Social Innovation

How giving hope can go viral: A lesson in systems change from RLabs

One social innovator in South Africa is creating a collective of young people united by hope and a passion for technology.

One social innovator in South Africa is creating a collective of young people united by hope and a passion for technology. Image: RLabs

Cynthia Rayner
Adjunct Faculty, Bertha Centre for Social Innovation, University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business
Francois Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head of Foundations, World Economic Forum
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Social Innovation

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  • Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs) hosts technical training, entrepreneurship, and innovation programs that unite at-risk youth around their life experiences and passion for technology.
  • Since launching in South Africa in 2008, they have trained 200,000 individuals, incubated 3,500 businesses, and created 90,000 job opportunities in over 23 countries.
  • Read an extract of the new book The Systems Work of Social Change below to learn how RLabs is creating systems change through their work and learn more here.

The following is an excerpt from The Systems Work of Social Change by Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici, published by Oxford University Press on 1 September 2021. Join the conversation on the World Economic Forum Book Club.

Late one evening in 2006, Brent Williams returned to his parents’ house after a three-day binge. He went to the kitchen, rummaged around in the cutlery drawer, grabbed a knife, and headed to his parents’ bedroom. High and hallucinating, he wasn’t fully aware of what he was doing, but he had decided that he needed to make a name for himself—killing his mother seemed like a good way to get some attention.

His mom recalls it vividly. “I don’t know if he was aware it was Mother’s Day, but this was the day. And I thought, God help me, I need to do something. I think the cat was in his way, he kicked the cat and at that time I got my getaway . . . I think I was faster than him that day.”

Brent and his parents live in Bridgetown, a suburb on the Cape Flats of Cape Town known as “apartheid’s dumping ground.” Access to education, jobs, and opportunities is limited: too often, kids drop out of school, get involved with gangs, and become drug addicts and dealers. Brent started using drugs at the age of twenty-one, and moved on to selling them at the age of twenty-three.

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Although he knew deep down he needed to change, he kept falling back into his old habits of drug-using and dealing. He simply couldn’t conceive of an alternative to his current way of life. Then, Brent met Marlon Parker.

Marlon was a Bridgetown boy whose dream was simple—he wanted to wear a shirt and a tie. As he described it, “Very few people in my community had a job where they could wear a shirt and a tie and I felt if I did this, I could go anywhere and people would think: ‘There’s Marlon going to his office job. He’s arrived.’” Marlon studied information technology, mortgaging his mom’s two-bedroom house to pay the fees. Eventually, his dreams were realized when he was offered a job as a lecturer at the Cape Institute of Technology.

At the time, Marlon’s father-in-law, a pastor, was running a Community outreach center with a single computer and an internet connection. He asked Marlon if he could spend some of his free time training a few former gang members on computer skills. He recalls, “There was no grand plan at the time, we just went into a class with these guys and asked: ‘What do you know about computers?’ and they replied: ‘Marlon, the only thing we know about computers is how to steal them.’” This is where Brent met Marlon for the first time.

Like Brent, some of the youth in the class were dealers. Others were addicted to drugs or belonged to gangs. Most had dropped out of school and a few had children to support. They all shared an interest in turning their lives around, but also, like Brent, didn’t know where to start. Marlon didn’t have any tricks up his sleeves, but he did know about computers. So he started with what he knew and introduced them to basic computer skills.

The Systems Work of Social Change Image: Oxford University Press

Brent recalls the day they started, “The first time we ever opened up a laptop and tried to sign up to email, we were all so intimidated that our hands were shaking. Can you imagine that? A room full of hardened criminals who are all terrified of something as small as a computer!” With Marlon’s help, however, they soon got the hang of it. Before long, they were looking for new ways to apply their skills, so Marlon introduced them to blogging and social media.

Pretty soon, the former drug addicts and gang members had discovered a new addiction: technology.

Marlon wasn’t surprised that technology was addictive—this he knew from his own experience. But he was surprised to discover the ways in which these young men and women were using technology. When surfing the internet, they found stories and blogs by others who had gone through similar situations—youth in other parts of the country, even the world, who were struggling with drugs, violence, and gangs. They gravitated toward a new South African social media platform called Mxit which gave them a chance to tell their personal stories, unfiltered, something they were hungry to do.

One day, Marlon, Brent, and some of the others were having a conversation about how technology was turning their lives around. Marlon realized that the young men and women were using social media to connect the dots, to make sense of their lives. The conversation turned to how they wished they had had access to social media at their previous points of crisis—Brent, for example, wished he could have talked to someone at the moment he was having his binge.

As they were talking, they were getting excited. Would it be possible to create a mobile app that would give this opportunity to others who were in similar situations, to connect to people like them when they needed some help or just to share? They decided to give it a shot.

The app was just the channel. It was what they were channeling that was important: a sense of connection.

Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici

The mobile app was built on top of Mxit and they called it Jamiix. It was one of the first mobile counseling platforms in the world— designed by a group of ex-gangsters and drug dealers. The number of active users grew so quickly it caused the system to crash. By the end of 2013, Jamiix had been accessed 27 million times, by more than 4.5 million users, facilitating more than a billion messages. Marlon and his team decided to set up a nonprofit called Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs) to formally manage the platform.

However, they knew that the platform wasn’t really the point—the app was just the channel. It was what they were channeling that was important: a sense of connection. Among those who had similar life experiences, they could recreate the feelings of belonging that gang membership and drug addiction had provided in the past. Upon this sense of unity, these youth could envision a path forward, a way to reconstruct their lives.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

It is easy to be distracted by the cutting-edge technology and sheer scale of what RLabs has deployed and accomplished. Through its hub in Cape Town and multiple franchises, RLabs has trained 200,000 individuals, incubated 3,500 businesses, and created 90,000 job opportunities worldwide. Yet, these numbers and programs can obscure the true nature of the work. The platforms are sophisticated yet underappreciated way of developing a new collective identity about how impoverished youth and their communities envision their futures.

In our research, we came to recognize a clear pattern: while many organizations (or their founders) started out trying to influence the behavior of individuals, they soon found themselves working in the other direction—intentionally creating new groups to connect individuals to one another. With RLabs, Marlon could have easily gone the first route, focusing on “heroic entrepreneurs” like many of the technology incubator programs that have sprouted up in recent years. While observing how Brent and others interacted with the Jamixx technology, however, Marlon stumbled upon a critical practice of systems work: building a new web of relationships that supports individual and collective change.

While with RLabs, Brent found another identity that valued the skills of technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation, all of which gave him a way to spend his time in new and positive ways. Importantly, it was this sense of trust and togetherness that kept Brent coming back. If Marlon had merely provided him IT training, overlooking his need for a new sense of belonging, he never would have persisted in his newfound hobby. The technology was sticky, but the connection to the group was the true addiction.

Want to discuss this extract? Join the Book Club here.

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