The hopes of making Rio de Janeiro a Latin American tech hub to rival São Paulo are high among local enthusiasts, including the city’s mayor who announced this aspiration at the first Rio Web Summit. It’s also a bit of a pipe dream, at least in the short term.
Rio, as Brazil’s second-largest city, has many advantages, and is certainly a well-positioned contender. But, to become the tech powerhouse it wants to be, Rio might benefit more from a rigorous self-assessment — something that would also benefit both Brazil and Latin America more broadly. Here are two main hurdles that we thought Rio de Janeiro needs to overcome to achieve tech hub status:
A global tech hub needs to create tech for the world, or at least make it accessible to those in town. Basically everyone in Rio and Brazil uses Pix, the instant payment system created by the country’s central bank in 2020. QR codes and Pix codes are displayed inside taxi cabs, on small-store countertops, and by street vendors. But there’s a catch: Signing up on Pix requires a Brazilian bank account, making the system unavailable to foreign visitors. Regular credit cards (and their high fees) end up being the next best thing. Some local landmarks and public services offer the only truly inclusive alternative for global citizens: cash.
The divide is real
For the amount of times we heard the terms “inclusion” and “democratization” at the Web Summit in Rio, it would have been interesting to have local, Brazilian, and Latin American voices talk about how to actually make these buzzwords work for those who need it most.
You wouldn’t know it from the swanky streets where the summit was held, but about 20% of cariocas (people from Rio) live in working-class comunidades — a more socially acceptable term for “favelas.” And summits like these are full of proposals by tech execs from the richer areas to insert their products into the lives of working-class cariocas.
Take the residents of Rio’s oldest Black comunidade — should they be worried about the promise to build Brazil’s Silicon Valley right next door? Will they benefit from an influx of entrepreneurship, or suffer from the gentrification of their historic community (which contains one of the most important spots for the history of samba, Pedra do Sal)?
Given that we’re from Mexico City, it’s something we’ve seen before. Anie Akpe, activist and founder of African Women in Tech, told Rest of World during the Web Summit that this tendency to hype and downplay one’s own city is not uncommon in the so-called Global South. Classism and ignorance are common to Latin America, Africa, and beyond, she said.
As our sojourn in Brazil comes to an end, we come away convinced that Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil at large, have what it takes. They share many of the flaws and challenges of their fellow Latin American countries, but also much of the promise contained in their well-established markets, their hardworking and educated citizens, and the riches of a vast and diverse land.