Models of Impact in Recife, Brazil

Recife (pronounced HEH-SEA-FEE) is the capital of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco. The old centre of Recife dates back to the 16th Century, and the city is home to many incredible neighborhoods including Boa Viagem (where I stayed during my trip) as well as Olinda. 

After nearly 24 hours of travel, I fought the urge to sleep in order to avoid jet lag. To distract myself, I wandered around the beach in Boa Viagem. The area looks a lot like Miami, with tall apartment buildings overlooking a vast ocean. Everywhere you look, there are vendors selling Cerveja (beer) and Aqua de Coco (coconut water) in beach snack shacks. In the streets, a steady stream of motorcycles whipped in and out of traffic as a pack of dogs wandered aimlessly down the sidewalk. I rolled up my jeans, and walked into the warm South Atlantic waters. That was before I learned of this particular beach’s shark infestation.

After dusting the sand off my feet, I walked back to the hotel to rest for a bit (still avoided sleeping), before heading out for dinner with my friend Jacques Barcia, and his wonderful family. A former crime reporter for a local newspaper, as well as the lead singer of a grind core band that has quite the cult following in the northeast of Brazil, Jacques now works as a futurist in Recife.

We shared a delicious meal, featuring a range of Brazilian dishes including feijoada (black bean, pork, and quail egg stew), bode (goat), bife (steak), and more. We, of course, also enjoyed plenty of Cerveja and even some Cachaça, a distilled spirit made from sugar cane juice. While sugar cane still remains a major product in Pernambuco, the Metropolitan Region of Recife is home to an incredibly fast-growing startup ecosystem occasionally referred to as “Silicon Reef”. As one wanders the streets, it is common to stumble upon street vendors, musicians, and dancers, but also co-working spaces, incubators, and hacker spaces.

At the center of this movement is Porto Digital, (which literally translates to “Digital Port”) a hybrid accelerator, investment magnet, community organizer, and growing social enterprise advocate. Of the many initiatives that Porto Digital facilitates is the Recife Summer School, a series of events and workshops that promote innovation in northeastern Brazil. I was honored to have been invited to lead a full-day Models of Impact workshop experience for 20+ entrepreneurs, designers, and architects from across the region.

But let’s back up for a second.

Models of Impact is a business-design methodology that we developed following an intensive study into the trends and traditions of various impact and revenue models that exist across the social enterprise movement. The toolkit consists of a glossary of over 150 business models that we’ve collected as well as an easy-to-use workshop curriculum that allows anyone to facilitate the process of designing impact-driven business models. The toolkit is open-source, and is currently leveraged by practitioners across 90 countries.

Prior to my visit, Porto Digital informed me of the rapidly growing social enterprise movement across Brazil. In addition, I learned of the steady growth in both the futures and hacker/maker communities across the country, but especially in Recife. The curriculum for our workshop was directly inspired by these observations, and was broken into two phases, divided by lunch.

During the first phase of the workshop, participants formed small groups of 3-5 in order to collaborate on developing a range of new business models.

The Models of Impact methodology is comprised of 4 key phases: Learn, Invent, Program, and Report. During the Learn phase, participants are introduced to a range of business models from our comprehensive glossary. After learning about the landscape of social enterprise, participants enter the Invent phase, a generative segment in which small teams leverage dice to roll random combinations of revenue models, impact models, and other factors/topics of interest. 

To determine our topics of interest, the room was tasked with generating a list of 20 emerging technologies, emerging issues, and/or future trends that are of interest to the group. The list (which included Drones, 3D-Printed Organs, Internet of Things, and Self-Driving Cars) served as the foundation for which the business models we would design together would be built upon. 

After inventing unique and forward-thinking business models across three rounds of ideation, each group was tasked with selecting just one of their three ideas to move forward into the Program phase. The Program phase provides participants of Models of Impact with a framework for pushing an idea further in order to develop a draft of a business plan for their new venture. After completing the business plan, each group presented their idea to the room as a whole for initial feedback, and we broke for lunch.

I spent my lunch with some of the participants who took me around the neighborhood. If you know me, you know that I have a slight obsession with graffiti. Everywhere I travel, I document the local graffiti aesthetic for a larger collection I am building. The first thing that stood out to me about the graffiti in Recife is the color, or lack there of. Of course there are exceptions, but almost every piece we stumbled across was rendered in black and white. I also learned the term Brazilians use to describe this work is Pixo, which is somewhat derived from the Portuguese word for “tar”, a material that best represents the aesthetic of the line-work.

In some cases, the Pixo would represent members of local Favelas (slums). In this example, we can see a signature from someone named Miguel, who resides in the Favela “v-8”.

In some cases, the Pixo would represent members of local Favelas (slums). In this example, we can see a signature from someone named Miguel, who resides in the Favela “v-8”.

After checking out the graffiti, we ate lunch at one of Jacques’ favorite spots, Beta Bistro. The restaurant is self-service, like a buffet in America, and patrons pay for their food at the end of the meal.

I had Feijoada again (this time sausage was incorporated into the stew), as well as sweet potato, bife, tomatoes, and rice. In this neighborhood, there are strict rules around architectural preservation and development. As a result, the walls are soaked with stories, and a rich history. Apparently, for many years, this Bistro was a popular venue for punk rock concerts. Jacques had played a gig or two here in his youth.

Locals play a game of dominos.

Locals play a game of dominos.

After eating, we wandered around the cobblestone sidewalks as I ate some delicious candy (Gomets), and enjoyed the decorative banners and streamers scattered throughout the neighborhood. Along the way, we could hear some music coming out of a large building. We followed the sound, and found ourselves inside the Paço do Frevo. Frevo is like a sped-up version of Polka, and the spontaneity of the discovery was so exciting.

As we started to head back toward the workshop, I purchased a couple of hand-embellished Sombrinha for my niece and nephew. Sombrinha are tiny umbrellas that are used for dancing to Frevo music during the Brazilian Carnaval.

Now back at Porto Digital, for the second phase of our workshop, we leveraged their incredible maker space, named Louco. The space serves as a laboratory for urban innovation and design, and it is packed with incredible tools and resources for makers including 3D printers, Arduinos, Laser Cutters, and more. At this point in the workshop, participants have already completed a business plan for their new venture. Now, the challenge is to use the maker space in order to develop a prototype to help make the idea even more tangible, and easy to communicate. Many of the participants leveraged a range of storytelling formats such as journey maps or storyboards, and some even laser cut prototypes, or built paper crafts by hand to represent their concept.

Many of the ideas revolved around health, with one idea proposing a mobile application that would allow users to order 3D-printed hearts as on-demand, collectible, toys in order to raise funds for heart transplants that would also be 3D-printed, and delivered by drone, on-demand (remember, we were aiming for forward-thinking ideas!). Another speculative prototype imagined a beautiful wearable device that could be used to alert authorities in times of medical emergency, while also being able to read vital signs and “predict” future heart attacks. We also saw a concept that proposed a sharing-economy-like model for connecting hospitals to one another in order to share excess organs with each other for patients in need. The concept was presented as a possible way to reduce the deadly trafficking of human organs that occurs in Brazil. 

The purpose of any prototype, especially in an accelerated format such as this workshop, is not to develop a perfect polished object or illustration, but instead to create something that sparks dialogue. Thanks to the incredible diversity of backgrounds and expertise in the room, as well as the wonderful space and resources available to our participants, this may have been one of the most successful Models of Impact workshops in our history thus far.

After the workshop, I caught up on emails for a bit before heading to an exhibition of Visual Poetry work by Paulo Bruscky, and finally heading to a new city, Olinda, for dinner and drinks. Olinda is near the city of Recife, and is built on steep hillsides. The cobblestone streets are lined with incredibly bright homes, all of which have windows open in case a passerby wants to spark a conversation. Apparently, as early founders of the city arrived at the port, they could see the hills of Olinda, and shouted “Olinda!”, which translated into something like “how beautiful!”. The name stuck.

After parking, we noticed two men in all white sitting down next to a series of very distinct instruments. Jacques informed me that these men were Capoeira, and that we would hopefully get lucky and see a performance later in the evening.

On our way to the restaurant, we dropped by a hybrid tattoo parlor and barber shop that sold Literatura de Cordel. These booklets have been used by storytellers for over 100 years in Brazil, and the name “cordel” is derived from a kind of thin string that these booklets would hang on for sale or trade among the storytellers. They tend to have crude content and humor, and of course I bought a couple. 

For dinner, we ate Pastel that was filled with cheese as well as Bife and Batatas Fritas (French Fries). As we ate, I couldn’t help but notice something quite distinct about the way people eat in Brazil. In every instance/meal that I’ve had during my visit, I’ve realized that only one dish is ordered and prepared at a time. On top of that, the dishes are commonly shared by everyone at the table. This pace of eating/ordering leads to more time at the dining table, and ultimately more time for conversation. It’s a stark contrast with the efficiency/“eat and get out” mentality of many American restaurants.

In the middle of the meal, we heard what I thought were gun shots. Luckily, it was just fireworks. 

A parade was on its way down the street of our restaurant, in anticipation of the massive Carnaval that is soon to come in the next week or so. The parade of people consisted of two men wearing large, colorful, suits, as well as a man that was holding a large puppet that must have been 10 feet tall. These large puppets are central to the Brazilian Carnaval for over 100 years. 

We finished our dinner, paid, and began to walk to the car, only to find that the two men we had seen earlier were in the middle of a performance! Watching the Capoeira, a Brazilian form of Martial Arts, was a moment I’ll remember forever. The Capoeira practice this martial art without ever hitting one another. As one Capoeira’s leg rises, the other Capoeira lowers their stance so as to avoid contact. All of this is accompanied by beautiful music. 

It was so cool to also be able to video-call my wife, Katie, so that she could see the performance in real-time as well. I travel alone often, so being able to share this experience with her meant the world to me. Now, the night came to a close, and it was time to go back to the hotel in Boa Viagem in order to sleep.

As I write this, I am sitting in the hotel lobby in Boa Viagem, waiting for my driver to take me to the airport. There is always more to say, but I’ll end here. I have another long journey ahead, but I will always look back at this experience fondly.