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Cooking up some innovation magic

How to manage innovation spaces for impact

Once upon a time there was a Brazilian entrepreneur, Antonio Jacob Renner. Who in 1912 founded his business with a factory in the Navegantes area of Porto Alegre (down in the southern tip of the country) based on turning the local cotton crop into textiles and apparel. The city’s name means ‘joyful port’ and it certainly was a good location for him; within ten years he’d opened a clothing shop in the city specialising in the ‘Ideal cape’ — a weatherproof garment beloved of city clerks as much as the gaucho cowboy out tending to the cattle for which the region is famous.

The business grew and by the 1940s had become a department store; soon after there were branches right across the country. By the 1960s it had become a key brand — Lojas Renner — which still exists today as a fashion-led chain, a kind of Brazilian version of Zara.

Not bad for a one-time start-up in downtown Porto Alegre. But times change and while the retail side of the business continues much of the old factory estate has crumbled away, leaving only the shells of derelict buildings behind. Which was the case for one of Renner’s first factories in the 4th district of Porto Alegre. It accompanied many other businesses into a decaying wasteland which quickly became a hot spot for crime and other social problems, making the area something of a no-go space.

Enter an unlikely coalition of around 40 city and state authorities, local universities, large employers and others who together decided to help reshape the region’s fortunes and make it a new centre for entrepreneurial growth. They took over the factory and, as the ‘Pacto Alegre ‘ — joyful pact — began to stir their pot. They christened the site the ‘Caldeira’ — named after the original industrial boilers which Renner had imported and installed way back in the 1900s. And a hundred years later their centre has been cooking up a particular kind of innovation magic.

Their vision was — and still is — ‘to promote connections between large firms, start-ups, universities and public authorities to create a transformative movement to foster the technology and innovation ecosystem’. Ambitious if nothing else — but despite a rocky start they’ve managed to do so.

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