First Stop revists "The Myth of Innovation" on location in Brazil

Submitted by Sarah Iannarone
Assistant Director, First Stop Portland

In November 2014, I traveled to Brazil to share the Portland Story with an ambitious conference, UpWeek2014 hosted by Instituto Jourdan in Jaraguá do Sul, Santa Catarina (click to zoom in on northernmost yellow dot on the map, below).  This week-long exploration of the role of technology and innovation in social development brought together leaders from the state's university, public, and private sectors to discuss ways local governments can develop and implement solutions and promote economic development.

Like many places around the globe, Jaraguá do Sul and its neighbors hope to attract and retain tech-based companies (and the ever elusive "creative class") as part of their development strategy. Unlike many places, a contingent of local leadership (who are also First Stop Portland study tour alumni) understand the importance of civic engagement, placemaking, and public-private partnerships as central to their efforts. 

You can see, then, why First Stop Portland was invited to kick off UpWeek! with a keynote on urban innovation, Portland-style.

Now, it’s one thing sharing “The Portland Story” from a street corner in the Pearl District but another altogether to explain to an audience (many of whom had not yet heard of Portland, let alone visited) why they should care how Portland transformed from “Stumptown” of the 1850s to the “Creative City” we are lauded as today. Alongside my fellow presenters, (many from the tech industry) who approached innovation as the capacity to capitalize on the next best idea or platform, Portland's “innovation” story felt anything but. With terms like “asset-light,” “synergy,” “solutions,” and “disruptive” flying from Prezi slide to slide, Portland's steady-as-she-goes narrative of  incremental change felt megalithic in comparison.

Tech start-up at Sapiens Parque
And while the real innovation in the Portland Story—figure out what you want to be and do it on purpose—may have been lost on some of the younger members of the UpWeek! audience (for whom the presenter from Facebook Brazil achieved near rock star status) it was well received the rest of my time in Santa Catarina, as I met with leaders from the public, private, and university sectors around the state who are struggling with a very different set and scale of problems than the young tech entrepreneur.

For over a decade now, Brazil has been hailed as a powerhouse of economic potential. The largest economy in Latin America and the 6th largest in the world (Brazil puts the B in BRIC along with Russia, India, and China), its rapid expected growth is due in part to its growing population and geography rich in natural resources and agricultural land, including fruitful export industries from sugar cane to textiles. Foreign direct investments in Brazil continue to increase ($76B USD in 2012). Brazil’s GNP and per capita incomes are also on the rise (albeit with growing inequality) and human health and quality of life around the country are undoubtedly improving [1].

In Florianopolis, educational institutions like SENAI and SENAC are implementing innovative programs for mobilizing Brazil’s industrial, commercial, and professional workforces. The government-funded innovation center at Sapiens Parque is successfully transforming business as usual, diversifying the local economy through support of startups in clean energy, biotech, information technology and even green building. In nearby Pedra Branca, a family-owned development company is transforming its defunct family farm into a compact, New Urbanist development of the highest caliber. (There's a slideshow of images from Pedra Branca at the end of this post.)

Rudy Raulino, SENAC Regional Director, explains deployment of mobile classrooms around the state.
With the resources at hand and innovative ideas in play, how could Santa Catarina--or Brazil for that matter--be anything less than economic juggernaut? 

Despite all the positive activity I witnessed during my short time in Santa Catarina, I also saw some fundamental issues persisting across municipalities and sectors which appeared to hogtie even their most enlightened plans. In many conversations, there was a focus on the lack of infrastructure as the bottleneck in their development plans. And while it was apparent throughout my visit that, like the US, Brazil has much work to do developing and maintaining its networks (roads, airports, distribution networks and telecommunication, power plants and energy grids), the issue of governance may play a greater role in Brazil’s long term success.

Public proposal for innovation center in Jaragua do Sul
The leaders of the mid-sized Brazilian cities I visited were actively seeking tools to improve urban mobility and reduce carbon emissions. Many understood the value of compact walkable neighborhoods like Pedra Branca. Yet many of them seemed frustrated trying to implement the innovative policies, plans, and practices necessary to bring about their desired goals. 

When the matter of intergovernmental relationships—especially between the federal level and municipalities—came up, I was always quite grateful that I do NOT speak Portuguese. Conversations were heated and even in English, Brazil’s tax and tariff system as explained to me was so complex I could not wrap my head around it. Apart from development policy, however, the impacts of political instability at higher levels of government were evident at the local level. Beyond anxiety about Brazil's economic future (Will Brazil go the way of Argentina? many were wondering), were very serious concerns about the federal government's relationship to cities and regions. While the local leaders I spoke with expressed satisfaction with the government's recent initiatives regarding private sector innovation, they were dismayed by a lack of support for public sector innovation and effective government collaboration across scales. Add to this a culture of political corruption (which, while decreasing, remains high) and it becomes clear why local governments are wringing their hands.

So what "innovation" lesson did Portland leave behind? Investments in "soft" infrastructure may be as important to local sustainability and prosperity as hard infrastructure:
  • Robust public-private partnerships have been a cornerstone of Portland's redevelopment activities. Trusting relationships are not built overnight!
  • Strong sense of place is the foundation of local activities.
  • Realizing a long-range view requires institutions that can withstand political turnover.
  • Courageous, visionary leadership has been a key element of many successes.
  • Complete, connected neighborhoods drive regional and urban design and public investments.
  • Shared governance between levels of government and across sectors helps us solve complex problems.
  • Civic engagement and public participation in planning does not happen by accident. Serious investments in processes and flexibility regarding outcomes are essential.

Slideshow from a tour of Pedra Branca with President Valerio Gomes Neto and Executive Director Marcelo Consonni Gomes

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