This post documents the birth of my current project. You can read about it here in this grant proposal to USAID.
Last Wednesday I had the privilege of attending a meeting between Arab American business and representatives from the White House, including people from USAID and the U.S. Small Business Administration. It really seems like the current administration appreciates the value that the business community and especially the Arab American business community can provide when it comes to their goals in the Middle East.
The last time I was there it was mentioned that one of their overarching goals of all their programs was to support stable countries. The reasoning behind which is that they will be less prone to violence and a better economic partner. Also, the tactic of supporting the countries economically makes sense as a way towards these goals. Thus, the Arab American Business Council took place to investigate ways the government can support these business people in developing the MENA (Middle East and Africa) region.
Thinking hard about what I had to offer this august crowd I considered my perspectives on the middle east. Remembering the fear in my cousins eyes in Syria, the lack of hope and self determination. Contrasting that with the attitudes I found around the country with my project The Two Hands Project, a documentary tour of maker spaces throughout North America. Those people were proactive, concerned about their community, building these spaces of empowerment for themselves and others. They were sharing tools, collaborating on projects, and changing their world by building it. It seemed strange to me that of all places in the world MENA was lacking maker spaces when they have the right ingredients. Watching the twitter feed of passionate egyptians setting up a physical space at Tahrir Square within which they organize, support the movement I was inspired.
Recalling Nick Farr’s project Hackers on a Plane trip and the massive impact it had on the hacker space / maker space community in the United States I started to plan in that inspirational route. When he left in 2007 there were a handfull of spaces, but that first crew of three interested people going to see with their own eyes the spaces in Europe inspired the group which included, Mitch Altman of Noisebridge, Bre Pettis of NYC Resistor, and Nick Farr of HacDC to start their respective spaces.
Knowing that these spaces existed for more than 30 years in Europe before having a sudden growth in popularity in the US makes really shows the power of a few inspired individuals and the open sourced manner in which how they started the spaces were published. You can see an early manual here: Hacker Space Design Patterns. This manual helped propel the growth of hacker spaces to over 50 when I decided to tour them in 2009 (two years later we’re over 500). We used this guide for the space we started in Ann Arbor MI called All Hands Active.
The last piece of the puzzel for this project fell into place when I called Willow Burgh a Seattle based organizer of the non profit organization The School Factory. The School Factory’s program The Space Federation’s mission is “to provide financial and organizational support to open communities in shared physical spaces who use innovative methods and technology in hands-on education.” And to this end they are hosting a Space Camp summit in Milwaukee. The objective of Space Camp is to distill the knowledge gained from 4 years of rapid growth of these collaborative community building spaces and to share it with those doing the same. This will be an unprecedented gathering of organizers of maker spaces and would be the perfect introduction to an inspiring movement.
I thought about Maker Faire Africa happening in Cairo in October 2011 and all the makers that would be there. Knowing that the only hackerspace in Cairo on the Hackerspaces.org list is virtual I thought that it would be ideal to go to Maker Faire Africa, survey Cairo and Alexandria for interested people, compile a twitter list of interesting hackers in the area and if possible bring them to see what is possible by touring maker spaces in the US, starting with Space Camp in early 2012.
That my friends is how I started my USAID grant proposal. Please read it here and give me comments on this shared doc. While I was in the Eisenhower Building I was introduced to two USAID representatives who were interested in my concept. I’ve submitted my pre-proposal (they normally don’t take unsolicited proposals) and am currently waiting for a response. Judging from the US Department of State’s Global Entrepreneurship Program I think that this is a project that would certianly be of interest to the United States and their current policies of encouraging entrepreneurhsip.
If you are interested in this project I’m looking for help in any way you can think of. Let me know how you can help us bring the empowering maker space concept to Cairo first, then the rest of MENA.