Last weekend I joined over 100 young entrepreneurs & professionals in Egypt along with a handful of experts from Asia, Europe and the Americas to discuss critical questions on a wide range of topics from the future of work to open source and blockchain technologies at AltShift Festival 2018 in Cairo.
Egypt has experienced a significant economic decline over the past several years in large part due to a marked decrease in tourism — one of the country’s largest sources of income — but also in the face of turbulent regime changes, political unrest, and at its worst, episodic violence. The situation has driven many to seek out new opportunities: every single person I met during the festival was “switched on”, bright, eager to learn and motivated to find a next step to confront the incredible challenges they face in their country.
“Platformization: Global Trends ⇆ Local Applications” was the theme of the three-day Ouishare event (@Ouishare), during which it became clear early on that many attendees had come with the hope of gaining hands-on knowledge and exploring potential approaches to tackling the multifaceted economic challenges affecting daily life in Egypt.
AltShift began the morning of 19 October with a series of talks that would later help festival attendees stay oriented during our discussions and workshops scheduled throughout the next two days. Yuki Liu, co-founder & CEO of Open Motors (@OpenMotors), shared how her company’s strictly modular and open source design principles for the shared and autonomous future of shared mobility are disrupting the car industry.
And Rodrigo Seoane (@rmsdesign) from Platform Design Toolkit framed important concepts related to building viable ecosystems through platforms (as general sites of interaction, not strictly the products of proprietary business models). With new technologies and innovative approaches, particularly those that are open source, mitigating those challenges while positively transforming Cairo, Egypt, and eventually the world becomes more and more feasible.
Absorbed by the insights and discussion surrounding the future of the connected world, there were moments when reality set in. Attempting to connect our devices to the WiFi reminded us how poor internet penetration is across many parts of the country and region, and in many parts of the world.
Thanks to my active role as a Ouishare Connector, I have been fortunate to learn about inspiring and educational events focused on systemic change being organized around the globe. And that’s how I was first introduced to AltShift Festival 2018 — but what compelled me to contribute to the event planning and program concerns my commitment to pioneering new territories for ideas to be shared and explored.
The blockchain community in Egypt is still very small, even in Cairo. With the dual aim of stirring excitement (and not just hype) around decentralized technologies and exploring how practical implementation could offer change in an Egyptian context, I teamed up with Ibrahim Zaghw to lead the blockchain track at AltShift. Ibrahim is extremely passionate, a sharp thinker and a fantastic communicator, and after the event I’m proud to also say a friend and ally. In the weeks leading up to the event we spent hours on the phone together discussing how to best create an inclusive and valuable experience for everyone interested in blockchain at AltShift. Together, we organized a “Blockchain 101” introduction that was based on material curated by BlockchainHub (@blockchainhub) which Ibrahim delivered straight to the hearts and minds of the audience members.
In the afternoon local experts joined Matthew Schutte (@matthewjosef), Director of Communications at Holochain (@holochain), Ibrahim, and myself to discuss possible use cases for blockchain as well as benefits and shortcomings of Web 2.0 in a panel discussion titled “How will Blockchain Technology Revolutionize our Future?”. Step by step, everyone in the room warmed up until we were ready for “the main event”: a highly interactive and engaging workshop for participants to identify and share their everyday pain points interacting with the online world.
One team articulated the need for better registration and birth certificate distribution given that many Egyptians, and Africans more broadly, can grow to adulthood without ever having received a formal birth certificate or identity card. Another team member pointed out the need to be able to access what he referred to as a kind of “digital” Library of Alexandria, which would act as a virtual library for education. And a third team raised the notion of a trustable voting system that at the same time preserves the anonymity of individual voters.Issues of trust and accessibility to shared resources like public registries and libraries turned out to be a common denominator.
Very often we hear in the decentralization space how blockchain can bring long-awaited change and revolutionary solutions to systemic challenges. However, our initial ideas on how to implement promising technologies often prove incomplete or misguided when put to the test, revealing how and where our assumptions fall short. For this reason I was especially keen on listening carefully to the Egyptian voices at AltShift.
The day after panel & workshop, a young developer approached me to share how much he enjoyed our workshop and its format. Initially he thought it would not be possible reach a meaningful outcome by the close of the session, and he didn’t initially like the time pressure we imposed. But he quickly realized that the pressure actually helped to focus the team. As team after team presented to the workshop group, he came to appreciate that it would make total sense to work together with other teams facing similar issues or solving similar problems. Coming full circle to the fundamental idea of consensus underlying blockchain, he said, “in the end it all winds up being an issue of governance where we agree on what we want.”
Did we accomplish everything we wanted to achieve? Of course not! Providing the best possible learning curve and collaborative experience so that everyone could go home with something to build on was one of our objectives. The building part is of course something that can’t be achieved over the course of a weekend, no matter how amazing the experience was.
Cultivating a community will require a continuous effort to share information and, crucially, to nurture the personal connections that have been made to both continue the discussion and really get started building solutions and devising use cases that embrace the challenges and specific needs of Egypt and its amazing people!
All photos in this post belong to Ouishare Egypt.