If you uprooted to live in Sao Paulo a few years ago, it’s pretty likely that the first thing you did when you arrived was look for a city map. It’s just as likely that you gave up on this idea once you saw what they looked like. Given the choice of lugging around two pounds of paper all day or getting lost in the urban jungle, you’d rather get lost. So, what’s a newcomer to Brazil to do?
At the end of the 20th century, Geert Hofstede, a Dutch cultural anthropologist, conducted a study for IBM that defined cultural dimensions in order to describe cultural differences between countries. He found that a culture could be characterized by parameters like individualism vs. collectivism in the society, long-term vs. short-term orientation (e.g. the habits of planning or the daily zest for life) or the uncertainty avoidance index (e.g. the tolerance of unstructured situations). While Hofstede’s works do not make any predictions, they do confirm the impressions we all have when visiting a foreign country.
Take my experience in Brazil – what a mess at first. There were no posted routes at the bus stop, no city maps, no classified directory of doctors, no reliable weather predictions, no clear use of operator’s phone codes… in fact most of the time there was no ready-to-use information whatsoever. My frustration as a newcomer made me wonder how Brazilians deal with this uncertainty everyday.
So how do Brazilians compensate for these huge gaps? My guess is that they count on collectivism in addition to their creativity. What do you do if you get lost? Ask the people around you for directions. How do you know which bus goes to Ibirapuera Park? Get ready to ask every single bus driver you can catch. How do you find a good real estate agent? Talk to the people you know, at least one of them will know someone. How do you find a new job? Spam your email contacts with your CV, and hopefully they’ll forward it on to the right mailbox.
In Brazil, your ability to find the information you need is directly connected to how much you share. This feature of collectivism in Brazilian society evolved naturally from real life to digital life because there was a need for it or habit given the Brazilian culture. Brazilians are heavy users of social networks, with 41 hours or more per week, mostly on Orkut, Facebook and Twitter. Of all the social networks, Twitter has had the most profound impact on daily life; as a channel for free expression – like in the last presidential elections – or by giving access to the missing information, it helps Brazilians stay up-to-date and informed. Today, if you search for #alagamento you’ll find out which roads are flooded after a tropical rainstorm, just as you can search #transitosp to find out how to avoid traffic jams in São Paulo.
Smartphones, like social media, have the ability to change people’s lives (beyond the issue of access to technology in Brazil, which is another big debate). Whatever happened to that two-pound map of Sao Paulo? It was replaced with a lighter Google Maps on my smartphone.
Mobile apps could be the answer to overcoming the huge distances, the shortcomings of the transportation system and the anonymity of overcrowding in these giant cities that have grown up too fast to be organized yet.
A few useful apps to emerge from Brazil:
BoaLista is a shopping assistant and collaborative app that lets you scan any barcode, find the price and store location and share with your network. Create your shopping list around the best prices in town.
Correios lets you track all your packages in one place.
Flex Calc helps you to choose between ethanol and gasoline based on the current price.
Right Number ensures that you dial the right operator and state codes when you travel within Brazil, or anywhere else in the world.