ice (short for innovation, collaboration and entrepreneurship) is a growing network of physical workplaces where people can come together to share what they can do to solve problems themselves, in a way that has a positive—or at least neutral—impact on the environment. The icehubs network began last year when the first open community workspace opened in Addis Ababa. This year, the German node in the ice network, icebauhaus, launched in Weimar on the Bauhaus University campus and hosted the Africa re:load 2012 event in July.
Each of the icehubs offers an open workspace, services for startups, business coaching and programs designed to stimulate an entrepreneurial drive and generally inspire leadership among doers. Perhaps the greatest thing that these innovation hubs has to offer its members is a community around which ideas are nurtured and skills are shared to everyone’s benefit. They strengthen bottom-of-the-pyramid innovations and scrappy startups in ways that few organization can.
A place for makers
What makes the icehubs unique is their focus on promoting a maker culture that actively prototypes physical goods. They do this by providing open access to small-scale production facilities and equipment, including wood/metal working tools, CNC milling machines, laser cutters, 3D printers and so on.
These Fab Labs, or personal digital fabrication centers, are able to make almost anything. In doing so, they encourage experimentation and the exploration of new ways to shape and combine materials. They understand that startups don’t have access to mass-production facilities, so with these tools they’re able to take concepts off the drawing board, prototype them and show the potential of their products to investors.
icecairo, the third node in the network, provisionally operates from a large flat in the center of downtown Cairo just off Tahrir Square. Earlier this month, I traveled overland with members of the icecairo team to deliver workshops on using the Business Model Canvas to entrepreneurs in four Egyptian cities (more on this in a follow-up post).
While the downtown location and nearby Fab Lab attract a growing following, a variation on the iconic stacked shipping container design which first debuted in Addis Ababa is set to be replicated in Cairo. A plot was secured in Heliopolis, strategically located just outside Cairo International Airport, and in September six 40-foot containers were delivered to the site.
I had an opportunity to visit the future home of icecairo on our return flight from Aswan. Wael Sabry, the principal architect, met us at the airport and drove us the short distance to the site. His wife, Nashwa Ibrahim, herself an architect, has done extensive work on appropriate building patterns for St. Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai. We were clearly in very capable hands.
The third evolution
The Cairo hub departs from the Addis model in its overall layout and use of materials that make it better suited for Egypt. On the ground floor is a main meeting area, space for startup incubation, a kitchen and working alcoves. The second floor is home to the Fab Lab and has cafe-like terraces shaded by suspended textile screens. A solar chimney window and air inlet provide passive ventilation and cooling for the space.
Wael graciously showed us around the site, pausing to bring up renderings of the finished hub on his iPad. To comply with building height regulations defined by the airport authority, the site will be excavated two meters below grade. When it’s done and the containers are set on their foundations, the impression will be like “entering an oasis from the street level,” says Wael. When trees are eventually planted an additional measure of shade will complete the oasis feel. icecairo has good company—coffee houses, an artistic center and food courts are located a stone’s throw away.
True to its driving principles, the future home of icecairo is designed as a space for exploration, environmental consciousness and open collaboration. It’s also very much an evolution—beginning as it did with the first iteration in Addis, then Weimar and now the second of two spaces serving greater Cairo.
Innovation, especially disruptive innovation, requires risk and comes from the edges of society. The icecairo ethos embraces this by building something completely unique in Egypt, with the aim of fostering a green, entrepreneurial future for the country.