Azad Adam saw one woman try to stab herself to death and countless others self harm while living in a hostel near the English capital’s Old Kent Road.
He was shocked to find similar levels of poverty and deprivation in Muirhouse and West Pilton when he moved north to Edinburgh at the end of 2015.
Now the computing student has teamed up with Edinburgh Napier University’s Bright Red Triangle, which supports enterprise start-up activities, to encourage locals to embrace the digital world.
By running informal workshops from the Community Renewal charity’s base at Muirhouse Shopping Centre, he hopes to instil an enthusiasm for coding, electronics and robotics which will boost their career prospects and life chances.
Azad, 41, who lives in Muirhouse, said: “We want residents to drop in and see the opportunities offered by digital devices.
“Some people here have created their own economies, and you can’t blame them, but if you can steal a motorbike in five minutes or understand the business models involved in selling produce then you have transferrable skills.
“We have to try something different to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation that is intertwined with crime and anti-social behaviour. If you introduce new concepts at a young age, then in a few years’ time you will reap the benefits. The north of Edinburgh is an untapped market with masses of potential.”
Azad’s passion for social justice was first awakened as he grew up in south London’s Peckham in the 1980s, the first born child of South African immigrants. He later ended up in a hostel for nine months as a result of relationship problems.
He said: “It was a very tough environment. I saw a woman with very complicated post-traumatic stress issues trying to take her own life in front of me. She overdosed on antidepressants and grabbed a knife. She was sitting there holding a knife to her stomach while I was on the phone to the emergency services. There was also a lot of self harming going on.”
He moved north to Edinburgh in November 2015, spending his first night at a YMCA in Broomhouse.
However, with previous industry experience in computer programming, he got funding to embark on an MSc in Computing at Edinburgh Napier, and he also got a paid summer internship at Bright Red Triangle, where he developed his interest in using technology to promote social inclusion.
Azad founded Outsideworld.cloud, with the aim of creating “digital new towns” in deprived areas, and began working with Community Renewal in Muirhouse, where he has transformed a storeroom into a creative technology workshop.
It will give interested locals the chance to learn how to code using the Raspberry Pi, control a camera, create an entertainment system, make a tablet or explore simple robotics. Instruction leaflets will encourage self-learning at the most basic level.
Sally Smith, Edinburgh Napier’s Dean of Computing, has also donated 16 computers to Azad’s project, which have been distributed to various charities and community groups.
Azad said: “What we want to do is inspire people and change their perceptions by getting them to come in and have a play at weekly or fortnightly workshops.
“Our STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths) room is being kitted out and painted, and by Wednesday of this week we will be ready to go.”
The university’s Nick Fannin, Head of Bright Red Triangle, said: “Azad has done a huge amount to drive this project in a short space of time. The thing that really impresses me is that his first thought is always about how the project can be of value to the community, not to himself.
“I think there is huge potential to encourage interactive learning and develop relevant future skills in the less privileged areas of north Edinburgh, and I think his interactive digital lab should be introduced in other communities.”