São Paulo’s rising maker scene is bubbling with excitement. Fabien Eychenne, a fablab specialist who recently relocated to Brazil’s economic capital, describes the local playground of DIY paulistas.
(São Paulo, correspondence)
São Paulo is a huge city, whose population rivals the entire Parisian megalopolis living on a territory half the size. Its vertical topography transforms the city into a concrete forest that hides its share of surprises. Shops, especially those located in the oldest centers (for there are many), are similarly organized. Streets, blocks, even entire neighborhoods are dedicated to the same type of products: one avenue is full of car dealers, another street has several dozen shops selling anything related to restaurants and catering, one boulevard is reserved for music equipment, and Rua 25 de Março is known for its fabrics and charms.
The same goes for the basic tools and equipment of makers. Rua Florêncio de Abreu is packed with “DIY” hardware shops, often specialized, over hundreds of meters.
Here you can find everything from general shops selling tools to highly specialized shops selling a single product. For example, one shop exclusively sells “wheels”, while another offers the entire range of screws.
The shops form a sort of cooperative ecosystem—if one shop can’t satisfy a request, it sends you to another, which you can find by its number.
A few hundred meters from Rua Florêncio de Abreu is Rua Santa Ifigênia, whose name Paulistas use to refer to the whole neighborhood. Here it’s the same atmosphere, except that this street is open to the world of computers, electronics, electrical components, telephony, etc. Imagine a dozen blocks occupied by commercial malls full of little shops selling everything, like 20 times Paris’ Rue Montgallet.
Amidst shops selling pirated software, phone repair, surveillance cameras and and knick-knacks, we also find shops that are well stocked in electronic components.
If it’s easy to find all the basic components (motors, LEDs, capacitors, resistors, etc.), it’s harder to find some of the specific components that are accessible in fablabs and other makerspaces, such as surface-mount devices (SMD), and impossible to find microcontrollers and other communication components such as RFID chips, bluetooth, etc. Electronic prototyping platforms such as Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Teensy, educational products like Bare Conductive, and even sensors for humidity, sound, GPS or gyroscopes are rarely, if ever, found—and if so, at astronomical prices.
Duty tax and hard-to-access components
In Europe and the United States, it’s easy to buy these kinds of products on websites such as Digikey, Sparkfun, Farnell, Libelium or Snootlab. In Brazil, even if large platforms such as Farnell are translating their site into Brazilian Portuguese and giving access to certain products, nothing is in stock and everything comes from their foreign affiliates. This is reflected in the prices.
A basic microcontroller on the list of fablab components costs 40% more on the Brazilian website than on the European site, not even counting the several weeks it takes to have it delivered. An Arduino UNO, which can be easily purchased for under 20 euros in France, costs between 40 and 45 euros in Brazil.
This difference in price is due to import duty tax (70% on this type of product) and the subsequent margins imposed by retailers locked into old practices during the two periods of hyperinflation. Digital machines are also prohibitively expensive. For example, MakerBot’s Replicator 2 3D printer costs US$2,000 on the manufacturer’s website, whereas it sells for the equivalent of US$4,200 by the official Brazilian reseller.
The cost and lack of accessibility of many components of the maker world are an obstacle, or at least an issue that needs to be resolved, before the ecosystem can develop. But it’s not the only one. DIY is truly a matter of culture.
Make others do it instead of doing it yourself
In Brazil, DIY is not particularly valorized and generally underdeveloped. Most people prefer to make others do it for them. This is culturally and socially valorizing. Domestic handiwork, for example, such as installing shelves, replacing a pipe on the sink, repainting a wall, are delegated to professionals. As human labor is cheap (minimum wage is 230 euros per month), and often undeclared, it’s a commonly used resource. In private doorman buildings (“condominio”), a dedicated staff does the in-house repairs, which are included in the rent. Next to the rarely used term “bricolagem” is “gambiarra”, which means to improvise with very little means. What could pass as ingenuity is generally mocked, as seen in the search results of Google Images…
“Fabrique você mesmo” (DIY) fever
Nonetheless, a vibrant and consistent maker ecosystem is developing in São Paulo. The city’s first fablab, Garagem Fab Lab, opened its doors in early 2014. The University of São Paulo (USP) now has a laboratory equipped with several digital machines, which the students hope to open to a much wider public. The second university fablab will open inside the renowned engineering school Insper, playing a central role in an ambitious training program.
Joining these fablabs is the older and very lively Garoa Hackerspace, as well as the first private makerspace, whose founder Pédro is increasingly opening to the communities. Another project to create several Techshops is in a fairly advanced stage.
“Fabrique você mesmo” (DIY) fever is making front-page headlines on a number of generalist magazines. Even city officials are getting involved. The mayor of São Paulo, encouraged by his visiting Barcelona counterpart, went to visit Garagem Fab Lab. He was particularly interested in the FabCity concept, so much so that he mentioned that he might like to have one in São Paulo…