Porto Digital Is the Quixotic Tech Hub That Actually Worked

Cristiano Lincoln Mattos, CEO and cofounder at Tempest, which also spun out of Cesar, attributes the very existence of his company to the ecosystem’s ability to translate expertise from the academic world into market needs. “We wouldn’t even be able to create the company if we didn’t have Cesar’s support at the start, especially considering the local cybersecurity market was nonexistent 23 years ago,” says Mattos, whose company now has offices worldwide and is moving into the defense industry, as well as other markets, after being purchased by Embraer.

Cesar wants to do the same for AI. The institute wants to become an international center to train businesses in how to adapt to generative AI and help their employees become “generative AI natives.” “We are focused on testing new ways to enhance productivity by combining human and machine input to create or enhance design, content, and code,” says Peixoto.

Considering Porto Digital’s hyper-collaborative model, the Covid years weren’t easy. The impact of not being able to meet in person was compounded by the suspension of key events organized by the nonprofit, such as Rec’n’Play, an annual festival aimed at sparking interest in tech careers among the population. Still, the district saw a 10 percent uptick in the number of workers over the past three years, with revenue growing by 29 percent. The previous government, under right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, was also not a major supporter of the project.

“The years under Bolsonaro were really challenging for us, as the government’s science and technology structures were completely dismantled—we had to reinvent ourselves,” said Porto Digital’s CEO Pierre Lucena. Since 2016, the organization running the tech district has not received resources from the federal government and conducts open innovation projects and consulting to other states to ensure its financial independence.

With the pandemic behind it, Porto Digital’s immediate goal is to have 25,000 professionals working in companies based in the tech district by 2025, and more than 600 businesses there. The tech park aims to train up to 50,000 people by 2050, focusing on underserved communities through initiatives from high school all the way to re-skilling professionals in technology areas such as AI disciplines.

The state government, which has backed the initiative from the beginning, hopes to leverage the tech hub’s success to build an economic base that extends beyond the state capital and into the rest of Pernambuco. Pernambuco is the third most unequal Brazilian state, with 51 percent of its citizens living below the poverty line, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

“Our challenge is to replicate [the Porto Digital structure and training initiatives] across the hinterland, to develop entrepreneurs in the state that already have a tech focus, and to support those who aren’t yet in that space,” says Raquel Lyra, governor of the state of Pernambuco.

Growing the tech sector could mean more employment and economic opportunities but also the chance to develop digital public services and innovative solutions to the state’s pervasive challenges. “We are a poor state, with 2 million people without food and an equal number without access to water,” Lyra says. “We know our problems, and that we fail in areas that could be addressed with use of data and technology.”

These aren’t straightforward challenges, but Meira, who has watched Porto Digital grow from an idea to its current prominence, is convinced there are reasons to be optimistic.

“Recife doesn’t wait for things to happen; we are not interested in doing things that have been done before,” Meira says. “This has worked for us in the past and will continue to make us stand out in the future.”

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