Abbas & Heba in Cairo, picture by Constanze Flamme
Abbas & Heba in Cairo, picture by Constanze Flamme

Collaboration in Uncertain times

Heba Mousa from Tabdeel, Egypt and Abbas Sbeity from MENA Design Research Center, Lebanon share their thoughts on their Tandem journey. Heba and Abbas were working in Tandem on the collaboration project "Design on the Wheel".

This could be either of the two authors of this article. In the span of last year, we embarked on a journey of a cultural project collaboration not knowing what to expect from each other or from our shared collaboration journey. But this is 2021, the year of uncertainty, setting expectations wouldn’t help.

We kicked off our collaboration with a smooth start. It was clear from the beginning that both of us are interested in building collaboration with each other and the project we were creating was also a building block in our personal and professional goals for each of us.

Abbas Sbeity is a design researcher with a background in architecture and pursuit to build a portfolio in utilizing design methods in the realm of urbanism. Heba Mousa is an urbanist and a professional cycling advocate who takes an interdisciplinary approach to her work and aims at utilizing arts, technology, and design in cycling activism… In short, a tandem match made in heaven! However, along the way, we were faced with multiple challenges that could have stopped the collaboration at any point if it wasn’t for honest and clear communication between the partners and a mutual understanding of what each of us might be going through.

On the Lebanese side, an economic crisis followed the devastating Beirut port explosion left the country and its citizens in a dire situation. As we were planning the placement and work trips to Lebanon, civil unrest was overtaking the streets, and news of a shortage of gas, electricity, medicine, and even food was the only news coming from Lebanon. For Abbas, the Lebanese Tandem partner, planning his trip from his city of residence in Sweden was stressful enough, let alone that he was responsible for planning the trip for the Egyptian partner and coordinating fieldwork in Lebanon, and building cooperation with Lebanese partners who are living in a very sensitive situation and collective crisis.

On the Egyptian side, organizational challenges were arising from an escalating conflict that almost led to closing the organization altogether, leaving the partner faced with a huge amount of uncertainty regarding the project. But finally, after the conflict was resolved and the organization was restructured, it was for her to rebuild the whole thing and clear the aftermath while ensuring that the side effects of uncertainty were not transferred to the tandem partner. In this environment on both sides, this Tandem was acting as a tiny support group for dealing with stress, uncertainty, fear, and loss.

Finally, building trust, flexibility, and communication helped both to go through with the collaboration. At one point after months of preparation, we decided to take a risky, yet brave, decision to change the project and work on the digital sphere, which is based on our analysis was one of the few things in our control sphere. The project question stayed the same how can we use design for advocacy and representation of the bike users?. Hence, building a digital platform for the Egyptian cycling community was one of many answers. One that was consciously chosen to minimize the interaction with country-wide unrest in Lebanon and organizational unrest in Egypt and minimizes all the external risks that can stem from implementing a project on the ground in an uncertain environment.