THE BLOG

Social Innovation Through Hope Economies: From Addicts to Entrepreneurs

16/05/2014 09:16 BST | Updated 15/07/2014 10:59 BST

Bridgetown on the Cape Flats in Cape Town isn't where you'd immediately head to seek out social innovation. High unemployment and poverty have left communities plagued by drug addiction and gang crime; the lack of opportunity leaving many feeling hopeless.

As I entered the doors of RLabs, a thriving social innovation space in the neighbourhood, the atmosphere couldn't be more distinct from its surroundings. With its brightly coloured walls, state-of-the-art equipment and brainstorm-filled whiteboards, I could have as easily been situated in Silicon Valley or London. The space was buzzing with energy, packed with enthusiastic community members sharing ideas, devising solutions and developing products.

Marlon Parker, Founder of RLabs is building what he calls 'Hope Economies'. He recognised that if he could bring community members hope, by building their skills and confidence, it would enable them to become social entrepreneurs, contributing towards positive change in their communities.

When Suzanne Smith, a single parent first heard about RLabs, she used to store guns for gangsters and was addicted to drugs. She has now completed high school remotely at the space, oversees training courses at RLabs and has created an online platform for informal traders to market products.

As she explains, 'RLabs made me feel at home, loved and part of a family. There was no judgement - that was a big thing for me. Being at RLabs gave me a different view of life and what was possible.'

Alongside this positive environment, the team have trained 22,104 people (70% women) in courses equipping them with skills in areas like entrepreneurship, mobile application development and project management. This gives them a sense of hope.

Their Living Lab helps transfer this hope into action, guiding community members through a process that enables them to tackle social problems in their communities. Successful ideas are then taken into their incubator programme to be transformed into viable products and businesses. They've inspired and supported 239 businesses, creating 1,105 jobs directly and indirectly.

Uusi, a mobile-based job search platform created at RLabs gets over a million views per month, while Jamiix, a social media aggregation and management platform, has been licensed for use by SANCA Western Cape and the National Aids Helpline who provide counselling services.

RLabs model for social innovation stands as a stark contrast to that of the traditional technology innovation hubs which Indigo Trust funds. A typical hub focuses primarily on bringing the tech community together. Through a vibrant space, state-of-the-art equipment, events, mentoring and training, they aim to stimulate the creation of viable products and projects. They're usually based in the centre of a city and attract an educated crowd.

In contrast, RLabs focuses on engaging a poorer community, one that is encountering significant challenges. It focuses on developing people and enabling them to devise solutions to their community's problems, viewing technology as an enabler in this process. This model is inspiring in its ability to transform the lives of individuals.

When he first encountered RLabs, Clinton Liederman was addicted to drugs, involved in crime and estranged from his wife and family. This has all changed. He attended courses at RLabs, leading to him creating a blog about his experiences, which bagged him the runner-up prize at the South African blog awards. It's since inspired many drug addicts to give up drugs.

As he explains, 'Young people feed off the hope we have, it's contagious. People come from different walks of life and develop one vision.'

RLabs' model also ensures that the solutions developed closely align with their users' needs. Other hubs could benefit from forming strong ties to the communities they seek to reach with their products and services-if you're developing an agricultural application, you need to talk to farmers! They could also benefit from building strong partnerships with civil society organisations tackling similar challenges.

RLabs isn't your traditional charity. While still reliant on some grant funding, it generated £720,000 in income last year by providing technical services to NGOs and government, selling products, partnership agreements and licensing their services. They employ 83 people from the community and have incubated 29 start-ups, which have collectively generated over £1 million. Other hubs could benefit from adopting similar models.

This model does, however, pose a challenge for scaling. Marlon likes to run the organisation as a business; believing in creating value through viable products and services to generate income. This creates a lag time where grant support may be needed to expand.

The team is also developing a social franchise model that enables them to replicate their concept in other countries. It's been a challenging endeavour as it can be hard to replicate the essence of the founding community. They've recognised a need for establishing strong partnerships with organisations willing to pay for their services. Partners are now required to identify a staff member committed to taking ownership locally in the long term. They will also be based in Cape Town for a month so they can be fully immersed in the RLabs approach.

It's an ambitious model which is transforming lives, creating jobs, generating revenue and tackling social problems. It will be interesting to see whether this approach can be replicated elsewhere in widely varying contexts.