For this of you who didn’t see this article on Marlon Parker in the Weekend Argus on Saturday …

When Marlon Parker designed a cell-phone programme to help provide encouragement and support to a friend struggling with drug abuse, little did he dream that it would lead to the development of RLabs (Reconstructed Living Lab), a Bridgetown-based initiative that would be consulted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for assistance in reaching people with emergency information after the earthquake in Indonesia last year.

Now RLabs has a global network of more than 500,000 people and growing, connected to advice and counseling through social media on a communication platform that Parker and his team designed for mobile phones.

Three years ago this graduate and (until recently) lecturer in the Department of Information Technology at the Cape Peninsula University was exploring as part of his PhD studies, the potential of innovation, using information technology and design methodology, to  help address social challenges in poor communities. He wanted to see whether people, using what was available to them, could transform their lives.

On a continent with relatively low levels of access to the internet via personal computers, the uptake of mobile telephony is nevertheless substantial and endemic. That’s why a socially-responsive design for cellphones, using the very affordable and accessible MXIt messaging facility, made sense.

And why design – with its capacity for taking advances in technology and translating it into domestic and local use – is so powerful.

From its early success with one drug abuser, R-Labs, which empowers recovered drug addicts, former gang members and people in the community to provide mobile counseling, has reached over 170,000 people affected by drugs throughout Southern Africa.

Today RLabs, with its headquarters in Bridgetown, Athlone is what Parker likes to refer to as “a global movement”, with activity in Malaysia, Singapore, Finland, Netherlands and the UK where programmes using social media offer support to marginalised individuals.  In Finland the system is used to reach young people at risk, in Amsterdam for teenage pregnancies and in the UK it’s used in work with refugees. Plans are afoot for expansion into  Namibia, Kenya, Nigeria, the US, Haiti and Brazil “hopefully within this year still, with the goal of being active on  every continent by 2012.”

Funding from the Vodacom Foundation and SAFIPA (South Africa-Finland Knowledge Partnership on ICT), and a partnership with MXit have enabled RLabs to extend their support services to issues such as depression, HIV Aids, abuse and careers advice by RLab counsellors as well as through links with organisations like the National Aids helpline.

It has also made training and access to other social media tools, like Facebook, blogging and Youtube, possible. And flying in the face of popular perception of social media mavens, it’s middle-aged to elderly mothers from poor communities, often with limited formal education, who through RLabs’ Moms 2. – 4. programmes, are online: recording and sharing their stories and counseling vulnerable children and families.

This group underscored the problem of unemployment which Parker and RLabs are attempting to address by packaging their skills in internet  surfing and social media  to companies needing to people to implement social media strategies. “Through selling the services of what we call our Social Media Factory, we’ve been able to fund courses and give people an income,” he explains. With a full-time team of 18 people RLabs now runs its own academy and Parker, whose Information Technology expertise ranges from education to entrepreneurship, has left academia to head the organisation full time.

The academy has an enrollment of 150 who receive training in social media, design, entrepreneurship, social and mobile development, community development, information- and computer-literacy towards employment and support for business start-ups.  Training is free and the learners who range from teenagers to the elderly receive a meal or snack.

The thread running through Marlon Parker’s conversation is the communication of a message of hope. The design philosophy that underpins this is that solutions to social challenges must be lodged in an understanding of the context and of people and how they’re connected to each other and to use this knowledge to design solutions.

Parker speaks of understanding the ecosystems in which people operate, and finding the connections and synergies to effect change. It’s clear that he’s used an understanding of connections and synergies to realise RLabs’ potential so rapidly.

The academy for example is funded through other projects. An RLabs research institute partners about 18 universities globally to provide information on technology, design and innovation  projects. Its network of more than 500,000 people attracts research commissions from industry for testing brands quickly. Academic and scientific institutions, community organisations and government  all tap into RLabs for research on what’s happening on the ground.

RLabs also consults to organisations like the World Bank and WHO, and develops products which it sells. For example, with seed funding from SAFIPA, Parker is commercialising the mobile cellphone platform as Jamiix to take advantage of its application to contact centers based on mobile chat and social networks instead of voice calling.  “Jamiix currently has operations in Malaysia, the UK and Finland – another product developed on the Cape Flats – being used worldwide,” says Parker.

But his focus remains socially responsive interventions and he highlights a project in which he is currently engaged. “We’re working with CPUT Industrial Design students who are doing a Masters in Interactive Design and Malmo University in Sweden with a focus on interaction and how we can use design, technology and innovation to bring about change in communities.  Again, our focus is the Athlone area for design case studies that can be scaled to other communities all over the world.”