Marlon Parker

Ashoka Fellow
South Africa
Fellow Since 2014


This profile was prepared when Marlon Parker was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.
The New Idea
Poverty and unemployment fuel social ills such as organized crime, drug abuse and violence in the Cape Flats Township in Cape Town, South Africa. Most young residents have dropped out of school and belong to gangs, and have little hope of turning their lives around for the better. Marlon engages young people in the Cape Flats (and other similar communities within and outside South Africa) by teaching them to use technology to create innovative solutions to address social challenges in their communities. His goal is to re-introduce hope into communities where there is none. He believes that he can do this by teaching young people to use technology to transform their lives and the lives of others. Marlon began working on this idea in 2007 with the objective of empowering ex-convicts, gang members and former drug users to share their stories through social media. Since then, this idea has evolved to what RLabs is today: an information technology hub that fosters creativity and innovation in a community and enables young people to became leaders of change in their communities and create employment opportunities for themselves and others. Marlon’s idea is based on a chain of three interlinked programs that together provide the necessary skills, opportunities and exposure to stimulate creativity and change making in disadvantaged communities.
The RLabs Acandemy is the first program in the chain. This is the training and leadership development hub in which unemployed youth from disadvantaged communities can become technologically literate and learn the basics of computer use. The academy offers about fifteen different computer courses that are affiliated with and certified by the University of Cape Town. This basic training improves their skills but more importantly, expands their understanding of the power of technology to improve their lives. The courses share an underlying appreciation for critical thinking and encourage young people to design solutions for societal challenges and needs. The next program in this chain is the Living-Lab. This platform builds on the foundation of the RLabs Academy and stimulates the participants’ creativity and challenges them to use the skills and knowledge acquired from the academy to design solutions to existing social challenges in their communities. Marlon then helps the participants move their solutions from idea to program/product design to implementation. The Living-Lab provides the space for people to reconnect to their communities and discover a new world of possibilities through technology innovations. The last program in this chain is the Incubation platform. Living-Lab innovations that demonstrated potential for success are moved to Incubation in order to develop fully-fledged social ventures. RLabs incubates the ideas for a period of nine months, after which they are registered and launched as social enterprises. The idea is to create sustainable social ventures that offer employment opportunities to other people in their communities.
After rapidly scaling within South Africa, Marlon is now using this model to work with young people from disadvantaged communities in 21 countries within and beyond Africa, equipping 18,500 people with computer skills and incubating 22 companies under his program. Furthermore, the Living-Lab has fostered the design of technology applications that have benefitted more than 40,000 people have so far. Overall, RLabs has created over 20,000 employment opportunities directly through the academy and indirectly through the incubated companies. Marlon’s next challenge is to build a process to enable these hubs to thrive in different cultural contexts and to design a revenue-generating component of RLabs to increase the sustainability of the organization.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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