Rio de Janeiro’s story is the struggle between the rich and poor, the have’s and have-not’s and those digitally rich versus those technically deprived.
Rio has struggled with this for decades. However, in my estimation, Rio’s civic administration has emerged triumphant through the development of several Knowledge Squares (Praça do Conhecimento), an initiative with the goal of focusing on culture and education for the people living in the surrounding hillside slums, or favelas.
These favelas have been notorious in the past for the infamous Rio drug lords and their dangerous conflicts with the police force. In recent years, gun battles have given way to pacification, a program in which the citizens of the favelas support the government’s movement to create a better society for their citizens.
On my most recent visit to Rio, my friend Franklin Dias Coelho, the City of Rio’s CIO, took me to visit Bairro Carioca, a new urban area in Rio de Janeiro that contains one of 6 Knowledge Squares that the city government created in 2012. In these Knowledge Squares, local workers and students are offered access to technology and if qualified, to IT training through Cisco’s Networking Academy. Cisco's global education network serves 25,000 Brazilians and forms part of an initiative that involves over 1 million students in 165 countries. About 120 youngsters in Bairro Carioca participated in the training last year in program modules training for help desk support, internet specialists or to develop network technicians. Cisco also provides support for teacher training and various educational materials at the six Knowledge Squares throughout the region. Bairro Carioca also includes a housing project with over 2000 subsidized housing units, a school, kindergarten and other facilities. My friend also took me to another Knowledge Square in the Nova Brasília community, at Morro do Alemão, in Rio.
These Knowledge Squares are an example of one of the most dramatic and extensive opportunities to provide digital inclusion for its citizens anywhere I have ever seen. Knowledge Squares consist of a large central area with smaller pods serving as training facilities. In the center of one of the Knowledge Squares that I visited is a large electronic multimedia display in the shape of a tree in which people are able to play with icons and words to arouse curiosity and begin their quest for knowledge. Other displays provide information including the history of the area, information on its culture (in this case, it was the local center for Samba music and dancing) and other content. Surrounding the central space are classrooms, a library, language labs and recreation areas. Outside is an open area for films to be shown on weekend nights.
While the Knowledge Squares are intended primarily to capture the interest of young people in the favelas, their parents and siblings are often attracted to them for the opportunity to explore the technology provided by various technology providers. The Knowledge Squares I visited were packed with young people, some showing evidence of their poverty in their faces and the clothes on their back. The local teams of security guards were more like coaches and mentors. The staff who trained the local students in the computer labs seemed highly supportive and friendly. I recall years ago that these kids might form marauding youth gangs from the favelas. Today they are keen instead to be part of the excitement of the new age of enlightenment.