At one of the gates to Brooklyn Navy Yard you’ll find a whisky distillery. Those who make it beyond the temptation of tastings at all hours, and carry on round to the right, will reach New Lab: a massive warehouse emerging from the former vanguard of industry into a new age of manufacture - from additive to nano to robotics and AI.
The building itself was completed in 1900, providing the space to apply the latest technology to shipbuilding and other grand-scale pursuits. This year, after a massive restoration project, it was reborn as an 84,000 sq ft multidisciplinary facility for entrepreneurs in robotics, 3D printing, hydroponics and augmented reality - for those businesses refashioning the world. New Lab’s heritage is crucial to its conception: co-founder David Belt is driven by the desire to give historic properties relevance again. He wanted to deliver ‘state-of-the-art’ for manufacturing today. His vision was a place that would incite new paradigms, not just by bringing in the leaders in many fields of rapid innovation, but by supporting them to share facilities, ideas and inspiration.
In October, Marcel Botha, CEO of the engineering and design network 10xBETA, a major tenant, offered me a tour. Our first encounter, as we strike out under the high arches of the main hall, where cranes used to bow and lift, continues the heritage theme. It’s a repurposed relic of the past: a gold-painted shipping container. Inside, two people are standing around having a detailed discussion - only, one of them is actually over in Washington DC. “Come in!” beckons a very amenable representative of Shared Studios, maker of the Portal. We enter: a video-conferencing suite with a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall screen and surround sound that makes it feel like the person you’re talking to is in the room with you.
It is already used across the world, mostly for big conferences, but also where you might not expect: in refugee camps. This allows policy makers to come face to face with the people whose lives their decisions impact, nudging empathy into the process. “That’s what makes for great design”, says Marcel enthusiastically, as we head on upstairs. “Not just that the portal works beautifully, but that the social politics are right on.”
On our one-hour tour I see an astounding range of working practices. First we meet Strongarm Tech, a company building exoskeletons for industrial use, with the aim to “protect the active workers” of the world. At the other end of the hall there’s an exhibition space, showcasing the tiny pipe inspection robot of Honeybee Robotics: a sensor capable of moving sideways as well as backwards and forwards to navigate the insides of pipes, monitoring natural gas networks to avoid dangerous and expensive leaks. The same company has also designed a tiny robot for laproscopic surgery, to enable minimally invasive procedures to render more information.
My eyes widen as we pass by the window of Terreform One, and Marcel knocks on the door to introduce me to them. What had caught my attention was its Plug-In Ecology urban farming pod: a polygon with a vast surface area, fitted out with an irrigation system, and able to house all sorts of habitat requirements, from bioluminescent lighting to algal energy production. The aim is simple: to enable communities to grow their veg in a small space. Next to it, an elegant cricket farm, optimised for ventilation and light to produce nutritious insects as an alternative source of protein. (It reminds me of a giant hamster wheel!)
I say I come from Forum for the Future, mentioning our own Protein Challenge 2040, and they ask whether that makes me a futurist. We quickly find ourselves agreeing that labels mostly bring unhelpful assumptions. Marcel concurs: “Like the term ‘maker’,” he adds. “To me it implies someone who tinkers in their back room. This is nobody’s back room, and I know exactly what I’m doing.”
On the way out, I take a breather on Terreform One’s mushroom-grown ‘mycoform’ sofa. I’m inspired to think that these technologies, with so much potential, are reaching maturity. Maker, manufacturer, engineer, pioneer… Whatever terms you choose, if you’re looking to meet people building the future, put New Lab on your bucket list.