Development Issues

Critical Thinking about the World’s Development

The Meaning of Social Incubation

The Meaning of Social Incubation

 Rui Mesquita Cordeiro 
Recife, PE – Brazil, June 04, 2003

Between October and November 1998, I attended an OBJ[1] course, held in Rio de Janeiro, on Youth Public Polices. It was particularly very inspiring for me and for what shortly would become the Social Development Academy Institute[2], a non-governmental organisation that I helped to establish in June 1999 in the city of Recife/Brazil. It was there when came up for the first time in mind the idea of social incubation.

But what is exactly a social incubator? Trying to decipher this concept, that has many and distinct meanings, we need to understand the origins of the first incubators, the business incubators, where everything had begun. The concept of business incubation has its origin in the 1950’s, in the United States. These business incubators are understood as organisations that would offer a set of facilities for a certain number of new small businesses, sharing services, equipments and space, receiving support from the incubator itself on accessory, training and access to other information resources that normally they would not find as easily as if they were starting their activities by themselves on the extremely competitive and voracious market.

Business incubators gained public visibility in the 1980’s. On this time the first Brazilian business incubators had emerged, stimulated and strongly supported by Brazilian universities in some cities known by having good scientific and technological infrastructure, qualified human resources and proximity of industrial areas, such as São Carlos/SP, Campina Grande/PB, Florianópolis/SC and Rio de Janeiro/RJ.

During the 1990’s the business incubator model suffers its first great mutation. That happens when the first incubator of cooperatives appears in Brazil, in 1995, in Rio de Janeiro. The incubation process looks as if the business incubator’s one, however the incubated projects would have to be built from a cooperative and associativism model, and to be extensive to low-income popular segments. This new kind of incubator appears among a context of strong social exclusion, increasing of unemployment rate and dismantlement of the old labour protection forms, in which Brazil was inserted in this period. In this sense the cooperative movement, in an economy of solidarity background, gains force as a real alternative to the formal employment crisis, in a specific collective work and self-management ideology, being a true counterpoint to the capitalist logic and means of production, in which are perfectly inserted the business incubator model.

The first incubator of cooperatives created in Brazil, in 1995, was the Technological Incubator of Popular Cooperatives[3] of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, developed after discussions carried out by university work and income generation study groups[4]. Currently there are tens, or even hundreds, of incubators of cooperatives spread out all over Brazil and even in other countries and continents.

So far these are the only incubation models taking place out there, the business incubator and the incubator of cooperatives. Within two antagonistic economic development logics, the first one full of capitalist values and the second one full of solidarity values.

And what the meaning of social incubation has to do with this? The fact is that the concept of social incubation flees from a model of economic development only. The concept of social incubation has to do with a model of social development, in other words, a model of civil society, and its social relations, development. That means a second mutation of the initial model of incubation appeared in the 1950’s. They would be incubators that would not incubate productive and economic oriented organisations, such as private companies or cooperatives, for example, but not for profit organisations, coming from the civil society and its social movements, such as NGOs (non-governmental organisations), community associations, class entities, social, cultural or environmental projects, and others. Organisations who have a key role in the new international order we’re facing today. Organisations that act mainly locally but that usually act integrated to other similar organisations, building networks and partnerships, playing fundamental roles in a diverse spectrum of social intervention: the individual, the family, the community, groups of interest, minorities, excluded etc., as well as influencing politics and economy.

So that it is actually a third model of incubation. The social incubation, that since that course on Youth Public Polices in 1998, the Social Development Academy Institute is studying, arguing and trying it, so that, finally in July 2002, supported by W.K. Kellogg Foundation[5] and the SEBRAE[6], the first social incubator of Brazil, and the world, has been officially launched in the city of Recife/Brazil, the Social Incubator towards Youth Action. The quarrel and experimentation process that culminated in the creation of the first Social Incubator was led considering some concepts and values, beyond the concept of incubation itself. Concepts such as civil society, social movements, social development, social management, leadership, social entrepreneurism, social protagonism, youth, fidget and social change, as well as values such as participation, solidarity, collectivism, cooperation, democracy, love and peace also are token into consideration in the whole process.

The Social Incubator towards Youth Action aims to support young social entrepreneurs seeking to change their society, and to build institutional bases in places where institutions are not quite strong yet. In January 2003 the first 16 projects were incubated. On this incubation model, youth groups have the opportunity to initiate or to expand their proposals of social, cultural or environmental intervention, built from a legitimacy bases with their end public, with no competitive nature or profitable ends. The support offered to these groups are very wide, from a shared office completely equipped for use until a mentoring system, that involves accessory and evaluation, as well as training courses on social management and networking. All focused to provoke cycles of local social changes from the groups and projects incubated, if possible integrated in a bigger proposal of sustainable local development, based on a multidiscipline network.

But the truth is that this new incubation model is still under development. And the debate about the social incubation concept is also something very new. As said initially, the concept itself has many and distinct meanings. And perhaps the better thing to do at the moment is a plenty and vast debate on the concept, coming from different actors, as the existing incubators, NGOs, social movements, universities, governments and others, therefore the social incubators can become a true motor and catalyst instrument for social development, not only in Brazil but worldwide.


Published in Portuguese at: | 04/June/2003 | 12/June/2003 | 14/September/2004 

[1] OBJ: Organização Brasileira da Juventude (Brazilian Youth Organisation),

[2] Academia de Desenvolvimento Social (Social Development Academy Institute),

[3] Incubadora Tecnológica de Cooperativas Populares (ITCP),

[4] PEREIRA, Almir Rogério. In “Aspectos econômicos das experiências de desenvolvimento local”.

[5] W.K. Kellogg Foundation,

[6] SEBRAE: “Serviço Brasileiro de Apoio às Micro e Pequenas Empresas” (Brazilian Service on Supporting Micro and Small Business),


4 June, 2003 - Posted by | Youth

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