Makers Hub. Plus Arts

Obialunanma Nnaobi
Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer at Vilsquare

Makerspace are popular environments that were set up to help (future)makers, but also to promote STEM Learning. The new trend was fuelled by necessities in our society toward more experts in the field of technology, engineering or science. So learning together form one another seemed a good idea. But, what happens when you include also the creative and cultural part in it?
We have talked with the CEO and Co-Founder of Vilsquare from Nigeria, the leading makers space to find out how and what this was set up, what was the evolution, the most successful projects that came out, and how it was to include Arts.

TechvangArt (TVA): How did you come up with the idea of setting up the Makers Hub? What is its main role and objective?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: Vilsquare Makers’ Hub was set up to build sustainable solutions across African communities, through empowerment and use of technology. The hub was launched in 2018 and has hosted hackathons, makeathons and science and technology outreaches across Nigeria. The hackathons are hosted as part of the National Hackathon Series – a peacebuilding and civic engagement programme designed and implemented in partnership with Meluibe Foundation – and serve as a platform to onboard new members from different cluster communities. Solutions from these hackathons directly respond to the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

TechvangArt (TVA: How did Covid 19 pandemy affect your activities?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: As with every other organization, the pandemic has meant that business activities have slowed down and become mostly remote. Because we were already a mostly digital company, the transition hasn’t been as steep for us as it has for some other organizations. The lockdowns have also provided us time to reflect and strategize for this new phase.
In this almost 4 month period, Vilsquare has launched the Volt Microscope – a low cost digital microscope produced in Abuja. Nigeria that supports STEM learning for students and researchers at home. More recently, in July, VoltSchool – an eLearning platform that provides learning resources for secondary / high school students across anglophone West Africa went live. This project has had close to 50 team members, all working remotely to research, design and successfully deploy a much needed solution in less than 3 months.

TechvangArt (TVA): We guess, that many activities had to be moved online. How did the process go?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: A lot of our activities with the Vilsquare Makers’ Hub is centered around community building. That means a some physical meet-ups but mostly community engagement activities. Interestingly, our activities pre-COVID19 were structured such that after each physical meetup, interested Makers transition into a virtual space and continue to interact with existing members. So while physical and social distancing have put a temporary halt to physical meet-ups, our community interactions have not been affected.
As a company, a huge part of our work at Vilsquare is in supporting the digitization of organizations. For us and for our clients, the last few months have meant fast tracking some previously scheduled transitions, etc. Simply put, it’s been a very tough but rewarding process.

TechvangArt (TVA): Different Makers Hubs have different business models. Some are supported by its members who pay a fee, and it is more of a coworking with shared resources. Other Makers Spaces are supported through partnerships with local governments, with free facilities for makers. Then, we also see Makers Spaces that have behind a company, and the Hub is both a space for recruiting talents and/or helping to invest in new ventures/startup ideas. What is your way of functioning?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: The Vilsquare Makers’ Hub is designed at its core to primarily contribute to national cohesion by amplifying unity in diversity. A secondary engagement with the hub is to build a massive community of several other creative clusters where talents or members can connect to a network and find opportunities – trainings, recruitment, scholarships, grants, investments and mentorship. The hub is free to join and does not require any recurring membership fee. Vilsquare Makers’ Hub is a programme that connects to Vilsquare’s corporate social responsibility, CSR.

TechvangArt (TVA): For young teams that want to develop a creative or startup idea in Nigeria, what are the main difficulties they face?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: I would say access to resources – human, material, financial, and so on. Passion is great but you need resources to translate an idea into something more tangible. But whatever shortfall there might be in these can be surmounted by leveraging on collaborations and networks, wherever possible.

TechvangArt (TVA): We have recently made an interview with Yemisi Ola-Afolayan, curator of the first 3D art exhibition. The exhibition was simply amazing and worth to visit, definitely. And we know that you were the secret ally in this story 🙂. So, on your part, how the story unfolded? How it went and for the future would you continue to help the art community? What improvements you would implement?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: We believe Africa has untapped talents scattered across several cluster communities. Our vision is to provide a platform where these talents are supported to achieve their dreams. This vision motivates us to deploy high value services at zero cost to our community members with the hope that it provides a launching pad for their careers. Remember what I said earlier about leveraging on collaborations?
The Vilsquare 3D virtual art exhibition was an opportunity to provide a reflective outlet for society as we negotiated the crisis, showcase the creativity of African artists and explore the fusion between arts and technology. The exhibition hosted works from 26 African artists and recorded over 4000 visitors from across 240 cities in 58 countries.
Vilsquare is always open to collaborate with people from the art community, especially early career individuals and organizations.

TechvangArt (TVA): Beside this collaboration, what were the other successful projects you did so far?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: In the two years since Vilsquare Makers’ Hub was established, I would say that one of our most successful projects has been The National Hackathon Series. Our pioneer community members came from participants of the Series. Since then, these community members from diverse tribes and ethnicities across Nigeria have worked with the core Vilsquare team on projects including:
• The EnviroSense Hack Series (September – October 2019), a set of science outreaches to primary and secondary schools in Abuja.
• AI4Good Makeathon (November 2019)
• Digital Security Awareness Campaign

TechvangArt (TVA): You work a lot in bringing together the creatives sector, with social actors and business. What are the main challenges you have encountered so far?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: Our intersection broadly connects with communities; not only the creatives sector. We believe technology and digital transformation can transform African communities. In regards to the creatives sector, it has been a learning curve for us, especially with quickly onboarding creatives to adopt digital tools and processes in execution. In the last two years, Vilsquare has engineered technology and process paradigms to easily facilitate the intersection of these sectors.

TechvangArt (TVA): Prior to Covid, the creative and cultural sector was not very open towards digitalization, but now in every sector from visual arts to fashion to object design, and so on, people are forced to start thinking digital.
Obialunanma Nnaobi: You are right about this. For many decades, the connection for the creative and cultural sectors have been very physical. Emotions have been the main contact point to engage with their audience. Due to the capital-intensive nature of digitization, stakeholders across both sectors might have been skeptical about converting their analog, physical and heavy investments to cloud powered methods. With the COVID-19 disruption, players of both sectors are engaging companies like Vilsquare to find ways of evolving to a digital strategy. This will not only increase capacity and reach for the sectors but also empower actors to access a global target audience.

TechvangArt (TVA): How do you see the future of fusion between cultural and creative sectors and technology?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: Initiatives like the Virtual Art Exhibition mark the transition to digitalization for both sectors. More tools, devices, business models, and processes that will service the adoption of digital strategies will be created to meet sector needs. In-line with our vision for the future of digitalization, Vilsquare continues to actively undertake research and development, to prototype solutions that will support the digital revolution for these sectors.

TechvangArt (TVA): What creative fields will start going becoming more infused with technology?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: We’ve seen it happen with art exhibitions. Fashion shows, and decentralized live stage plays or concerts (bringing remote dancers, stage actors, and musicians together) will follow.

TechvangArt (TVA): From the point of view of a person with a background in tech and business, can you tell us 3 main strong point and 3 not-so-strong points that the cultural and creative industries face when it comes to collaborating with the tech sector?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: I would summarize this as a challenge that arises from low digital literacy. Increasing digital literacy is one will transform communities across Africa. When industries actors understand that technology is here not to put you out of a job but to increase your efficiency, effectiveness and reach, I believe that we would start to see more collaboration.
An example of such collaboration in the education sector is the VoltSchool, where teachers have been introduced to state-of-the-art digital transformation tools to create learning content, that is hosted online.
TechvangArt (TVA): What can culture and tech learn from each other?
Obialunanma Nnaobi: Culture can be likened to a car, while technology is the fuel. Culture on her own is great, interesting to watch and learn about but cannot change position. Technology fuels culture to expand her reach. By empowering culture with technologies like Artificial Intelligence, culture is easier to preserve, adapt, and transform.