Connect Create Cairo is an exhibition and workshop that uses 3D printing technology to get people thinking about the past, present and future of cities and urban spaces. Recently held at the Ismaili Centre, Toronto, the exhibition gave participants a chance to become urban planners and conceive their own design solutions.

3D printing is fast becoming part of everyday life.

The technology, which allows solid objects to be “printed” from a computer file, is being recognised for its educational potential and can increasingly be found at universities, schools, museums, and libraries. It permits learners of all ages to tinker, experiment and collaborate to solve complex problems and issues.

Connect Create Cairo is an exhibition and workshop that uses 3D printing technology and online design tools to get people thinking about the past, present and future of cities and urban spaces and to conceive design solutions for these places. Recently held at the Ismaili Centre, Toronto, the exhibition leads visitors on a journey through Cairo’s distinctive urban landscape and architectural heritage from the 9th to the 18th centuries — including its water systems, streetscapes, commercial, civic and religious spaces, houses and other dwellings.

The result of a collaboration between STEP teachers, educators, architects, designers and 3D technology specialists, Connect Create Cairo is an immersive learning experience. It took almost a year to develop from design to implementation.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is an architectural-scale model of one of Cairo’s historic urban districts that contains the Al-Azhar Park and the Cairo Citadel. The model also contains other historic buildings; however, many of the residential streets and neighbourhoods are purposely left empty. The blank spaces are where workshop participants can add their own 3D printed buildings, drawing on Cairo’s historic past for inspiration while collaboratively exploring critical issues facing cities and urban spaces everywhere.

Connect Create Cairo was launched on Saturday, 8 November 2014.

In the early hours of the morning, a team gathered to unbox and calibrate 3D printers, configure laptop computers, disentangle printing filament, arrange furniture, and set up televisions. As the first students arrived, workshop facilitators began by exploring critical issues of urban design, with a particular focus on historic and contemporary Cairo.

A video introduced the work of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s urban regeneration project in Cairo’s Darb al-Ahmar district, and the building of the Al-Azhar Park. Students then huddled around the exhibition’s architectural model and debated the issues facing the city and its urban spaces.

“Cairo is a very innovative city, and I did not know this before,” says Inaara Ahmed-Fazal, a student who took part in the workshop. She learnt about the problems of crumbling buildings and poverty in parts of the city, but was impressed with the creativity of Cairenes despite these circumstances. An example of this, she says, is “the sabil-kuttab system, which allows people to have drinking water and see that children are being educated.”

She and the other participants were invited to become “city planners” and asked to consider where they might like to live in a city like Cairo. Ultimately they needed to decide where to place the house they were about to design and make on a 3D printer.

The students were introduced to 3D printing design software and were given time to model their residence. In the process, they were reminded of mathematical principles such as mass, volume, scale and thresholds. Some returned to the exhibition panels for inspiration, while others put their creativity straight to work. When the designs were completed, attention turned to the 3D printer stations where students watched their models come to life.

As the printed houses were placed in the architectural model, the students saw their own vision of Cairo’s streetscape emerge.

On 1 March 2015, the completed architectural model was unveiled at a celebration to mark the final day of the exhibition and workshops. More than 300 participants had taken part in the workshops and contributed a residence of their own design.

“The participants, with no background in architecture, nor any understanding of a formal design process, designed their objects based purely on reasoned intuition,” says Yasin Visram, an architect and member of the workshop team. Seeing their models being printed, he says, gave them “a sense of accomplishment, as future architects or city planners, of their own design process.”

Connect Create Cairo provided participants with experiential education that placed them at the centre of their own learning. For many, it was their first exposure to a learning environment that integrated history, contemporary issues and technology.

Connect Create Cairo is scheduled to travel to other Ismaili Centres in 2015 and 2016.