Baghdad’s “Irrational Optimists”

By Robert Tollast.

An interview with Mohamed Ridha, of the Baghdad entrepreneurial tech collective Fikra Space.

So what on earth is a hackerspace? Since the essence of the concept is open source, it seems apt (although not so professional!) to quote Wikipedia, which has the most succinct definition. According to the page a hackerspace is,  

“a community-operated workspace where people with common interests, often in computers, machining, technology, science, digital art or electronic art, can meet, socialize and collaborate.”

And in that simple concept, there is much beauty.

To some, the first “hackspace” was the Geek Group (slogan: “We build awesome”) formed in 1994 in Michigan, which now has some of the best facilities in the US. To others it begins with the Homebrew Computer Club, launched in a garage in 1975 (former members include Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.)

Since then, the “maker movement” has exploded globally. The recent “Maker Faire” event in California recently drew 150,000 punters, all drawn together by the notion that the DIY tech nerd or engineer no longer toils alone by lamplight.

But the movement has been slower to take off in developing countries, for understandable reasons. That is about to change, as mobile internet penetration skyrockets.

With the advent of this technological “leapfrogging,” it was only a matter of time before a vigourous entrepreneur would take the concept to the Middle East.That man was Bilal Ghalib.

Inspired by the MITERS hackerspace (MIT Electronics and Research Society), Ghalib set up the Global Entrepreneurship and Makerspace Initiative (GEMSI) to bring the “maker movement” to the MENA region.

GEMSI set up the first hackspaces in Beirut and Egypt, and in 2012 on the back of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, Ghalib launched the first hackerspace in his native Iraq, in Baghdad.

Fuelled by Ghalib’s belief in what he called “irrational optimism” the project led to something quite extraordinary: Baghdad’s Fikra (“idea”) space has gone from strength to strength, and will soon be expanding across the country.

In addition to over 200 workshops and “build nights” the group have already held 4 “startup weekends” and launched 7 startups, introducing young Iraqis to new technology such as Arduino microcontrollers, 3d printers and a host of other technological innovations. FS also help potential innovators build on more fundamental skills.

To find out more, I spoke to Fikra Space’s Mohamed Ridha who took some time out from his sweltering Baghdad schedule, to talk about the organization and the next plans:

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