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Mexico's CatapultaFest Mixes Heady Innovation-Culture Cocktail

Author: Tim Draimin
SIX Global Council
Published Date: 9 July 2015

"I found my tribe!"

That's how Pamela Alexander described her experience last year at Catapulta Festival 2014. She was invited as a media observer and soaked up her first exposure to social innovation, social purpose business and impact investing. This led her to re-examine her career. She ended up quitting her Mexico City media job and worked to align her values with her vocation. She began by moving to Tijuana, a depressed northern Mexican city, starting a new venture developing a sustainable food-based initiative to help Mexican deportees from the USA build sustainable livelihoods.

I attended Catapulta 2015 as board member and representative of SIX, which had been invited as part of Catapulta's goal of being a local social innovation movement-builder connecting into global networks.

As co-founder Mark Beam described the Festival at its opening, "Catapulta's goal is to be a platform to cultivate, inspire, and integrate social innovation with community." Harry Halloran, founder of Catapulta funding partner Halloran Philanthropies, told me that Catapulta is different from other social entrepreneurship and social innovation events like Skoll World Forum and SOCAP by being embedded with community.

Although Catapulta had several international participants (from as far away as Uganda -- for example Sanga Moses shared the remarkable story of Eco-Fuel Africa) -- welcome impressions were gender balance (noticeable in a male-dominated culture) and the number of Oaxacans present, especially young people, students and individuals from projects like Sikanda's community work with prendendores (waste pickers).

Oaxaca is a spectacular venue for social innovators. A city of 500,000, it has a rich indigenous culture and history coupled with a dramatic colonial setting. Some of the most exciting shared social innovations were ones that drew from indigenous culture.

An inspiring example is Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio that intuitively blends technological, business, environmental, cultural and social innovation.

A social purpose business, Xaquixe is tackling numerous issues simultaneously:

1) the closure in the last decade of 75% of Mexico's artisanal glassworks, undermined by the escalating cost of energy (LP gas has gone up 300% in 5 years);

2) the fact that less than 10% of waste glass is recycled;

3) protection of threatened indigenous cultural traditions;

4) diverting used cooking oil (now discarded often in environmentally damaging ways) into energy applications; and

5) the gap in sustainable livelihoods for a rapidly growing and young population.

Tackling the cost of energy, Xaquixe has innovated the recycling of used cooking oil as a substitute energy source, building a network of Oaxacan restaurants as suppliers. The oil is supplement with solar, using parabolic mirrors (a natural for a glassmaker). Xaquixe's design and research lead Salvador Pulido Arroyo says they hope to be entirely self-sufficient in energy in three years.

Xaquixe has created an allied nonprofit that will be providing technical training to local glassmaker artisans in how to self-reliantly adopt cooking oil energy technology and also adopt design adaptations to improve the efficiency of their ovens. Originally Xaquixe set up shop in Oaxaca because the local mescal liquor industry had no locally-sourced glass bottle fabrication. Another start-up social innovation in Oaxaca is working with artisanal producers to build their own brands, allowing them to retain a much greater share of the final retail price their products generate.

The physical setting of Catapulta alternated between the San Pablo Cultural Centre, a magnificently rehabilitated colonial building operated by a foundation and La Calera, a reclaimed and re-purposed brick factory that is now a "centre for social innovation, culture and art".

La Calera creates the intersection for felicitous new discoveries. One example is the experience of a Hip Hop artist, who described to me how he came to La Calera to teach Hip Hop, discovered social innovation and turned his talents to creating a very successful arts program working with both at-risk youth and incarcerated youth at the local prison. He is now confronting the challenge of scaling his proven program to other prisons across Mexico.

One of the most avant garde initiatives presented at Catapulta was FactoryX, an incubator seeking to reinvent how business operates to ensure it is aligned with society’s best interests:

“FactoryX is a radical new experiment that aims to change the way organizations relate to society. By launching companies in a completely new way, we (a group of experienced entrepreneurs and builders) seek to solve systemic problems in the ecosystem via direct experimentation, learning, and sharing.”

The genius behind it is a social entrepreneur who is a successful alumnus of Yahoo and Google, Tom Chi.

CatapultaFest connects with and supports the growing local ecosystem of social innovators like those involved with Oaxaca’s Impact Hub and SVX Mexico. It sees itself connecting the local with the global in ways that accelerate social innovation in ways aligned with it’s the needs and cultural aspirations of Mexico.