From Dropouts to Innovators: How RLabs Invests in Young "Problem Experts" to Beat Crime & Unemployment

From Dropouts to Innovators: How RLabs Invests in Young "Problem Experts" to Beat Crime & Unemployment

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Editor's Note: This article was written by Tsega Belachew, Global Content and Engagement Manager for Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. This article was first featured on on 29 July 2014. RLabs, founded by Marlon Parker, is an innovation movement that transforms youth in troubled communities, gangsters, dropouts and ex-convicts, into changemakers.

Marlon Parker grew up in the Cape Flats township of Cape Town surrounded by increasing rates of unemployment, crime, gang violence and drug abuse. As the eldest in a single-parent household, Marlon was compelled to supplement the family's income and by age 8 he was selling candy and carrying grocery bags to earn extra cash. At 19, while working at the airport, a serendipitous conversation with a coworker motivated him to study information technology (IT) and inspired in him new possibilities. He had never touched a computer before enrolling in university and by the time he completed his computer science degree, he had never owned one.

Fast Forward 15 years - Marlon is now the founder of Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs), a social innovation-driven movement where dropouts, ex-convicts, gangsters, the homeless, former drug addicts and single mothers (a majority of whom are youth) are positioned to drive lasting social change. RLabs, originally founded in Cape Flats, are now present in 21 countries and include physical and virtual hubs offering free IT and entrepreneurial courses, incubators for youth-led enterprises and youth cafés where young people can exchange good deeds for a RLabs-developed virtual currency. Each component of RLabs is designed to inspire hope and catalyze youth-led creativity in order to change entrenched systems of unemployment, crime and violence in disadvantaged and troubled communities.

Marlon paved his own path by creating opportunities out of the very challenges that were tearing his community apart. Marlon's journey took him from struggling for survival as a young boy in a community with very little hope to the founding of RLabs, designed to bring innovation and new possibilities to troubled communities. His journey inspires a vision for other young people with few prospects: "We have always encouraged youth to stop thinking about the job because there will never be enough jobs [in South Africa]. Instead we motivate them to focus on the work that needs to be done in our communities. We have an abundance of work to do but limited jobs. So we focus on turning the work into economic opportunities – into a Hope Economy."

So far, RLabs and the IT innovations designed in its incubators have created 20,000 jobs (directly and indirectly), by addressing social challenges through 22 IT-powered social enterprises and 185 RLabs-inspired business products. RLabs has also provided free training to more than 27,000 people and university scholarships to 438. RLabs is building momentum for a "Hope Economy" movement globally in countries as far reaching as Somalia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Nigeria, Namibia, Malaysia, Portugal, Brazil, the UK, and the Philippines (including 17 physical hubs mostly located in Africa).

Marlon's work has led to his election as an Ashoka Fellow*, the US President Barack Obama's Young African Leaders Network in 2012 and his selection as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader of 2014.