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:
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.
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.
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 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.