Brazil: In Recife, Innovation and Design for Job Creation

Located in the historic center of one of the America’s oldest cities, Porto Digital is a technology park that has made the northeastern city of Recife Brazil’s third IT hub, behind São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The park is the result of efforts of a group of computer-science professors who were tired of watching their students leave the region. The park is taking on the challenges created by digital acceleration, and must respond to the difficult question of innovating “on a global scale.”

The professors, from the federal university of Pernambouc (the state Recife is the capital of), trained excellent engineers who, unfortunately, found it difficult to find local employment. Some created their own companies, which were quickly bought and relocated. The professors, tired of losing their students, created the Recife Center for Advanced Studies and Systems (C.E.S.A.R.) in 1996, to change the dynamic between academia and enterprise. In 2000, the governor, encouraged by the professors’ success, decided to create a center for software creation – Porto Digital — which received local, regional and federal funding.

Creative Industry

The biggest surprise in this was the decision to locate Portal Digital in the city’s historic center, then abandoned to the sun and sea.  Silvio Meira, one of the group’s initial members, and today president of C.E.S.A.R.’s executive council, wanted to to build it next to the university, which the military dictatorship had carefully situated far from the city’s center. But Claudio Marinho, at the time Pernambouc’s director of technology, fought to make Porto Digital part of the area’s urban renewal efforts.  He won when, after several months of discussion, Meira conceded that there weren’t any good restaurants near the university. The creative class needs its creature comforts.

Today, Porto Digital houses 200 companies, employing 6,500 people. Developers stay in Recife, and large companies like Accenture and Nokia are moving there. But moving from job creation to innovation calls for a number of qualitative steps.

Porto Digital is placing its hopes on the creative industry: gaming, digital art, cinema, advertising, and other medias. C.E.S.A.R. emphasizes R&D, with its labs – embedded systems and digital television, notably – and program centered on the innovation process.

Meira is devoting himself to the design approach, notably with business modeling. Not because it’s popular, but because people in Silicon Valley fool themselves by betting their future on design while outsourcing production. “This is brainware, and Brazilian brains are as good as any other,” he told me in 2011, when we first met. It’s less expensive than developing an automobile industry.

“We’re going to try to create companies that have impact at a global level, with algorithms that work at a global scale” he says today. “But things like Skype, Google and Facebook are beyond what the majority of the world’s educational institutions can attain.” Decades are needed to succeed.

What remains is design, what Meira sees as a four-part process. The first three are well-known: knowledge (education), entrepreneurship and investment. To these, Meira adds the notion of “understanding the complexity of problems  at a global scale and having the ability to resolve them.” The vision’s still a bit unclear, but no one can say that this door should stay closed. In Recife and elsewhere.

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