Innovation and inequality in Colombia

Earlier this month, The Young Foundation and Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) collaborated to design and run a series of workshops and a public event aimed at strengthening social innovation in Colombia. The public event, chaired by Colombian educationalist Vicky Colbert, drew over 400 people and included Geoff Mulgan (CEO of Nesta) talking about mainstreaming social innovation to reduce inequality and Louise Pulford (Director of SIX) sharing her thoughts on the role of community and trust in building a more equal society.

Community Visit Colombia

Visiting ConVerGentes community garden.

During our week there, we were hosted by the Centre for Social Innovation, which is part of ANSPE in the national Department of Social Prosperity. They organised visits for us with a wide range of local organisations including:

ConVerGentes, an effective and big-hearted community organisation in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Medellín;
Comfama, one of the largest social welfare organisations in the country working towards embedding social innovation methods;
Socialab, clever, innovative social designers helping to surface new ideas for poverty alleviation;
RutaN, a well-resourced, slick public corporation set up by Medellín’s City Hall to develop innovative, technology-based solutions to increase the competiveness of the city.

In Bogotá and Medellín, we met dynamic, thoughtful and inspired people seeking to make positive and transformative social change – such as helping to forge stronger community ties and stronger civic participation, creating more work opportunities, improving people’s quality of life and innovating new solutions to entrenched social problems.

These kinds of transformative change are urgently needed as Colombia has the dubious distinction of having the worst level of inequality in Latin America and one of the worst in the world. If you are born poor in the countryside, a small town or on the coast or if you are part of an ethnic minority you are likely to be even worse off.

It is in this stark context that Vicky Colbert co-founded the education movement Escuela Nueva (New School in Spanish) for which she has just been awarded the prestigious WISE Prize. This annual award has been likened to a Nobel Prize for education.

Escuela Nueva was set up in rural Colombia in the 1970s in response to a myriad of endemic social and educational problems including high dropout rates, weak school-community relationships, low teacher morale, ineffective teacher training and lack of learning materials. Since that time, the bold, successful programme has been delivered in both urban and rural environments in 16 countries reaching over five million children. It provides a cost-effective, replicable and scalable solution to improve the quality of education in low-income schools. It is a child-centred and collaborative learning approach that transforms the traditional classroom and promotes entrepreneurial skills. It is an approach that impacts the entire education system by involving all stakeholders and influencing educational policy.

Social Innovation in Practice Workshop in Medellín.

Social Innovation in Practice Workshop in Medellín.

Geoff Mulgan credits Vicky Colbert’s educational ideas for influencing his thinking on Studio Schools, a successful state school model for 14 to 19 year olds of all abilities now being set up and run across the UK. Escuela Nueva is also an excellent example of best practice for The Young Foundation and consortium partners’ Realising Ambition programme, which replicates evidence-based interventions aimed at 8 – 14 year olds in the UK.

Successes like Escuela Nueva and the work that the Centre for Social Innovation and others are doing to identify, support and scale up promising social innovations throughout the country are vitally important if Colombia is to create a more fair and equal society.


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