4 Lessons From The Social Innovation Hotbed Of Brazil

Brazil is known for its supermodels, but what about its social innovation models? Besides the economic boom, the country is finding a new groove in the field of digital collaboration and activism.

Last year, I moved from New York to Rio de Janeiro, where Purpose has opened its first overseas office. I have met with local innovators and interacted with all kinds of people on the streets, at the beach, and in botequins (informal bars). These experiences have all enriched my work in social innovation. Besides stimulating my creativity, immersion in a different culture and working in a foreign language have heightened my sense of mindfulness and empathy, reminded me of the virtue of humility, and taught me a few things about what it means to innovate.

Here are some lessons I have learned:

Innovation is a jeitinho

A jeitinho ("little way" in Portuguese) is a way of making do and getting around barriers with the resources that you have on hand. It is an improvisation or a hack.

An example of the spirit of jeitinho is Gambiologia, a group of artists who study and create works in the "Brazilian tradition of adapting, improvising, and finding simple creative solutions to problems in daily life that can be applied also to the context of electronic art." The Gambiologia team presented their creations at the CulturaDigital Festival in Rio last December. These works are a kind of electronic folk art that demonstrate a proud independent spirit of DIY, reuse and re-appropriation of materials and artifacts, and the ingenuity that arises from working with constraints and limitations.

Innovation is a feijoada

While we often refer to the U.S. as a "melting pot," in Brazil, the equivalent symbol of cultural mixing is the feijoada. Considered the national dish, feijoada is a hearty stick-to-your-ribs meal consisting of a stew of beans and meat (including pork trimmings like the ears, tail, and feet), rice, collard greens, toasted manioc flour, and orange slices. The provenance of the various ingredients represent Brazil’s blend of European, African, and indigenous cultures. Feijoada is about taking humble ingredients and the nasty bits of meat and making something delicious and sublime.

The electronic bricolage of Gambiologia is like this cultural stew: a beautiful mess, and a triumph of bottom-up experimentation and invention. Another example is the digitally driven Meu Rio movement, which is bringing underrepresented young people into the political and civic life of Rio and advocating for greater political transparency and accountability. Launched in 2011 in partnership with Purpose and IETS, a local NGO, Meu Rio is a kind of organizational feijoada, a hybrid that draws from a variety of existing international models. The Meu Rio recipe includes best practices in online political organizing from groups like Avaaz.org and MoveOn.org; elements of Yes Men-style culture jamming and offline stunts; and tops things off with its own "laboratory" for digital social innovations based on models such as the Sunlight Foundation.

Innovation is cannibalism

The trope of cannibalism has a long history in Brazilian culture, from the poet Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibal Manifesto in the 1920’s, to the all-encompassing Tropicália movement’s art, theatre, poetry, and music that emerged in the late 1960s. Adherents to the manifesto of cultural cannibalism argue that Brazil’s history essentially began with an act of literal cannibalism, when members of a native tribe ate the Portuguese Bishop Sardinha.

A current example of this cultural cannibalism is Catarse, Brazil’s homegrown answer to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. More than a simple Kickstarter clone, Catarse is open source. In a blog post the creators of Catarse declared their passion for collaboration and explained their rationale behind open sourcing the project: "By donating the work that we have done up to now, we are opening the possibility for people who identify with crowdfunding to [be] able to contribute to the evolution of the concept in Brazil." Cannibalism is not just about copying ideas from abroad, but also "digesting" them to make them your own and to share them with your community.

Catarse’s openness is a core value, from its source code to its community. This openness has empowered social change makers to tap into the power of crowdfunding for their projects. Activist filmmakers working on a documentary about the controversial construction of the Belo Monte dam in the rainforest recently used Catarse to raise 140,010 Brazilian reais (approximately $76,000 U.S.) to fund the completion of the film.

Innovation is social resistance

Innovation is not just about new gadgets and widgets for the sake of novelty or profit. Innovation is a means of social resistance and self-actualization of communities. Although very different, groups like Gambiologia, Meu Rio, and Catarse embrace a common ethos of openness and sharing that is pervasive among Brazil’s digital innovators. The Belgian theorist and activist Michel Bauwens declared at the Cultura Digital Festival that Brazil is "the most peer-to-peer country" he had visited so far. This peer-to-peer ethos celebrates open sharing and learning, remix, and re-appropriation.

The Tropicália movement, although short-lived, created a platform for social and political resistance beyond music and art. The influence and legacy of Tropicália is very much alive today. Gilberto Gil, former minister of culture and a musician associated with Tropicália, served as the ambassador for the Cultura Digital Festival. When he began his term as minister of culture, Gil called himself a "hacker," evoking the DIY ethic of the jeitinho and embracing the aesthetics of cultural mixing and hybridization embodied by the feijoada.

Tom Zé, another artist associated with the Tropicália, wrote in the liner notes of his album Fabrication Defect about the subversiveness of those who dare to innovate:

They think, dance and dream, things that are very dangerous to the Third World bosses … To have ideas, to compose, for instance is to dare. In the dawn of history, the idea of gathering vegetable fibers and inventing the art of weaving took great courage. To think will always be considered an effrontery.

The motto on Brazil’s national flag means "Order and Progress," but I have learned that progress and innovation are seldom orderly. With the power promised by technology comes the responsibility to remember the human dimension of innovation. We must also not lose sight of the poetry of our collective dreams amidst the rapid drive towards progress.

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  • Sousaaves

    Like any other country, if there was not many rules, corruption , regulations and bureaucracy. The word jeitinho brasileiro would not exist. 

  • Sergiof_unb

    Sorry to say, but...
    There is no such thing named "inovation" that is not linked to some economic advantage. The focus and interest of Public Policies on innovation should envisage a more homogeneous GDP per capita, which is still far from being approached in Brazil. This is how social justice can be measured, anything else is no more than words of good hope. This goal of an even GDP distribution, however, can only be achieved in a country like Brasil by qualifiying people for more rewarding professions and by providing conditions that can attract investiment of industries of higher aggregated value.
    After 10 years of a lefttist government we have more people with low or none qualification and more people receiving salaries, that are still low, as a due consequence. The economy grew, but the income concentration was kept at unbearable levels. The recent violent strikes of the police forces are warnings of that.
    In 2011, Brazil imported 70.5 thousand qualified works from abroad. It is a growing phenomenum, 26% yearly, since there is a shortage of Brazilian qualified personnel, such as engineers.
    This is not a panorama of an innovative country, isn't it? Social innovation as considered in the text is an overstatement for government programs that aims at keeping people poor and illiterate so they can be kept sympathetic to social programs promesses in the next pool.
    NGO's have their part in solve local problems, which is positive, but they do not criticize the government, since many of them receive public funds and do have connections with politicians. Further more, "jeitinho" means something different: "disrespect of rules" or "lack of knowledge of how to fix appropriatedly a problem", there is nothing good in "jeitinho".

  • gbgomes

    That`s more then a very conservative and outdated approach to analyse public policy planning and management in a dynamic country, such as Brazil - and in a dynamic world, as well. A perspective that, fortunately, we can learn about in the 1970s and 1980s economical history, and which we do not need, even a bit, to get back to. We`re talking today in Brazil about a really new development model, that prioritize other kinds of social and economical indicators, putting sustainability and democratic empowerment as our main concerns. We don`t need just to fight poverty through income distribution (something a lot more easier using our traditional way: creating government jobs and even more "funcionários públicos"). We need to reduce poverty with social and technical innovation, social protection, respect no human and social rights and effective mechanisms to promote local development, as educational improvements and entrepreneurship. 

  • leesean

    Thanks for your comments Sergio.

    I agree that greater education and wealth distribution would all be positive developments in Brazil. However the intended message of the article is not about government, which does have an important role to play in innovation, but focusing on bottoms-up and grassroots efforts to build shared cultural and civic value in Brazilian society.
    While you make a valid point about NGOs, in the case of Meu Rio, the organization does not receive financial support from government, political parties, elected public officials, or public companies: http://meurio.org.br/paginas/s...

    The definition of jeitinho is very much contested, based on who you ask. I understand it to have a broad spectrum of meaning. While it can refer to corrupt or ethically questionable practices, for the purposes of the article, I focus on the positive DIY spirit of jeitinho, a spirit embraced by the very social innovators we profiled.

  • jratkins


    Thank you for
    sharing your insight from Rio de Janeiro. I had a similar experience in Ramallah
    Israel where innovation is rampant. I made a few points in my Blog Post “What
    are you seeing in Palestine?” http://somethingdifferentcompa...

    Keep up the
    good work.

    J.R. Atkins

    Chief Client Strategist at Aria

    Author | Speaker | Consultant ~
    Social Media, Mobile Apps & Marketing

  • leesean

    Thanks for the link J.R. 
    I think your Ramallah experiences are a great example of this idea of innovation as social resistance. It is always uplifting and inspirational to hear stories of innovation in emergent communities that paint a more vivid portrait of those communities. Rio has much more to offer than mega sporting events, beautiful beaches, and favela violence, just as there is much more to the story of Palestine than Occupation and Intifada. 

  • giselle macedo

    Yes, translations sometimes have their booby traps. You are not the only one who mixed cannibal and antropófagos. But in Andrade's case he was very busy with these distinctions during his lifetime that's why it's important to know.
    About the ecobags, when Rio's deputy Carlos Minc wrote the law some years ago, me and other people proposed to charge for the bags stead of going for a discount, but the shop owners were against since it looked as if the consumers were being punished for using it. 
    In supermarkets there are small boards alerting people for the discount somewhere in a dusty and dark area at the entrance;-) But it is just a begin, better than nothing. What amazes me are people who bring ecobags to the supermarket and pack all their goods still with plastic bags, I see this frequently happening.
    I lived in the Netherlands for 14 years and there you have to pay for the bags but in some supermarkets you can still have small transparent bags for free... I remember when I was a child here in Rio, the grocery bags were made of paper. I wonder when and who decided to switch from paper to plastic. But what really makes me mad are people who go to the supermarket around their corner by car stead of walking with their ecobag on their shoulders. Ecobags became such a fashion item that people forget that there is a whole world of waste beyond an ecobag.
    And talking about your explanation of the jeitinho and gambiarra and remembering that carnaval is next week, one of the most amazing things and a huge metaphor for the brazilian way of doing things is a samba school parade. We have to arrive 2 hours in advance at the concentração for the parade. At the concentração, in these 2 hours is a huge mess, with people shouting, running, not telling what to do and if you are not used to it, you can almost have an anger attack! But suddenly, the name of the school is announced, the gates are open, and the magic of a samba school parade starts. It's just a miracle and one of the most fantastic experiences ever. It always makes me thing of how a lot of things happen in this country.

  • giselle macedo

    Hi, there! Nice article. 
    The name of Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto was Manifesto Antropofágico ou Manifesto Antropófago and not Manifesto Canibal. In fact, Andrade's himself wrote about the difference between an Antropófago and a Cannibal. Antropófago eats for the taste and the cannibal for the hunger. 2 different concepts indeed.
    On the comment of Carioca, I totally agree that people don't care much about recycling in terms of consciousness, recycling here happens through need and not through ethics. Thats why Brazil is the country which recycles the biggest amount of aluminium cans in the world: people make some extra cash with it. The plastic bags at stores and supermarkets are a plague and the consumer should be charged for its usage as it happens in some countries. Stead, here in Rio you get a 0,03 discount on each 5 products you put in your ecobag but nobody knows about it. the city council and shop owners don't tell people this discount exists. And many people think 0,03 per plastic bag is no money.

  • leesean

    Thanks for the comment Giselle. I learned something new when you explained the difference between a cannibal and an antropófago.  I just went with the English translation given by Wikipedia and other sources, but I think it is one of those lost in translation moments where in this case the Portuguese language has more nuance and specificity.

    As for the issue of ecobags, in my home country of Taiwan, stores (with a few exceptions like bakeries) aren't allowed to give plastic bags out for free. You get charged a few cents for the bags (a little more than 0,3 reais). Other countries I have visited do this too, such as Sweden, where I studied abroad 10 years ago. I think the distinction between a "discount" and getting charged for a bag make a subtle but important difference in the minds and behaviors of consumers. 

  • carioca

    Thanks for a great article! I am carioca (from Rio) and I am happy when someone points ou all the positives.  I went to Rio last month was reminded of how much work still needs to be done to educate and raise awareness with the citizens about recycling and waste in general--people throw trash out the window of buses, leave trash on the beach, etc.  It seems the corporations are making headway in sustainability but the people aren't.  No one takes reusable bags to the grocery store, there is too much post-consumer waste and plastic usage in the city.  Reading your article brought warmth to my heart, after all I love that city! Cidade maravilhosa!