Julian Ugarte is creating a youth-led and society-supported movement to address the problems of inequality in Chile and throughout Latin America. His organization, Socialab, is popularizing social problem-solving by providing the resources, credibility, and call to action for people from all walks of life, especially young people, to be protagonists in developing solutions wherever they see challenges.
The New Idea
Julian Ugarte is leading a movement, beginning in Chile and already spreading across Latin America, to change who solves social problems and how. In a country whose social divide is among the worst in Latin America, Julian has created an ecosystem of cross-boundary collaboration to nurture social innovation and bring it from a peripheral to a mainstream activity. His goal is to activate in youth across the region the desire to play a part in social change, to present social innovation as an attractive vocational option, and to create an environment where they can realize positive changes for some of society’s biggest problems.
Julian’s efforts are producing a new mindset by challenging the mentality of youth culture, specifically its view of social problems as static and to something be dealt with by institutions. Socialab is a “cool” place for young people to work on new, socially-focused solutions and in turn promote innovation across Chile and the region. This is preparing young people to thrive in a new reality in Latin America by giving them a space to practice changemaking. With their successes, Julian is proving that the youth, in turn, have much to offer society with new answers to old problems.
Incubators for social projects are still scarce in Chile. Socialab is expanding and giving visibility to this concept through an online platform with 275,000 participants that generates discussions about creativity and as well as actual solutions to regional and local challenges. By encouraging people to be inventive, and through designing and implementing real tools for change, the public’s perception is shifting. The platform has already led to projects like Plasma Water Sanitation, a low cost water purification system, and Miroculus, a program that detects cancer through a low cost, early stage blood test.
Socialab offers live support in a physical space where they bring together social innovators in a co-working environment and also offer monetary assistance, coaching, and an ongoing support network. Adding the additional ingredients of cross-boundary teamwork, Julian collaborates with the government, the citizen sector, and businesses to build a broad ecosystem of expertise and reinforcement. Socialab’s online platform creates a self-sufficient loop of social innovation which builds awareness and enthusiasm and has already opened doors to other countries in Latin America which have invited Julian to replicate Socialab.
Chile’s recent economic boom has created a huge gap between those with the most and those with the least. Chile ranks as the second worst country in Latin America in income inequality, as measured by the GINI coefficient, with those in the top 20% earning twelve times what those at the bottom 20% earn. The traditional view of education is that one should earn the highest degree possible, which will lead to earning the highest income possible. With that income, people tend to remain self-centered: equating success with an accumulation of wealth. Chilean society is highly competitive in regards to traditional, financial markers of success.
Culturally, the lack of social innovation results not only from self-interested individuals but also from lack of awareness that there are other ways to live. This comes from a society that is insulated on a global scale and with segregated socio-economic groups on a national scale. There is generally a very apathetic view of others’ problems, and according to the OECD, less than 25% of Chileans trust each other. Additionally, very harsh bankruptcy policies, carrying significant consequences, dissuade people from creating new business and discourage risk taking and trying new ways of doing things. Those who are currently developing new ideas do not prioritize social issues for fear of economic unfeasibility. Furthermore, bureaucracy is extraordinarily complex, particularly within the government. This environment does not lend itself to generating many solutions for existing problems, and by ignoring current problems, they only become worse. Because social innovation in Chile is stifled, there are very few support structures in place for those who do break the mold.
Young people in Chile are generally dissatisfied with many of these existing, often traditional and bureaucratic, structures. Higher education, for example, is very expensive compared to the average cost of living. A student whose family belongs to the three lowest socio-economic groups requires 40% of the family’s income to enroll in higher education. The lack of opportunities, distrust of government (50% of young people do not trust political parties), and student protests focused on higher education, have created an environment where the youth are not comfortable being outspoken and creative. Chile has not traditionally had spaces for young people to create change. From this dissatisfaction, wariness, and lack of opportunity comes the strength of the proposed Socialab: a real space to construct solutions.
Further opportunity came in 2010 when the government launched a program called Start-Up Chile, which brings innovators from around the world to the country and offers them $40,000 USD of seed funding and a one-year visa to work on their ideas. This has created a hub, albeit small, for innovation (the first year of the program brought 87 startups to the country and has opened the door to broader discussion of innovation. The government proclaimed 2012 the year of entrepreneurship and 2013 the year of innovation. However, this encouragement is very focused on business. Now, nourished by this new societal awareness, the ground for Julian’s movement to encourage social innovation is fertile.
Julian’s strategy in developing this movement has consisted of various aspects converging together in Socialab. He motivates young people to express and channel their dissatisfaction with the current system and encourages them to develop solutions. Large-scale competitions are utilized to allow the public to select the most innovative ideas, which are then showcased through events which have attracted nearly 50,000 people. This way, the ideas spread rapidly and have now reached almost 10% of Chilean youth. This is a very effective method to promote enthusiasm for social innovation. The top contest entrants are mentored along the way by experts in the field, and through this feedback and guidance, the solutions are reinforced and smoothed until they are viable, scalable, sustainable plans that can be implemented.
In the next stage, Socialab invites both the winners of the competitions as well as other social innovators to work at the co-working space. Those operating in the space are supported in the development of their ideas and, depending on their needs, receive financial backing and pro-bono advice. This structure allows for the co-creation of ideas formation of partnerships among the members. Socialab generates bridges that ultimately form a solid and cooperative community of change agents.
This mentorship not only leads to a supported changemaking experience for young people, it also serves as professional development experience. Mentors are helping to prepare the next generation for the workforce, equipping them with the leadership and teamwork skills necessary to succeed and lead for the rest of their lives. These relationships are also forging new professional networks across the region. Through their risk taking, successes, and failures, these young people are learning a new way to see things and that they are capable of identifying and addressing real challenges; this exposure is training future employees and CEOs to think and act in a way that their society has not before encouraged.
For example, in 2011, Socialab designed a contest called “Key Challenge” (Desafio Clave) which put out the call for young people to submit ideas for addressing issues of poverty, health, inequality, education, etc., that they identified in their own spheres. With backing from the National Institute for Youth, it was Chile’s first public call for socially innovative solutions. For the second year of the contest, in 2012, over 13,000 young people young people between the ages of 18 and 29 participated, and 639 ideas were submitted. From these, 25 moved on to receive mentoring during a Beta testing phase. Finally, four winners received $51,000 USD each to further their projects.
Simultaneously, the strategy is to incentivize traditional companies to understand and accept innovative and disruptive ideas. Socialab thus promotes opportunities for development of non-traditional business models that are both economically viable and socially relevant and beneficial. For example, in a three-year partnership with Movistar, one of the largest telecommunications companies in Latin America, Socialab acts as an expert partner in social innovation, co-creating new products, services, and business models specifically for the most disconnect sectors of society.
Connecting people from different worlds has been one of Julian’s greatest strengths. He is from Viña del Mar, a small city on the coast, and did not grow up with a large network of contacts in Chile. He has cold-called some of the most powerful business leaders in the country who have agreed to support his projects. Many of these people now sit on his advisory board, which is among the most impressive in the country. These leaders, who are deeply respected in the private sector and elsewhere, in turn take back the ideas and spirit of innovation they absorb through Socialab to their own companies. He has also worked intimately with the government; they jointly launched Imagina Chile 2013, an initiative to find solutions to improve the quality of life in Chile. It was run similarly to the Socialab contests, but was promoted by the government and the winning projects were funded by CORFO, the government’s well respected development bank.
Socialab’s contests and programs are widely publicized and reach a broad demographic group – over 270,000 users are registered on the platform and have submitted 16,000 ideas. Socialab is currently expanding throughout Chile and South America. They now have 10 staff in Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay along with the support of local partnerships. Meanwhile, they are poised to launch in Mexico, and initial discussions are underway in Brazil.
Julian Ugarte’s passion and energy for positive change make him a unique person in Chile. At 20, Julian began to be involved with social programs as he developed his thesis project in Equipment Design for Un Techo para Chile (A Roof for Chile) -- the widely known citizen sector organization specializing in affordable housing and poverty reduction. This gave him the opportunity to explore his own country. He visited various building sites and interviewed many local people living in poverty whose basic needs were not met, and more importantly, who did not have a way to make their voices heard. This experience marked him deeply and motivated him to become a champion of social reform in Chile.
After this college experience, Julian decided to found the Innovation Center at Un Techo para Chile. There, he was responsible for building a team, managing funds, and designing solutions to functional problems in the housing projects related to water, sanitation, optimization of space, and recreation. He worked hard for seven years to create a process for initiating social innovation projects and, in 2012, with the blessing of Un Techo para Chile, he spun off the Innovation Center and took the leap to found an independent Socialab. He did this with the support of the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Movistar Chile, who provided initial funding.
Julian’s work has received international media attention, including from The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and CNN en Español. Additionally, he has given lectures at Harvard Business School, Babson College, and Campus Party Brazil. In 2010, he was selected as one of the 100 youth leaders of El Sabado magazine in Chile. That same year, he was also the first Chilean to graduate from Singularity University. In 2013, representing Socialab, he was a finalist of the World Impact Design Prize in Finland and of Gifted Citizen of Ciudad de las Ideas in Mexico. This year, he was awarded The Chilean National Award for Social Innovation.
Julian is in the business of framechange. He has potential for high impact and is not intimidated by obstacles. Socialab has been successful as a structure and basis for his ideas to flourish alongside other changemakers. His ideas for a better world are absolutely contagious and have the potential to transform the Chilean panorama, as well as that of the region.