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By Robert Bell, John Jung, Louis Zacharilla: Intelligent Communities are those which have - whether through crisis or foresight - come to understand the enormous challenges of the Broadband Economy, and have taken conscious steps to create an economy capable of prospering in it. They are not necessarily big cities or famous technology hubs. They are located in developing nations as well as industrialized ones, suburbs as well as cities, the hinterland as well as the coast.

Rio de Janeiro’s Knowledge Squares take on Digital Inclusion

May 20, 2013 By

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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. 

Standing among the students actively working on their computers in one of the labs I asked about the graduates of the training programs. I was told that about 30% of the graduates have found jobs; jobs that they did not and could not have had before related to technology and applications that could earn them a living. The trainer explained that the courses he was teaching included web design, IT management, graphic design and production and video production.  “We try to facilitate the entry of young people into the local labor market. This will be especially important when we need skilled workers and technology support for the World Cup, Olympic Games and Formula 1.” The Knowledge Squares were created by the city to stimulate the acquisition of knowledge, but my intuition says the trainer was spot on - they also saw a need to deal with an eventual requirement to develop knowledge workers for the massive events over the next several years in Rio, which will forever transform the city and region. And thanks to service providers and technology firms, like Cisco, the lives of individuals are also being transformed. Digital inclusion and not the physical sports facilities will be the greatest legacy of these games.

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Intelligent Communities

About the Intelligent Community Forum
The Intelligent Community Forum is a think tank that studies the economic and social development of the 21st Century community. Whether in industrialized or developing nations, communities are challenged to create prosperity, stability and cultural meaning in a world where jobs, investment and knowledge increasingly depend on advances in communications. For the 21st Century community, connectivity is a double-edge sword: threatening established ways of life on the one hand, and offering powerful new tools to build prosperous, inclusive and sustainable economies on the other. ICF seeks to share the best practices of the world's Intelligent Communities in adapting to the demands of the Broadband Economy, in order to help communities everywhere find sustainable renewal and growth. More information can be found at www.intelligentcommunity.org.

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.

John Jung
ICF co-founder John G. Jung originated the Intelligent Community concept and continues to serve as the Forum's leading visionary. Formerly President and CEO of the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance and Calgary Economic Development Authority, he is a registered professional urban planner, urban designer and economic developer. He leads regular international business missions to US, European, Asian, Indian and Australian cities, and originated the ICF Immersion Lab program. John is a regular speaker at universities and conferences and serves as an advisor to regional and national leaders on Intelligent Community development. The author of numerous articles in planning and economic development journals, he has received global and Toronto-based awards for his work in collaboration and strategic development and sits on numerous task forces and international advisory boards.

Louis Zacharilla
ICF co-founder Louis Zacharilla is the creator and presenter of the annual Smart21, Top Seven and Intelligent Community Awards and oversees ICF's media communications and development programs. He is a frequent keynote and motivational speaker and panelist, addressing audiences of tech, academic and community leaders around the world, and writes extensively for publications including American City & County, Continental Airline's in-flight magazine and Municipal World. His frequent appearances in the electronic media have included both television and radio in South Korea, China and Canada. He has served as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York and is a Guest Lecturer at Polytechnic University's Distinguished Speaker Series. He holds a Masters Degree from the University of Notre Dame.