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Open and Social Innovation: Techolab determined to bring ‘just this’ for all

Editor’s Note: This story is republished from Shonika Proctor’s December 2011 monthly print column in I Love Chile English language newspaper where the article first appeared.

‘What if’ are two of the most powerful words found in the innovation and entrepreneurship space. They are the words that lead us to dream a bigger dream, play with possibilities and create solutions from the edge of our potential. Jesuit Priest Felipe Berríos SJ’s ‘What If’ question was:

What if we could eradicate extreme poverty for those living at the base of the economic pyramid in Chile?’

Before I finish the story of what happened next, it goes without saying that if I were to ask that question to 100 different people from different backgrounds, with or without varying levels of education, careers, socio-economic statuses and so forth, I could very well receive 100 different answers. And if I then grouped those 100 people together coupled with a social network and funding source to implement those ideas this would be Techolab and thus the power and potential of open and social innovation.

Open Innovation refers to the concept of ‘Collective Intelligence’.

And Social Innovation refers to the concept of building strategies and processed to solve issues with certain segments of the population or alternatively it can be seen, as we see it trending today which is at the intersection of innovation across social platforms.

And Techolab is essentially doing a little of both.


A Roof for Chile

However, when Priest Felipe Berríos SJ asked this question it was the year 1997….in Chile. His answer came to him after brainstorming with a group of young people in Chile who shared similar concerns. Realizing ideas hold no value or impact without action he presented a challenge to the students – he invited them to build 350 houses in Curanilahue, located in the south of Chile Bio-Bío Region (Region VIII). As a result of the successful implementation of this project, Un Techo Para Chile (A Roof for Chile) was born.

The next challenge was a greater one, with the intention to build 2,000 houses by the year 2000. The young eager team of students working for the Un Techo Para Chile team succeeded again, accomplishing the goal in 1999 and immediately realizing the need to expand their organization nationally. They began launching offices around the country and in 2001 opened their first offices outside of Chile, one in Peru and one in El Salvador.

With this greater vision, A Roof for Chile had now grown to ‘A Roof for My Country’.

As the organization continued to expand throughout Latin America, the need for diversification of their programs, offerings and value added services along with a team that could manage the scalability became critical. Thus, nearly a decade after Un Techo Para Chile was founded, the humble beginnings of their Centro de Innovacion was masterminded and launched by Julián Ugarte Fuentes, a Singularity University graduate (Silicon Valley) in April 2007.

Julian Ugarte, Singularity Alumni and Director of Center for Innovation for UTPC Un Techo Para Chile, Photo Courtesy: BienalDeDiseno

Design Thinking ‘A New’ Roof for My Country

Seeking to answer the question ‘What if we could eradicate extreme poverty for those living at the base of the economic pyramid in Chile – while leveraging the power of social innovation, design and human networks?’, Julián converged his worlds and extensive background in social entrepreneurship, design-thinking and industrial design.

He began launching projects that wove the people living in slums into the co-creation and implementation of products that solved their everyday challenges.

For example, in the slums, it is not common that families have pipes/plumbing and therefore don’t typically have running water. Their water is delivered by a water truck and things that many may take for granted such as washing dishes, bathing, cooking or simply washing your hands are some of the greatest challenges experienced by those living in the slums. Not only do they have limited supply of water, they have to figure out how to clean and recycle it to use it for their various needs and make it last until their next delivery, which is never predictable.

Mi Lavanderia, designed by Centro de Innovacion, Un Techo Para Chile

To build greater awareness around this issue and brainstorm solutions that could solve some of these challenges, the team at the Centro de Innovacion created the ‘Safe Agua’ campaign.

Safe Agua generated six innovative technology solutions that identified market demands in addressing the crisis involving the use, storage, and transportation of water including the ‘Halo’ shower head which provides simulation of a shower with low pressure water (built in collaboration with Sodimac Home Center) and a compact sink for washing dishes.

Another successful project launched out the Centro de Innovacion was Inclusivo, which develops under the operatives of Fair Trade, design and the individuality of hand made products. The formation of sustainable micro-factories are built in the slums and promote job creation while enhancing the skills of each group. Subsequently, each micro-factory makes products and services valued by the market.

Centro de Innovacion touches 80 million lives

As one of Latin America’s most successful NGO’s, a look at the Centro de Innovacion’s impact numbers would be considered impressive for most.

In just 4 years over 20,000 students have collaborated with them on innovation related projects. Three of their projects have touched the lives of 1,000,000+ people. And more than 4,000 neighbors from the slums have been involved in the co-creation process of products that help improve the quality of life for their respective communities.

This year they have raised several rounds of funding from organizations such as the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) and leading private companies such as Telefonica.

In total, this center has positively impacted over 80 million people in 19 different countries. Yet, if you visit the workspace of the Centro de Innovacion you will be quickly reminded that their work is far from done.

With an estimated 2/3 of Latin America and the Caribbean (an estimated 360 million people living in poverty, Source: IDB), they have barely scratched the surface.

Co-creating the next generation roof for My Country

Andrés Iriondo who is the Head of Project Management in the Centro de Innovacion says that the office of Un Techo Para Chile is as powerful as it is humbling. He is constantly looking for better and more effective ways to create a better quality of life and more opportunities for those living at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP).

“Every slum selects a designated project leader who is chosen by their peers. They work with us in the Un Techo Para Chile offices. When they approach you they smell like the slums. It serves as a constant reminder of our mission and continued motivation to make a bigger impact..”  – Andrés Iriondo

Housed in a huge warehouse on Departmental Ave. at the intersection of Santa Maria, the office is located in an industrial area that uniquely connects (or as others may see it – divides) Santiago’s upper and lower classes.

The warehouse, located on several acres, is also home to Infocap which provides vocational training at a subsidized rate to those in need. The space is open and industrial and filled with many university students from all types of majors.

Currently more than 5,000 university students work throughout all the Un Techo Para Mi Pais offices.

In the Centro for Innovacion department you will usually find a team of about 6-8 people hard at work.

These days they are extremely busy with their latest project – Techolab!

Note: Techolab is scheduled to launch four mega huge sponsored contests in 2012 with the first one launching in March (register on the the Techolab website to stay informed).

Techolab's next contest will launch March 2012 in collaboration with Movistar Telefonica

Launched in July 2011 as part of their continuing effort to reinvent how they strengthen awareness, community and impact for those living at the Base of the Pyramid, I remember trying to grasp the concept when Julian first sent me the invitation to let me know that the first ‘challenge’ had been launched.

As I began to learn more about Techolab from Andres and his colleague Salvador Achondo, Coordinator of Project Implementation, I believed it was already something very big and very disruptive that I could see taking off like wildfire on a global level. I simply could not fathom how a small team in Chile was managing something of this magnitude. Andrés confidently told me on more than one occasion, don’t worry, we know what we are doing.

Disrupting the global social innovation space

Techolab is a virtual incubator with a cutting edge technology platform built in conjunction with PullCoLab.

The purpose of the incubator is to provide an open and social platform so that all people can come together and help come up with sustainable ideas to raise the standard of living for those living in extreme poverty.

Members and mentors in the Techolab virtual incubator include people living in the slums, academia, startup founders, entrepreneurs, creative thought leaders, public sector representatives, teenagers and people who just want to contribute to the cause.

The first Techolab ‘Key Challenge’ sponsored in conjunction with National Youth Institute (INJUV) sought to find solutions in improving the overall health of those living in the slums; increased opportunities for jobs; and improved quality of education. Currently, the platform is only open to people based in Chile.


I was extremely happy to learn of the outpouring of support from the Chilean community, including the generosity of Club El Origen, who offered their co-working space for mentoring the finalists. And it seems that Techolab is well on its way to being Latin America’s largest open and social innovation lab. Without a doubt we will eventually see them open the platform to other markets on the continent and all over the world but until then, let’s keep exploring and unveiling, ‘what if.