Jobs and the Future of Work

Robotics, start-ups and bitcoin: the other side of Iraq

Brian Forde
Senior Lecturer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
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For more than a decade, I’ve watched and read countless stories about security, terrorism and the politics of Iraq. It’s the narrative that makes front page headlines and lights up the evening news. It’s an important narrative that needs to be told.

But it’s not the only story about Iraq.

I recently travelled to Basra with the newly launched PeaceTech Lab to participate in a PeaceTech Exchange (PTX). I met people with an incredible thirst for knowledge, particularly about technology. People who were doing something about it.

I watched as two college seniors worked together to build a wireless robotic arm at one of the country’s first makerspaces. I met a recent materials science graduate who timidly shared his brilliant business plan to create an artificial-intelligence editor for journalists to report stories more accurately.

I connected with a young Iraqi Facebook engineer who helped me teach an impromptu workshop on bitcoin. I shared stories with government officials and innovative civil-society organizers about how to build technology tools that increase communication and transparency between local residents and their government.

This is the Iraq we can also talk about and cover. 3D-printing, bitcoin, start-ups and open government could be the next story of this country. The Iraq I witnessed left me hopeful and inspired.

Inspiring stories to tell

On the first day, I met a man called Nawres Arif, a pharmacist by day and passionate tinkerer by night. Hoping to provide a space to work on his ideas with others, he crowdfunded $25,000, converted a shipping container into a makerspace, and imported 3D-printing and electronic equipment. He opened the first makerspace in Basra, in his own backyard. Catch a glimpse of his creative power and drive with the motion-capture glove he built and unveiled at TEDx Baghdad. Yes, TEDx made it to Baghdad. Why? There are many inspiring stories to tell.

So I asked Nawres who else was tinkering in his makerspace. He mentioned two women who were building a wireless robotic arm as their senior thesis. When the students demoed their work, I was impressed and told them their parents must be so proud. They looked at me quizzically, as if this is what is expected from their parents. Yet I was thinking about how proud any parent would be to have their children building robots, especially in Iraq. I was wrong.

The expectation that Iraq is downtrodden and hopeless is unfounded. The talent says something quite different.

When we talk about Iraq, we talk about our hope for a stable government. What we don’t talk about – what gets lost – are those hopes that we also have for the United States: STEM-educated women addressing the gender gap in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths.

A country of entrepreneurs

I also discovered Iraq’s potential as a country of start-ups. One night, one of the Iraqi tech moderators, Ali Ismail, asked if I could give him feedback on his business plan. Curious, I took a look. I was quickly impressed. His idea was to create a tool that instantly improves writing and reporting by journalists and students, by leveraging artificial intelligence, open data and other sources of information. It’s a pain point he learned about as an intern at Agence France-Presse while translating Iraqi news between Arabic and English.

Digging a little deeper, I discovered that this 22-year-old entrepreneur also created the first hackerspace in Baghdad. Ali has trained hundreds of Iraqis to code and build start-ups. He’s also hosted several Start-up Weekends in Basra and Baghdad.

Caught up in the narrative of war and poverty, sometimes it’s easy to forget the brilliant minds that are potential leaders to come. He has now been accepted to Singularity University on NASA’s campus in Silicon Valley.

As the Director of Digital Currency at the MIT Media Lab, I often think about the global impact of bitcoin, especially in emerging nations. I met Murtadha Al-Tameemi, an Iraqi-born Facebook engineer at a dinner. Curious about bitcoin, he prodded me with questions. After several hours of discussion, we asked a few people if they might be interested in a 30-minute workshop on the subject the following day.

Expecting a few people to attend, we were overwhelmed when more than 30 people showed up – all excitedly asking questions about this tech, downloading wallets, and immediately exchanging bitcoin. Iraqis immediately saw it as a technology that can solve problems I couldn’t have thought of – such as a reverse remittance, where they would send money from Iraq to elderly family members abroad.

A wealth of opportunities

Finally, what I saw when it comes to digital government, open data and civic technology was just as exciting as everything else. I came to Basra at the invitation of the PeaceTech Lab at the US Institute of Peace to work with civil-society organizations and the provincial government. My aim was to develop and train organizations and the provincial government on tech that would improve civic engagement.

While I was at the White House, I had the opportunity to work with hundreds of civic technologists. These were people fuelled by a passion to fix their cities and improve the lives of their neighbours by building the kind of tech that is powered by open data. They make an impact, but the delta between most American cities and Iraq is much greater.

I saw such opportunity in Iraq – a young woman who wanted to use open data to track water pollution in her community, a deputy governor who wanted to discuss what we had done to build a 21st-century government at the White House and in Detroit, and how he could learn from that.

As a result, the PeaceTech Lab is now funding participants to work on projects including the electronic issuance of ID certificates. They aim to develop a process, using open data and maps, to address unauthorized housing development, and build tools that improve transparency and communication about the maintenance of roads and other critical infrastructure.

While there’s a lot of room for improvement, countries that are in the process of rebuilding have the opportunity to leapfrog developed nations. They aren’t burdened with legacy systems.

It’s important to see Iraq from a different perspective. Yes, it’s far from the country it hopes to be. Yes, there are real issues with security, stability, and terrorism. But if the inspirational people I met are an indication of its future, I’m excited to support their efforts as they strive to build the promising country they deserve.

Have you read?
How can we help rebuild Iraq’s communities?
How tech helps Syria’s teenage refugees build a better future
10 lessons from a start-up entrepreneur

Author: Brian Forde is the Director of Digital Currency at the MIT Media Lab, was most recently the Senior Advisor for Mobile and Data Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Image: A vendor shows how to use wireless Internet to a customer at an Internet shop in Baghdad November 10, 2012. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkFourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging TechnologiesBusiness
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