RIO DE JANEIRO -- An hour's drive from Rio's picture-postcard scenery is the poor neighborhood of Padre Miguel. For 40 years an abandoned building in the center of this shantytown was home to drug dealers and prostitutes, the place where bodies were dumped after murders: a no-go area for residents, a symbol of everything that was bad about living in this community. But in 2011, bulldozers demolished the wreck, and in June this year, a futuristic new building opened in its place, with jagged windows and banks of state-of-the-art screens and computers showcasing art's Great Masters.
They call this place a “Knowledge Spaceship,” and Rio's mayor has pledged to bring these technology hubs and education centers to shantytowns across the city. Six of the interactive digital galleries have already been built, with plans for another 34 before the end of 2016.
Now when the big exhibitions open in the traditional galleries downtown, they open here too – residents can join the opening ceremony by a live-link beamed onto a floor-to-ceiling screen and HD digital versions of the paintings are revealed, timed to give residents here the same experience as the art aficionados in Centro.
The project is an attempt to address the “digitally divided city,” in which 89% of internet use is by the top 5% of earners. In poorer regions like Padre Miguel, less than half of people have access to the web at home. The ambition of the project is to use technology to give residents access to the same cultural opportunities as people living in the richer areas, and IT skills to compete for better jobs. But can it reach its goal?
“We can really change lives here,” says the center's manager Victor Bard. “We can show them something different from the drugs and violence, and give them something they thought only belonged in posh places in Rio.”
65-year-old truck driver Jose Luiz stands in front of the gesture-sensitive screen showing real-size copies of the Impressionist show recently showed at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. He swishes his palm across the sensor to reveal research notes to explain the background to the picture. He moves to the next screen along showing a 3D timeline – designed like a matrix in space – linking together Great Masters who influenced each other. Before the Spaceship arrived he had never been to an art gallery.
“This project has opened doors we never knew were there,” says Luiz. “We didn't know that art was for us or how to see it. Now I go on the bus, two hours sometimes, to see the paintings for real. Everything I learnt about art and about technology, I learnt it here.”
Rio's city government is paying 5 million Reais (or $2.2 million) a piece for these centers to try and address the technology “haves” and “have nots.”
The Science and Technology Secretary Franklin Dias Coelho says, “We know that there are significant disparities between the rich and poor. The city is not only divided socially but in terms of opportunity, knowledge and innovation.”
Fiber-optic cables were laid to give university-class internet speed here to power the machines and their software. The wi-fi is strong enough to support residents in the nearest homes, and in its first year of operation more than 6,000 people have been through courses in IT, blog workshops and Intel Learning programs across the sites. The base in Padre Miguel – known as “the Mothership” is used by 700 people a day.
“We are investing in the recovery of the identity of the city,” says Franklin Dias Coelho. “A new world of knowledge and information.”
None of this addresses the basic social problems of these areas, of course. The people still earn little money, the roads still have potholes and the electricity and phone lines are still not always reliable.
Barbara Pascali, works for the education charity Il Sorriso dei mei bimbi, says, “The idea is fantastic and everyone wants these communities to develop their skills and knowledge. But before the politicians inspire us, they must provide good hospitals, good public schools... There are so many other priorities here.”
The project was designed and powered by Rio's interactive experience company YDreams. Director of Operations, Daniel Japiassu says the inspiration of art and technology must be democratic: “The whole project is a lot about self-esteem. These neighborhoods can't feel like they are less important. We're trying to level the game by giving them state-of-the-art everything. It's one of our basic needs to expand our minds.”
Installing one of the other Spaceships, in the shantytown of Vila Alianca, his team had to get permission from the drugs lords who run the area before they could go in with their kit. There were initially some concerns that the expensive machines might get stolen.
“Actually, there is a church-like reverence,” he says. “Even the dealers know how important these places are for their communities. Nothing has been touched, the users themselves even discourage children from rushing around making too much noise.”
And the most concrete seal of approval from the neighborhood of Padre Miguel? Whereas before residents were ashamed to live close to the notorious drug den, now you can see fresh windows have been installed in the closest houses: everyone wants to face the Spaceship.