maurice Haedo Sanabria and his colleagues initiated in Havana. "Before that, people talked a lot about 3D printers, but it was more an abstract idea." In Cuba, buying a 3D printer in a shop or ordering one from an online retailer is impossible.
"So, we told a friend who had the opportunity to travel abroad: bring a 3D printer; we'll give you the money," Haedo tells us. The now 38-year-old industrial designer has spent years designing forklifts for state companies on the island, always focussing on repairs and how to make maximum use of the country's limited resources. That got him thinking about other possible spaces, he says.
And that's how Copincha Lab came into being in 2018. Haedo arranged his small apartment in Centro Habana as an open workshop and invited friends to share technology and learn from each other. "Pincha" is the Cuban slang word for work. Copincha therefore means co-working and stands for collaborative, collective work.
"When the 3D printer arrived, we held an event and started it up together. There was a lot of excitement," Haedo says with a laugh. Even though an electronics workshop had been held before, in some ways the 3D printer was the founding act of Copincha Lab. "People put money together, one person took the printer through customs and we assembled the individual parts." All this has made people feel part of a bigger picture, Haedo says.
Haedo explains this using the example of the shoemaker who has developed certain skills or techniques over the years. He can present this technique or a problem in his work process. The community then looks for a solution to that problem, which may be a problem different shoemakers might face. Or the community says: the technique you have developed is a solution or an inspiring approach for other fields.
"Using the knowledge of the community or creating new knowledge" is what Haedo calls the principle. Copincha is, in this sense, a hacker space, a laboratory to improve experimental practices with technology aimed at social or community benefit, he says. What do you want to achieve? What avenues have already been explored? What tools are available for your endeavour? The Lab works with the open source principle: the open participation of people and the sharing of information so that people can use it. Technology not as a linear but as a rhizomatic process, says Haedo. "Our meetings create points of contact between different knowledge; these points of contact in turn create spaces to potentiate these connections. This creates projects which lead to concrete solutions or workshops to expand knowledge."
A Copincha group has formed around the 3D printer, for example. Using the model they bought together as a reference, they started to build their own 3D printers. Soon other projects were added, because 3D printers require filaments. Filaments are plastic threads that are melted down by the 3D printer and thus processed layer by layer into an object. The material usually has to be imported at a high cost. So how they could produce their own material for printing was one of the questions. "We have recently been building machines to recycle plastic (PET) from water bottles into plastic filament to feed 3D printers, " says Haedo.
Various projects have also been tackled with the 3D printer itself: one of the members is a jeweller who has used it to make jewellery. There are medical professionals who use it to make medical prototypes. Another Copincha-derived group, called "3D in Cuban" ("3D a lo cubano"), is primarily involved in building their own 3D printers and exploring the possibilities of different materials such as wood, plexiglass and metal.
He sees Copincha primarily as a place for joint experimentation, to create and share collective knowledge and develop solutions, especially given the Cuban context, which is characterised by a scarcity of resources in many basic areas. "At the same time, it is a context in which you always have to look for solutions."
"Often there are very simple, low-tech solutions that can also help many others." Haedo cites as an example the Cuban car mechanics who keep finding creative solutions for the decades-old vintage US cars still on Cuba's roads.