Universities link into a common good


A beautiful township school built with recycled wooden pallets and glass and plastic bottles. A centre for orphaned and vulnerable children that funds itself with its own on-site micro-enterprises, including a ­bakery and a hair salon.

These are two of the many leading-edge social innovation projects in South Africa that will be shown on a new online global network called Common Good First. The link will go live in the Eastern Cape next year.

To facilitate this, a Common Good First digital creativity space, the first of its kind in Africa, was opened on October 22 at Nelson Mandela University’s Bird Street campus in Port Elizabeth. Several others will be launched at Common Good First’s six partner universities in South Africa, as well as in Scotland, Norway, Iceland and Spain.

“This is such a unique opportunity to not only showcase the social innovation projects but also to open university spaces to members of the community and take the university into the community to co-create responses to societal issues,” says Professor Darelle van Greunen, director of the Centre for Community Technologies (CCT) at Nelson Mandela University, which oversaw the digital platform built, with support from the University of the Western Cape.

Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) in Scotland is the developer, lead partner and co-ordinator in the United Kingdom. Nelson Mandela University is the lead South African partner and co-ordinator. The project is funded by a European Union education programme called Erasmus+.

In the digital space, social innovators and project members have free, walk-in access to information communications technology tools, the internet, devices and training to upload the story of their projects, images and short videos. The ­categories include health and wellbeing, education and social projects, and the online platform will be accessed through the Tell Your Story window on the website commongoodfirst.com.

Workshops to assist social innovators to improve their digital literacy and video editing skills will be offered. Simple, clear instructions about how to tell the ­stories of innovation will be available on the website.

One person who spoke at the opening is Kevin Kimwelle, a Port-Elizabeth-based architect doing his PhD on localised, innovative, green designs that promote social change. He devotes his skills to co-creating beautiful buildings with residents, using ­recycled materials such as wooden crates, glass and plastic bottles.

The preschool he designed in Joe Slovo West township in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro — built from recycled wooden pallets and bottles — has received several accolades, including nomination for the 2017 Design Indaba Most Beautiful Object in South Africa and winner of the 2018 South African Property Owners Association’s Most Transformative Project in South Africa.

For the Masifunde educational academy in Walmer in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, Kimwelle used a combination of conventional and unconventional materials.

“The shell of the building is mainly made of brick and mortar while the internal partitions are from recycled wooden pallets. The building maximises on passive design [natural lighting and ventilation with no mechanical systems] by using extractor chimneys to cool it off in summer, and it is north-facing with large facades to maximise on the winter sun. The building is inviting and brings a vibrant youthfulness to the community it serves,” he said.

Another of his projects is an early childhood development centre made from plastic bottles in Gqabera, using an ecobrick — a two-litre plastic bottle stuffed solid with nonbiodegradable waste.

Kimwelle explained that residents help build and, as part of the process, spin-off businesses are created by them such as making furniture from the pallets or learning how to build their own spaza shops. “It’s about architecture and development coming together and it takes bold people to commit to a social innovation approach.”

Speaking at the opening, Nelson Mandela University’s chancellor, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi said: “Your work, whatever it may be, has the power to transform lives in a ­positive way; your dreams and ambitions too.”

The initial Common Good First target for South Africa is 90 ­projects. Other facilities and labs at the ­partner universities — Rhodes, the Western Cape, the Free State, North-West and Johannesburg — will be ready in the first quarter of 2019.

“All communities, irrespective of their socioeconomic status, have an exceptional ability to tackle social problems and find innovative ­solutions. From feeding and ­educating children to overcoming gangsterism and growing the township economy, the many social innovation approaches developed in South Africa are remarkable and will be showcased on Common Good First,” says Van Greunen.

She adds that innovators’ lives are filled with highs and lows that test their resilience and push them to overcome difficulties. Their stories and the lessons learned will be shared on the Common Good First platform.

Glasgow Caledonian University’s director of digital collaboration, Julie Adair, says: “The platform is precisely about social innovators, entrepreneurs and communities worldwide connecting, working together and finding solutions and approaches to social challenges, many of which are similar worldwide. Scotland, for example, shares several similar problems to South Africa, including gangsterism, educational crises and poverty.

“The South African universities included in the project all have strong community engagement programmes and relationships with their communities. Overall, the depth of community engagement in South African universities is far more advanced than in Europe,” Adair adds, who has worked in interactive content since the mid-1990s at the BBC and the Walt Disney Company. She was part of the birth of BBC Online and at Disney she was in charge of websites across Europe, developing teams and content in 23 countries as well as output for mobile and tablet platforms.

Speaking at the Nelson Mandela University event, GCU’s vice-chancellor, Professor Pamela Gillies, said: “In order to contribute to helping solve the many social and environmental challenges we face, and to do so in a way that supports ­sustainable social progress, we desperately need social innovations embracing new strategies, concepts, ideas and organisations. And we all know that we are more likely to be successful in this aim through truly co-ordinated, reciprocal and collaborative approaches, growing trust and social capital along the way.

“Our university’s commitment to working with our friends and ­colleagues in South Africa has had a long history and we host a unique Scottish and ANC archive of material about the struggle against apartheid over the last 50 years, which is now digitally available to scholars from around the world.”

Glasgow was the first city in the UK to award Nelson Mandela its freedom. It did so in 1981 while he was still in jail. In 1993 he went to Glasgow to accept the award and an honorary doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University.

Its chancellor is singer and social-change agent Annie Lennox, who is the founder of The Circle, a nongovernmental organisation that supports projects worldwide to assist women in need, and to empower them to become ­independent, confident, able to stand up for their rights and to influence change.

One of the case studies for the Common Good First’s pilot project, completed last year, is the Tshepang programme for orphans and vulnerable children, completed last year in partnership with the faculty of management at the University of Johannesburg.

Tshepang was established in 2006 by social worker Susan Rammekwa, formerly the assistant director of the Johannesburg Child Welfare Society.

She is highly entrepreneurial in her approach to ­raising funds and securing support for Tshepang. Micro enterprises have been established on their ­premises, including a hair salon, a scone ­bakery and a vegetable garden, the profits from which are reinvested in Tshepang.

When asked how they share their story, Rammekwa says: “Via word of mouth and we have a website, which one of our supporters has offered to upgrade. We have pamphlets that the school of hospitality at the University of Johannesburg did for us that share our story.”

Adair says: “There is so much more that outstanding social innovation projects like this can do to market and communicate their stories, raise their profile and attract funders. The digital platform we will create for them to do this will be easy to use; it will be like filling in a Facebook or Linkedin profile, where they can add as they go along.”

Van Greunen adds: “Based on the high usage of mobile phone technology in South Africa, the project has ensured that these platforms are at the heart of our content and application development. We will also be making provision for the lack of connectivity in many of our rural areas. We will be drawing on storing and uploading solutions that the CCT has developed in the healthcare space. We will also be creating local area networks and smart centres, such as in libraries or community centres.” 

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