Maker pioneers from Iraq visit MIT campus

Makerspace acted to avoid looking like terrorist outfit

Three Iraqi technologists who founded the first makerspace in Basra, Iraq visited MIT on Monday and Tuesday to meet with various labs and student groups as part of a tour hosted by the Media Lab and the Undergraduate Association Innovation Committee.

The technologists had wanted to experience MIT’s maker culture and technologies firsthand, as well as share the challenges they faced establishing a makerspace in Iraq. In classic MIT style, they also had the opportunity to sail on the Charles River late Monday afternoon with UA President Matthew J. Davis ’16.

Nawres Arif started his career in pharmacology, but says he’s been a maker his entire life. In March 2014, he started the makerspace Science Camp on the side and made it the second established makerspace in all of Iraq. He and his co-founders, however, have faced numerous challenges, especially when it comes to Iraqi law.

Due to the machines and chemicals they use in Science Camp, Arif told The Tech that their makerspace could easily resemble a terrorist organization’s operations. As a result, Arif looked for a way to get the makerspace sanctioned. He met with the Minister of Science and Technology to share the idea for Science Camp, and together they rewrote a law about technological incubation in Iraq and introduced makerspaces into the law.

Then, just a few weeks ago, the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi consolidated parts of the government amidst protests and merged the Ministry of Science and Technology with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, bringing uncertainty to the future of Science Camp and forcing Arif and his co-founders to consider alternative ways to legally structure it.

While Arif and his colleagues face challenges like these all the time, their efforts finally met with success this past April when Arif entered a startup competition hosted by the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab Region. He made it through the first round, and even though he was denied a visa to compete at the finals in Kuwait, he participated online over Skype. Arif finished in the top 10 with his project called i-mimic, which is a motion-capture suit to be used by 3D animators.

It was at this competition that Arif connected with MIT for the first time. He later met MIT’s director of digital currency, Brian Forde, in Iraq. The two kept in touch, and with the help of a non-profit organization called PeaceTech Lab, Arif made his first trip to the United States this week.

Arif was accompanied by Mohammed Hassan Abdulaleem and Adbulreda Hussein Reshak, who also helped found Science Camp. Their trip was part of a larger initiative by PeaceTech Lab to encourage the use of technology in minimizing violence in conflict regions. Tim Receveur, director of the program called PeaceTech Exchanges, said they have worked in Iraq for about two years on “better governance, citizen engagement.” While they usually host events in the countries they work in, this was a unique case where they helped bring Arif and his co-founders to the United States. In addition to visiting MIT, the three attended the New York Maker Faire on Sunday.

Arif, Abdulaleem, and Reshak presented some of their projects during a public event at MIT on Monday evening. They showcased a glove they built at Science Camp that can be used to display a dynamic 3D model of one’s hand on a computer. Animators could use the glove to capture motion and gamers might enjoy the more realistic quality it lends to games.

Arif started Science Camp after taking part in events at a Baghdad makerspace begun in 2012. The makerspace had a culture unlike the restrictive one he’d grown accustomed to in the pharmaceutical industry. It was emphasis on open source technology and “how people share knowledge” that inspired Arif to introduce a makerspace in Basra.

For Abdulaleem, the new maker space was a place to improve his skills and broaden his career horizons. Despite studying electrical engineering, he found there were few opportunities to be creative with engineering outside of college, a situation that resulted in many of his classmates joining large oil companies after graduating. Abdulaleem felt that the companies curbed innovation and forced people to follow a set template.

Today, all founders work part-time at Science Camp while supporting themselves through jobs in bigger industries. They have tried to make it a space where they can escape the limitations of their day jobs. There is little separation between people working on different projects, and Arif emphasizes collaboration between different fields like architecture and mechanical engineering.

Believing that Iraqis consider him and his colleagues “pioneers,” Arif encourages children to use the makerspace and hopes to add activities specifically for them, such as a Lego workshop he saw in Berlin. Iraq has very few science museums and other resources that would encourage children to go into STEM, which Science Camp hopes to help change. According to Arif, it is “an investment that no one has yet made.”

When asked if religious tension in Iraq, such as between Sunnis and Shiites, causes a divide in the maker community, Arif said that he considers it an inclusive community and that through Science Camp he and his co-founders “want to redefine the polarity in Iraq to be makers and want-to-be-makers.” He noted that men and women of all ages are welcome to join.

The lack of support for STEM resources has caused logistical problems for Science Camp as well. Chemicals and electronic parts are not easy to order because online shopping is a rarity. When Arif and his colleagues can find the materials, they have to wait a month or more because of shipping and restrictions — “not everything can enter the Middle East,” he said.

Little financial support is offered for events, so Science Camp attempted to “crowdfund.” However, because of how little people know about the Internet, the crowdfunding was done offline by having an information session where not only the concept of a maker space, but even the concept of crowdfunding, had to be explained to people who are used to very different forms of business. It’s this unfamiliarity and lack of interest in STEM that Science Camp aims to turn around.

The founders of Science Camp believe their makerspace and the entire culture behind the maker movement have the potential to promote peace in an area stricken by wars. For Nawres, it’s not about the technology, but rather the connections that form between makers.

Violence forms out of ignorance, he said, so the most important thing is to make “contact with the thing you think [of as the] enemy,” because to him, all those who are makers are not enemies but rather “a big family.” The three co-founders had hoped visiting the U.S. would broaden their perspective through meeting other makers at the Maker Faire and at MIT.

While at MIT, Arif, Abdulaleem, and Reshak were inspired by the strength of the community and the ease with which collaboration takes place. Of the groups they visited, Abdulaleem and Reshak particularly enjoyed meeting the rocket team. Arif was impressed by the fusion between art and technology in various projects. “This type of thinking must be transferred overseas,” he said.

Going forward, the three technologists hope to further their connection to MIT. They are also considering turning their makerspace into a fabrication laboratory based off a program that was started in the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Media Lab.

Arif said he regarded MIT as a “grandfather in the fields of entrepreneurship and tinkering with technology and electronics.” While he expressed his happiness for being here, he said he was truly thrilled that Abdulaleem and Reshak were here with him. In the future, he hopes “that many people from Basra come here.”