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Spaces: AltCity, Coworking in Beirut

This is the first post in Rising Voices’ Spaces Initiative, exploring how physical space can bring new voices into the digital sphere. AltCity is Beirut’s first coworking space, and was founded to respond to particular needs and trends of the city.

AltCity doesn’t fit into the norm in Lebanon…

…says cofounder David Munir Nabti. In a city with a high population of freelancers (often working on design, web technology, and startups), coworking allows individuals to share a common working environment. A solution to freelancers’ isolation and also a way to meet people working in similar fields, Nabti says that the space tries to address practical issues of prohibitively high office costs while fostering a community.

AltCity in Beirut, Lebanon

AltCity in Beirut, Lebanon

Nabti says that he saw in Beirut few venues and opportunities for sharing ideas, collaborating, and peer learning within similar fields, especially for new technologies. AltCity works to build this community on a face-to-face level, bringing together a diversity of attendees to bump into each other at both formal events and in a casual cafe space. It serves everyone from activists, start-ups, students, freelance journalists, web and tech developers, and so on.

Palestinian and Lebanese youth participating in “A Shared Vision for a Better Future,” a leadership and peacebuilding event at AltCity

Palestinian and Lebanese youth participating in “A Shared Vision for a Better Future,” a leadership and peacebuilding event at AltCity

AltCity shapes it programming to Beirut’s needs: the city has a large African and Asian migrant worker population. This led to a collective weekly meeting for members of the migrant worker community, with volunteers teaching language as well as computer skills.

altcity infogr 1 This has included two series of workshops for members of this community; in the first, a group learnt about storytelling and photography, creating photo essays about their daily lives and routines in Lebanon. The second worked with a graphic designer to create infographics focused on issues of racism and other human rights abuses faced by migrant workers in Lebanon.

The workshops culminated in an exhibition of the projects, marking International Migrants Day and Human Rights Day in collaboration with Migrant Workers Task Force.

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AltCity continues its events schedule with a focus on bringing people together: upcoming events include a Hackathon in March. Attendees can come alone or in a team, and will be working with others to build a mobile application using the Touch Cloud. Though the apps may have any focus, the organisers note that they encourage apps to help build a better Lebanon.

Programming in AltCity also addresses the need to find ways to support projects in a difficult economic environment; a recent workshop with Demotix's chief editor Wais Bashir addressed how to generate revenue from online citizen journalism content.

Upcoming plans include a pecha kucha night, designed as an event for young designers to meet, network, and share their work in public, as well as a “Behance Beirut Salon.” Potential thoughts for the future include peace journalism events, TEDx meetings, and other projects to build networks and connections.

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Since opening its doors, other coworking spaces have followed suit. However, as the first of its kind this has not been without difficulties. The concept of a coworking space is at times confusing to potential sponsors, making startup difficult. Though the attitude of AltCity is one of a non-profit or social venture, they are officially registered as a company in the hopes that the project will be sustainable without external funding. Thus they try to keep their revenue streams diverse. This includes providing a variety of services: cafe, event-space, business and/or media support services, etc, to keep the project thriving and impactful when the economy fluctuates.

The AltCity space is meant “to bridge the virtual and local divide,” to build networks at the local level but also to expose developers in Beirut to different things happening globally, linking activists and entrepreneurs to different communities and the cutting edge around the world.

Classes for migrant workers (all photos of AltCity from their Flickr, published under Creative Commons)

Classes for migrant workers (all photos of AltCity from their Flickr, published under Creative Commons)

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