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The Knowledge Train: An Idea Incubator That Travels To Remote Towns On An Old Rail Line

The cultural center on wheels can transform from office space, to open-air theater, to small screening room. When it opens in Ecuador, the Train of Knowledge promises to bring new voices to the civic conversation.

When old rail lines stopped running along the coast of Ecuador, the towns that had grown up around the train stations were mostly left behind by the outside world. Now, 12 years after train service ended, an old freight car is about to start running again, this time transformed into a mobile cultural center that visits remote communities.

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The “Train of Knowledge” was the brainchild of Ecuador’s Ministry of Heritage. After experimenting with another culture-themed train on a route in the Andes, the agency turned to local architecture collective Al Borde and asked for a design that would be a blank slate: Not a museum, library or theater, but something that could easily accommodate all of these different activities. Each year, cultural organizations will compete to have the chance to run the programming for the train.

Cyril Nottelet

“We had to design a kind of transformer, so the people who are activating the space can easily change it,” says David Barragán, one of the cofounders of Al Borde. A fabric roof for the train car can be pulled out to turn into a shade for the area when the train stops. Inside, the car can turn into an office space, or an open-air theater, or a small screening room. The top and bottom of the train store extra chairs, tables and electronics, and more retractable furniture is installed at the sides of the car.

Cyril Nottelet

Everything was designed to be simple to construct, since the project had a short timeline. But ironically, though the designers and builders rushed to quickly to finish the train car, it isn’t quite back on the rails yet, thanks to red tape; the Ecuadorian government’s newly merged Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Heritage haven’t figured out who will be in charge of running it. “The political timelines are completely different from design timelines,” Barragan says.

Al Borde is eager to see what happens when the train does finally start to run. “This container of activities, of art, of culture, could activate a community,” Barragan explains. “The key part is who is going to manage this train and what kind of activities will be proposed. We really hope to see to see this project working as an engine in each community that produces, in a participatory way, new products, new performances, new things. Not just showing a movie and leaving town, but really engaging the people there to create something new.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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