That’s not hard to believe for anyone who has visited the space, which promises to be everything from a media café for citizen journalism to an alternative conference venue for high-end businesses.
Though very much a work in progress, AltCity debuted to the public this week with The AltMedia Experience, a week-long event featuring workshops and panel discussions on topics ranging from citizen journalism to storytelling to Internet security. Described as the event’s “grand finale,” a Barcamp on the subject, “Envisioning and Building the New Media Experience,” is also scheduled for Saturday. AltCity is using an array of social media to promote the week’s events, and will be live streaming over Ustream.
Nabti and co-founder Dima Saber envision AltCity as a community-building event space that will foster social entrepreneurship in Beirut. For many young organizations, and especially nonprofits, the costs of hosting an event in the mold of AltMedia Week can be prohibitive. AltCity is designed to offer budding activists and social entrepreneurs the space and logistical support they could not otherwise afford, with the option of compensating AltCity in kind, perhaps in the form of a free workshop. Nabti and Saber hope that by enabling these types of events, ambitious social entrepreneurs will be better able to get their ideas off the ground.
While the AltCity team will direct the day-to-day operation of the event space, it hopes that event planning will involve significant collaboration with the community, as has been the case with The AltMedia Experience.
“The week is reflective of what we want to do for the space in general. We’re organizing the structure of the event, dealing with logistics and fundraising, but a whole bunch of groups are contributing in a bunch of ways,” Nabti explains.
In addition to enthusiastic trainers representing a number of local organizations, such as Maharat and Mashallah News, several corporate sponsors have signed on to the event, including Crepaway, Red Bull, and Lebanese Brew.
The workshops are the substance of the week, and AltCity is pleased with the turnout so far. A workshop on Monday titled, “Using Digital Media for Citizen Journalism,” began by asking participants to examine a picture of some people at a fairly nondescript park, and then think up an appropriate caption for the image. The responses were read aloud, and, as a group, the participants were to determine whether each caption was valid.
As it turned out, every single response was deemed appropriate, despite significant discrepancies between interpretations. Such is the nature of citizen journalism, participants deduced.
Trainer Ali Ghamloush presented from a makeshift stage around which café-style chairs and couches had been casually strewn. His slides were projected behind him onto the worn stone wall, which is covered in places by hand-painted murals and elsewhere in arrangements of small screens, reflecting the art and technology of the place.
Though at present AltCity is essentially one giant, wraparound space, it is in the process of being divided into separate rooms with unique functions. At the heart of AltCity, both literally and figuratively, will be the media café, which was initially envisioned as a newsroom for Nabti and Saber’s “youth-driven alternative media outlet,” Hibr.
The pair founded Hibr in 2009 to introduce the community, in particular Lebanese youth, to the concept of citizen journalism. Hibr provides training and guidance to aspiring citizen journalists, and publishes their articles in print and online. In many ways, the AltCity concept reflects the founding principle of Hibr: that every citizen can and should be an active participant in their society’s media.
As the workshop topics suggest, the media café is designed to be a base of operations for citizen journalists and producers, among other people. The café will feature TV screens tuned to various media outlets, as well as offer shared subscription tools that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive to individuals.
Beyond the media center and stage, the rest of what AltCity hopes to offer is harder to put into words. Nabti likes to extend the café concept to a broader analogy for what AltCity strives to be.
“We envision a space where people can meet and socialize and connect. At a café, you don’t need an invitation, you don’t need to be a member. It’s an open space.”
AltCity also strives to be a very green space, and it has partnered with Eco Consulting to that end. Among their more ambitious projects is an efficient sink-toilet system wherein water that drains from the sink, which would otherwise be wasted, would flow directly into the toilet, so that it would not have to draw clean water from a separate pipe. The top of this toilet will be clear, so that visitors can examine the plumbing and understand how it works.
The proposed clear toilet top is something of an offbeat metaphor for the transparency AltCity hopes to engender in all aspects of its operation. Nabti insists that AltCity does not wish to establish a profit-mazimizing monopoly on the media café/conference space concept, or any of its features.
“We want people to copy us,” he says, indicating the large number of cafés in the Hamra area.
While the space is quickly coming together, AltCity does not anticipate being fully functional until late September. Nabti, however, mimes quotation marks around the word ‘done’ when speaking about the project because he intends the space to be constantly evolving.
“It will be done, but it won’t be statically done. We want it to be a dynamic space.”
Once the café is functional, however, the founders are adamant that it not cater to the casual Internet-surfing clientele of a Starbucks or Costa Coffee. They want to provide an inclusive, community-building environment that is first and foremost productive.
“We want people to actually produce here,” Nabti explains. Hence the space will feature quiet rooms where people can write or just think, in addition to office space and conference rooms. This latter component of AltCity is also designed to attract organizations who are seeking a venue for their conferences or meetings. While the business model may not be profit maximizing, and AltCity is funded in part by a grant from Mercy Corps, generating revenue is crucial to its sustainability.
As for how AltCity might compete with a ritzy Hamra hotel, the establishment choice for a business conference, Nabti is quite frank.
“A company would come here because it’s cooler,” he says.
No one would argue with that.