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The Center for Digital Inclusion: A Powerful Catalyst for Change

By Michele Hunt, Rodrigo Baggio, and Peter SengeAugust 15, 2012 | Print
Michele Hunt: A Story of Discovery

In May 2009, I attended the Call-of-the-Times Global Dialogue facilitated by Peter Senge at the Global Retreat Center in Oxford, England. This was a group of diverse leaders who came together from different countries and different sectors around the world. We explored the critical issues facing our world; we shared our stories and learned from one another. Rodrigo Baggio’s story about the Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI) caught my interest because I believe digital inclusion is a powerful vision. I met with Rodrigo over lunch and was pulled into his beautiful story about thousands of people who were transforming their lives and uplifting their communities through their partnership with CDI. I was so fascinated by the CDI story and Rodrigo’s passion that I made the decision to go to Brazil to learn more.I went to CDI’s home office in Rio de Janeiro and met with Rodrigo and his team. I was thrilled to see that every member of the team shared Rodrigo’s passion, excitement, and commitment. The next day I visited two favelas (impoverished communities), Morro dos Macacos and Morro da Providência. I wanted to hear and see firsthand how people were using the CDI methodology and technology to change their lives. I interviewed people who had transformed their lives, some from unimaginable poverty and despair, to become remarkable change-makers in their communities. I cried during every interview; I fell in love with CDI!

CDI has become one the most distinguished nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) globally, having received more than 60 international awards for its work. The World Economic Forum recognized Rodrigo as one the “100 Global Leaders for Tomorrow,” and Time named him one of the leaders of Latin America who will make a difference in the third millennium. In 2006 Rodrigo was selected by CNN, Time, and Fortune as one of the “principal voices in economic development.” CDI’s most important distinction is that it has helped effect profound change in the lives of thousands of the most marginalized and underserved people in 12 countries around the world. It all began with Rodrigo’s powerful dream.

Rodrigo Baggio: Transforming Lives Through Technology

Seventeen years ago I dreamed about the potential of bringing technology to the poor and marginalized. This dream has grown into the Center for Digital Inclusion, a nonprofit NGO that has directly impacted the lives of 1.45 million individuals.

How It All Began

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, I was always aware of the inequalities that permeated Brazilian society. I led the youth group in my local Methodist church and we would volunteer in a favela situated just up the hill from our middle-class neighborhood. In the favela, poverty, hunger, and violence were still rife, while meters away people were living comfortable, affluent lives. During this period I came into contact with my first computer and quickly developed a passion for technology. By the age of 13 I had my own machine and went about teaching myself computer science. Soon enough, this hobby transformed itself into my livelihood; at the age of 19 I launched my first entrepreneurial venture, a computer consulting business in Rio. The business went from strength to strength as the explosion of computer use and the general lack of expertise put my services in demand. However, at this point I stopped to examine my life. Looking to the future I could see myself getting only richer and richer, but no happier. Something was missing; I had to reconnect with the social causes that had so motivated me as a young teenager. Crucially, though, I had to do this in a strategic and relevant way. I knew that technology had the power to change lives—it had after all transformed mine—but I could also see a growing gap emerging between those who had access to and understanding of information and communication technology (ICT) and the majority of Brazilians who did not.

So I decided to use my skills and network to tackle this growing issue and launched a computer donation campaign called “Information for Everyone.” The next step was creating a point of access to this equipment, and so was born CDI’s first community center, in the Dona Marta shantytown. This was 1995; drug trafficking, poverty, and violence still dominated the community, which looks out over some of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Here, we gave residents access to digital technologies, till then the preserve of business and the wealthy. While this was a major breakthrough in itself, we understood that teaching IT skills was not enough; we needed to increase understanding of how these technologies could be used as tools to improve lives and transform communities. With this in mind, we created the first School for IT & Citizenship, empowering local residents with technology to solve their real-life issues.

Rapid Expansion

Local and national media coverage soon led to interest from other organizations and individuals who wished to replicate our model. I threw myself into the expansion of the project and by the end of our first year, we were operating in 15 communities in the city. Spurring this rapid expansion was the low-cost model we were developing, a decentralized partnership structure that still characterizes CDI today. By partnering with leading local institutions on the ground, we lower our costs and ensure our programs benefit from great links to the community. Our focus is on training the educators who will carry out the course; these individuals are always drawn from the local community. To make our centers sustainable, they may offer a range of IT services, such as Internet use or printing, and can charge a low fee for their courses.

This model has helped us expand rapidly throughout Brazil and then abroad. CDI is now a network of 821 community centers, with operations in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, Spain, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Jordan. Our community centers are managed by a network of regional and national offices, which train, monitor, and help systematize our work on the ground. In addition to low-income communities, our centers are present in indigenous villages, juvenile detention facilities, centers for the mentally and physically disabled, and prisons.

At the heart of this network is CDI’s approach to digital inclusion: the belief that technology, in addition to improving skills and employability, can empower individuals to become change agents, mobilizing within their communities to transform their realities.

Our Digital Inclusion Methodology

The CDI community center is still at the heart of our work today. Centers are spaces of informal learning, designed to stimulate citizenship, community development, the creation of networks, and the sharing of experiences. They create opportunities for employment and income-generation, for entrepreneurial actions and social projects, based in the ethical, creative, and responsible use of technology.

Grounded in the principle of self-management, our centers are free to offer the courses most relevant to their local areas, responding to the demand within the community. We have a range of 37 courses, from our core basic ICT and citizenship programs to advanced technical courses, such as video editing and blogging. We also offer courses tailored to specific audiences, such as young children and the elderly.

Crucially, our courses are not just limited to teaching students how to use a computer. To integrate our belief that technology is a tool for empowerment, we developed CDI’s five-step methodology, around which our courses are framed. The five steps are inspired by the work of the Brazilian pedagogical thinker Paulo Freire. He believed that learning should be an active process, a dialogue between students and teachers, and that lessons should be grounded in the reality of the students’ lives. The model we developed allows students to plan and carry out a social action project, addressing an issue in their lives or communities:

Step 1: Students exchange experiences and use technology to help better understand the world they live in.
Step 2: Students conduct in-depth research into their communities, through which they choose the issue they will address.
Step 3: Developing a solution, the group creates a plan to tackle its chosen issue.
Step 4: Students mobilize and take action.
Step 5: Students evaluate the path they have taken.

At each step students use a range of digital technologies to complete the task, such as online research, designing a questionnaire for community members, compiling results into a spreadsheet, or creating a video to raise awareness. The course also offers students a space to share, to reflect, and to learn from each other; they develop problem-solving skills, gain confidence, and work as a team.

Our objective is to ensure that students are then able to apply these skills to other aspects of their lives, to help improve their formal educational outcomes, to help get a job, to set up a business, or to become change agents, creating positive social impacts within their communities.

Transforming Lives

An external impact evaluation showed that through our courses 78 percent of students improved understanding of their local community, 75 percent improved their reading and writing skills, 47 percent found a new job, 34 percent increased their income, 23 percent re-enrolled in formal education, and 12 percent opened their own business.

Behind these numbers lie countless unique stories of transformation, I would like to share a couple of examples. Ronaldo Monteiro was serving a 28-year sentence for a high-profile kidnapping when he first encountered CDI. After studying and then becoming an educator at the CDI center inside the prison where he was held, he became keenly aware of the necessity of integrating ex-offenders back into society and recognized that employment was the primary challenge to doing so. In 2001, while still in prison, he created a project to prepare prisoners for the job market. Following his release, he formalized this project into his own NGO with a mission to promote the social inclusion of former convicts through entrepreneurship and employment. As a result of his work, more than 195 microenterprises have been created.

Another powerful example of empowerment through technology was the experience of the Indians of the Ashanika community. The group was facing threats from the illegal trafficking of wood and drugs across its lands. The son of the headman recognized that using violence in the face of the heavily armed traffickers would be useless; instead they could follow CDI methodology and use technology to help save their community. With a computer, a solar panel, and an antenna to create an Internet connection, they raised awareness of their plight. Their demands for support were heard by the Office of the President, which then contacted the Federal Police and the Army to bring the situation under control. CDI’s presence in this isolated community created a digital bridge to the rest of world and proved, once again, the power of technology to transform communities.

From Latin America to Europe

In 2009 CDI decided to bring its approach to digital inclusion to the United Kingdom, creating CDI UK. Where traditionally the developed world has exported its innovations and social projects to the less-developed world, we believed our educational approach could add value in all contexts. Of course, CDI’s traditional community center model could not be applied to a society that already enjoyed broad access to digital technologies and a decent level of IT education. Instead, we decided to create a program based on what was then an emerging technology market, smartphone apps.

In April 2010, CDI UK piloted the Apps for Good program, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Grounded in CDI’s methodology, the course teaches young people how to design software applications to address problems they face in their everyday lives. Following the success of the pilot, CDI Apps for Good is expanding rapidly and will have trained more than 1,500 students by the end of the year, through a network of 40 schools. The course content is also being opensourced so that anyone, anywhere in the world, will be able to embark on their own Apps for Good program.

The Way Forward

Innovation has always been at the heart of our organization, from pioneering the digital inclusion movement in Latin America to bringing our model to the developing world. The emergence of the social business sector is now creating exciting and innovative structures for social change, with the profit-based model providing a sustainable alternative to the traditional third sector in catering to the needs of the base of the pyramid (BoP).

In 2009 CDI created the model for one of the first social businesses in Brazil, CDI Lan. Lan houses are Brazil’s cyber cafes and account for around 45 percent of In ternet access in the country, translating into 30 million individual users each year, 72 percent of whom earn the minimum wage. CDI Lan is a social business that aims to leverage these unique points of access to BoP clients by transforming lan houses into hubs for social and economic development in their communities.

Since its creation in 2009, we have formed a network of over 6,200 affiliated establishments. All members are signatories of CDI Lan’s Code of Conduct, through which they pledge to provide a secure environment for their clients and act in a socially and environmentally responsible way. The network acts as a distribution channel for affordable products and services that generate inclusion and social impact for BoP clients. Currently we are focusing on delivering educational content such as online courses, along with financial services such as correspondent banking and microcredit, through the network—helping to develop the lowincome communities served by these establishments.

In addition, CDI Lan supports its members’ efforts to transform themselves into sustainable, responsible, and profitable businesses by providing training and guidance.

In this way, we aim to foster a new generation of microentrepreneurs who have the potential to generate positive changes within their communities. While CDI Lan creates social impact through its model, crucially it is also structured to generate profits that will then be reinvested in CDI’s core digital inclusion work. At a time when the financial crisis and changing models of corporate giving have made fundraising increasingly challenging, creating new revenue streams is one of our key challenges.

Looking forward, I know technological innovations, new models of social change, and the ever-changing demands of the global marketplace will challenge the way we operate today. However, my experiences of the past 17 years have left me in no doubt that digital inclusion will continue being relevant in the fight for a more just global society.

Peter M. Senge: The CDI Story Is Not Just About Technology

One of the prejudices in this day is to think that all change comes from technology. While new technologies continually reshape how we communicate and live,I believe that when all is said and done, technology enables, it does not cause. If you look closely, you will see that most new technology results in people doing what they had been doing all along, just faster or somehow cheaper. But occasionally technology enables a new vision. For example, in business, most companies bring new technologies to consumer markets—but a few, like Apple, aim to be different. Apple’s products have always embodied a vision of elegance and fun that few of its competitors have ever embraced. It is easy to see the company today as a great innovator, but it is important to recognize that it has held to its vision of elegance and fun and enabling people to do something they did not do before even when it was struggling. It’s not what the technology is; it’s what the technology does.

This is no different for organizations seeking to employ technology to impact poverty. What CDI has done has a little to do with digital inclusion and a lot to do with a vision of youth and community empowerment that transcends technology.

I had a similar experience to Michele Hunt’s when I first visited some of the favelas where CDI had operated many years ago. What I found was a timeless story of community organizing and community empowerment, brought into the world of today by the new dimension of using digital inclusion.

I first met the seventy-year-old head of the CDI center in this community. Yes, she employed digital inclusion to attract young people to the center. But she was hardly the model of the hip techster. Instead she was the classic model of the "madre" who holds a community, and especially the young members, to a higher standard of responsibility for their own and for one another’s wellbeing. In her archetypal presence, I listened to young people tell their stories of rediscovering that they could be community leaders, and that they had the power to address pressing issues in their own lives in ways that helped themselves and their community.

The genius of the CDI model, and what makes it so much more than just a technological intervention, is the way that technology is connected to building relationships and serving. From the beginning, young people are invited to use the Internet to help their community, to find a project they want to undertake that can benefit their community, and to do it within a team they form. In this context, technology truly becomes an enabler of social innovation rather than something justified for its own sake.


Michele Hunt is a strategic adviser to leaders on leadership development and organizational transformation. She previously served on the senior management team of Herman Miller, as corporate vice president for people, responsible for human resources, learning and development, and communications. In 1993, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton as director of the Federal Quality Institute, a part of the Reinventing Government initiative led by Vice President Al Gore. Michele is a speaker and the author of “Dream- Makers: Putting Vision and Values to Work” and “DreamMakers: Agents of Transformation.” Her website is www.dreammakers.org.

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