Sao Paulo and the street smarts of its crowd

6 01 2008

I’ve just come back from spending almost a month in São Paulo, Brazil. Every time I go there I take some time just to walk on the streets to check out new trends and enjoy the chaotic dynamic of the city. A few years ago, James Surowiecki argued in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds” that a wise crowd needs to have diverse, decentralized and independent individuals. I find that São Paulo really excels in those three areas (but this, of course, is likely a biased view):


This time around I decided to visit the local Immigration museum (Memorial do Imigrante), and was glad that I did it. Here are some pics:

Many people in North America don’t know that São Paulo was a very popular destination for immigrants in the early 20th century and is now home for about 100 ethnicities. The largest groups (including descendants) are Italians, Portuguese, Lebanese, Japanese and Jews, but you’ll find plenty of “paulistanos” with German, Armenian, Korean, Chinese, French, Spanish, Greek and Ucranian roots. And maybe even some canucks:


Sao Paulo is a really big city, the second largest in the world according to the CityMayors website (behind Seoul), and the 5th largest if you count the surrounding urban areas (behind Tokyo, Mexico City, Mumbai and New York). More than 18 million people live in its metropolitan area. Here are some pics I took from the top of the Banespa building:

São Paulo is a city made of cities. My wife was born and raised in São Paulo and she has never been to most of the places in the old downtown area until her twenties. Places like these ones:

The Banespa building and the Cathedral (Sé)

Teatro Municipal (kind of City Opera House)

Independent thinking

Here is a picture from São Paulo in the early 1900s (taken at the immigrant museum):

And this is a recent picture of the same street (from the Midia Independente website):

The provincial city from 100 years ago was gradually transformed in a city of millions of voices, tens of political parties and hundreds of urban tribes. I found amusing to see this book vending machine in the main subway station:

A close look reveals how eclectic the crowd is:

Where else would you find Linux and Excel sharing the shelf with Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Sherlock Holmes and tips on how to train your dog?

There’s a lot to learn from living in places like São Paulo. I wish I could have a rotating work assignment where I could live a couple of years each in large urban centres like Tokyo, Mumbai, Seoul, Mexico City, Beijing, Istanbul, Moscow and, why not?, New York. Those are all like living organisms, showing that, at a very close range, the world is anything but flat.


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