Feature Story

Rio Goes Digital With Knowledge Squares

by Laurence Cruz

A look at how Rio de Janeiro is creating a legacy of digital inclusion.

One thing seems certain: With Rio de Janeiro playing host to soccer's World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, this most spectacular of Brazilian cities will end up with some spanking new infrastructure. Think stadiums, hotel rooms, roads and public transit.

But some observers say these global sporting events will also leave a less concrete legacy in the form of greater digital inclusion—this in a country still known for its sharp divide between rich and poor, haves and have nots. A key driver of this change is a city government plan to build a network of digital community spaces, dubbed "Knowledge Squares" and "Knowledge Ships." The purpose of these structures, which will be scattered throughout the city, is to induct local residents into the digital world and transform neighborhoods into smart communities.

The project is already well underway. Under the leadership of Mayor Eduardo Paes, the city has already completed one Knowledge Square and five Knowledge Ships—including one Knowledge "Mother Ship" about twice the size of the rest—and is on track to complete two more before year's end. The goal is to build at least 40 by 2016, according to the city's department of science and technology.

"One of the project's main goals is the creation of a knowledge network designed to ensure that Rio becomes more advanced in digital literacy in education, entertainment, services and training," says Franklin Dias Coelho, the city's chief information officer and head of the department of science and technology in charge of the initiative. "It's about democratization of knowledge through allowing people access to the Internet and distance learning tools. The spaces are even open on weekends."

"Digital Rio 15 Minutes"

Each of the spaces resembles a futuristic cube covering an area about the size of an NBA basketball court. The plan calls for each to be situated in a poor neighborhood. Many will be a stone's throw from Rio's famous hillside slums, or favelas, which have historically been home to violent gangs, drug traffickers and impoverished young people.

While designs vary somewhat, each space typically has a reception area, a playground and an outdoor movie theater where people can watch films projected onto a large screen—the "eye" of the ship. Other features include a multimedia gallery, a digital library, a production room for editing digital content and "caves" where children can hole up with magazines, books or iPads loaded with educational apps.

Users can also dip their toes into the waters of participatory democracy by navigating around digital maps of the neighborhood and inputting suggestions, complaints and comments to the city government. Some spaces also have an amphitheater for lectures, screenings of videos and films, and performing plays for the community. Eventually, the city wants the structures to be no more than a 15-minute walk apart—hence the name of the umbrella program that the structures fall under: "Digital Rio 15 Minutes.

Hotbeds of Educational Opportunity

The spaces will also provide all manner of educational opportunities, including classes on everything from digital literacy and information technology to English for tourism, virtual reality and even networking taught by the Cisco Networking Academy. Other offerings include classes on technology in the community, at work and in entrepreneurship. Future classes will include things like robotics, hackathons and app development. In addition to various city agencies, the project is being developed in partnership with two federal universities in Rio as well as external partners such as Cisco, Intel and the Sequoia Foundation.

The initiative has not gone unnoticed in the broader community. It recently caught the attention of the New York-based smart city think-tank, the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), with co-founder John Jung calling the digital spaces "one of the most dramatic and extensive opportunities to provide digital inclusion … anywhere I have ever seen."

Jung's observation is all the more resonant in light of the recent mass protests that have rocked Rio and other cities in Brazil—in large measure due to the country's still-gaping social inequalities. Anecdotally, the project has already helped some locals find jobs they otherwise could not have got. As a factory for the creation of more knowledge workers as the World Cup and Olympics loom, the project could hardly be more timely—or more enduring in its impact.

As Jung says, "Digital inclusion and not the physical sports facilities will be the greatest legacy of these games."


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