Today I was lucky enough to attend a seminar by Marlon Parker, founder of RLabs. I had never heard of either before but my interest was sparked by the mention of ICT4D (something I have been into for a while) and a cursory browse on the website.
Organized by the kind folks of the Global South Forum it was well worth attending. From the RLabs website:
Reconstructed Living Lab (RLabs) is a global movement and registered Social Enterprise that provides innovative solutions to address various complex problems. It creates an environment where people are empowered to make a difference in the lives of others. The RLabs “main hub” is in Athlone, Cape Town but have activity in the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and Central Africa with a goal of reaching all continents by 2012.
RLabs was founded in the most unlikely of places: The Cape Town flats, described by some as “apartheid’s dumping ground”. The RLabs mission is:
- To create an interaction space for collaborative design, creation, dissemination and application of knowledge
- To develop and empower champions in communities through innovation
- To give hope and make a difference
- To be leaders in innovation continuously adding value
With this post I just want to capture a couple of key ideas that resonated with me.
Marlon started his talk with a question: What, above all else, do you need for any development effort to succeed, what is the most fundamental requirement?
My own answer centered around education but I quickly saw his was bang on. There is one thing you need first. And that is Hope. Give somebody hope and you have lighted a small fire inside them. From hope comes motivation. From motivation comes engagement, innovation, and creativity. From those come social progress.
So how did Marlon kickstart this? By starting from a very simple but powerful idea: let people tell their stories. Everybody has a story to tell, none more than those near the bottom of the social ladder. Then show them how technology can be used to facilitate telling that story, to connect with others with similar stories, etc. Grow from there in a “play and learn” type style.
Core to the concept of creating Hope is the concept of acceptance. You can only create hope by treating people with dignity and respect. No matter who they are and no matter what their background. Accept them as they are and treat them the same. Be it an illiterate homeless person or college professor.
Marlon mentioned the story of Jamiix and how its R&D team consisted of housewives, drug dealers, and long term unemployed. Many of which (if not all) have bettered their ways and even joined RLabs as trainers.
Community, not Technology
Central to the whole RLabs philosophy is the community. Community in the real sense of the word, not the wishy washy term often used to describe a bunch of Facebook profiles that clicked a “Like” button or gets thrown around at Web/TED conferences.
Understanding the needs and structure of the community comes first. Technology should never be the first point of call. Technology is easy, its not a solution in itself but can greatly facilitate one. Understand the pull of the community before considering any type of technology push. This also means never underestimating the power of experience. If you are looking to tackle poverty make sure you talk to the only person who understands poverty: somebody who has had to live through it. Talk to them and not just the academics or NGOs.
Do, dont ask
Finally, for me the whole presentation was again a wonderful example of the sayings “its easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” and, as Jeff Atwood put it, “Do stuff, tell people”. Stick to those two premises and good things will come. I have seen it time and time again and RLabs is a perfect example.
Marlon started off with a single 386 PC and a group of 15 drug dealers, hitmen and gang members. Doing everything in his own time with no budget to work with. Never did they ask the South African government for money. Just for acknowledgement.
Fast forward 5 years and RLabs runs an innovation incubator, a training academy, a research institute, has franchises in many countries around the world, resulted in 14 startups (e.g., UUSI), and generates about 70% of its own income.
Altogether an inspiring story. So go ahead. Do stuff. Tell people.