This Beirut Hackerspace Brings Tech Startup Spirit To The Middle East

Beirut’s tech boom also has its more grassroots side, driven by one scrappy “hackerspace.”

A build night at Lamba Labs. All photos courtesy of Lamba Labs.

Beirut’s tech scene has surged over the past decade, with the development of a glitzy digital district in the city’s downtown and a burgeoning number of startups and coworking spaces.

The blossoming of tech entrepreneurship in the small Middle Eastern country has been sped along by central bank funding for startups — but the tech boom also has its more grassroots side, driven in large part by one scrappy hackerspace.

Lamba Labs opened in 2012, the same year the Beirut Digital District was launched with more fanfare and a considerably higher price tag. The project shared a space with Karaj, a media lab in Beirut’s then up-and-coming Mar Mikhael neighborhood, which is now a hipster district full of bars and cafes.

Lamba Labs came about when Bilal Ghalib, an Iraqi-American entrepreneur on a mission to start hackerspaces in the Middle East, connected with a group of young Lebanese geeks eager for the same thing.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Hackerspaces needed to happen in the Middle East just like they needed to happen in the U.S. when everything was collapsing.[/quote]

Ghalib had seen the rise of hackerspaces in the U.S. after the 2008 economic collapse, when plummeting real estate prices and a glut of unemployed, tech-savvy young people converged.

The idea was simple: Bring together people interested in technology, give them equipment and a space to work with, and see what unfolds.

After the Arab Spring of 2011, Ghalib and others saw a need for a similar movement in the Middle East. “Hackerspaces needed to happen in the Middle East just like they needed to happen in the U.S. when everything was collapsing,” Ghalib says. “My idea was to find all these people and bring them together and tell them about this process and that it’s possible to self-organize.”

Lamba Labs members working on lanterns at their annual Halloween party.

Building the future

The cornerstone of Lamba Labs has always been the weekly build night in which members and curious newcomers can use the space and equipment — including a soldering station, a 3D printer, and the rare (in Beirut) commodity of high-speed WiFi — to experiment and work on projects.

At one build night, you might find a group of members figuring out how to put together an underwater camera drone. At another, they might be bumbling around the lab blindfolded to test out a sensor belt intended to help blind and visually impaired people navigate more easily.

Other events have focused on digital security and privacy tools, cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, and using Open Street Maps to help a project aiming to map Beirut’s previously uncharted system of buses and vans.

Lamba Labs has also spawned projects that went on to become business ventures. For instance, two of the founders invented an automatic guitar tuner — the Roadie — which they are now selling on a commercial scale.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]This maker movement that is sweeping the region is democratizing the process of manufacturing and giving us power over the means of production.[/quote]

The all-volunteer group has been through its share of shakeups. Some core members have left the country in search of better opportunities, a common phenomenon in Lebanon among ambitious young people.

One member, Raja Oueis, died of cancer in 2015. A year earlier, in a TED Talk, Oueis spoke of his hope that hackerspaces could help to realize the hopes in the region that rose from the Arab Spring.

“This maker movement that is sweeping the region is democratizing the process of manufacturing and giving us power over the means of production,” he said.

Lamba Lab’s budget relies on member donations, so finding and keeping a sustainable space while members leave is always a struggle. The lab recently reopened in its fourth location — a graceful 19th-century building off Mar Elias Street, a busy stretch of dollar stores and cheap clothing shops well removed from Beirut’s hipper districts.

Lamba Labs merchandise.

Collaborative spirit

Alaa Salam, one of the core members, says the group is always faced with a balancing act between generating income and keeping the space and its events as open as possible.

Putting even a small price on events “really throws off people who are curious and just want to try something,” Salam says. “We try to encourage this kind of curiosity, and once you put a price tag on anything, this curiosity dies.”

Her own fascination with all things tech came from her father, a prosthetics engineer. As a child, she often found herself sitting alongside him, learning to work a robotic arm or knee. She went on to pursue a career as a biomedical engineer in hospitals.

At Lamba Labs, her pet project is an all-in-one monitor for emergency responders to measure heart rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygen saturation in the field in places like Syria. Once finished, she will share the design on a platform like GitHub so others can use and modify it. “That’s the whole point of open space ... for the entire society to collaborate,” Salam says.

As well as professionals like Salam, the lab space attracts young techies just starting out, like 17-year-old Hani Janzi, who just graduated from high school and plans to study physics at university.

He learned about Lamba Labs via a friend at a summer coding camp for teens in 2017. After checking out a meeting at the space — then located in the bustling Hamra neighborhood near the American University of Beirut — he was hooked. Janzi eventually became a full member, earning the right to a key that allowed him to drop in anytime to work on homework or tinker with a project.

“Every couple months I take on a new hobby,” he says. “Sometimes it’s learning a new coding language; other times, it’s cryptocurrency, trading.”

The other Lamba Labs members have helped him in those endeavors. The space “gives a sense of community,” Janzi notes. “You can ask others for help.”

To Ghalib, this sense of community is one of the main objectives behind the idea of hackerspaces. He’s encouraged to see a proliferation of community spaces — tech-related and otherwise — in Beirut in recent years.

“It’s part of a movement, a process of thinking about not going through life alone,” he says. “The things we build are not just the tools and tech — they’re relationships of support.”

Julian Meehan

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