The “Informal City” and Latin America’s Urban Future

By Robert Albro

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Latin American cities are powerful engines for growth, but sustaining that progress will require moving workers from the informal into the formal sector.  Latin America is the most urbanized continent in the world, and its cities are now the region’s main economic engine.  Its ten largest cities account for about half of the region’s economic output, and their share of economic activity is projected to increase by 2025.  They are also increasingly aspiring to insertion in the global economy. And mayors often assume a CEO-like autonomy in attracting international capital, business, and talent to their cities, while pursuing policies designed to enhance their municipal standing as critical global nodes, hubs or platforms of innovation, manufacturing and services.  Strategies include international city-to-city cooperation, corporate and multinational partnerships to fund infrastructure, global policy forums for mayors to share best practices regarding sustainability or climate change, and new urban planning intended to increase connectedness to global information flows.  Citi and the Wall Street Journal in 2013 judged Medellín, Colombia, the “most innovative city” in the world.  San José, Costa Rica, has become a telemarketing outsourcing center, in large part because of its well-prepared workforce.  And cities like Monterrey, Mexico, and Curitiba, Brazil, are emerging tech hubs.

Over the last several decades, however, rapid urban growth in Latin America has also greatly expanded the urban informal sector.  With sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America has the largest informal sector in the world.  Of all workers in greater Bogotá, for example, 59 percent operate in the informal economy.  Low levels of technology, finance and job skills conspire to limit productivity and to distance Latin America from the frontiers of the global economy.  Along with low earnings and the lack of social benefits or income security, a large informal labor sector generates inadequate tax revenue for municipalities and chronic underinvestment and neglect of urban infrastructure.  Pervasive informality also contributes to social exclusion.  More than 80 percent of the top 50 most violent cities in the world are in Latin America, and this violence is concentrated along rapidly expanding urban margins.  In the absence of resources from municipal authorities, marginal urban dwellers turn to illicit actors and activities for unregulated or pirated services and protection.  Potentially competitive enterprises are hesitant to establish a presence in cities where property ownership is contested or where government voids leave land, money, governance and other resources, vulnerable to criminal capture.

Latin America’s cities aspire to effective insertion into the global economy while also struggling with very local and hard-to-change challenges of informality and unregulated urban growth.  Labor flexibilization and privatization, hallmarks of 1990s-era neoliberal policies, at once promote the growth of the informal economy and complicate urban planning intended to facilitate the development of assets necessary for global competitiveness.  Urban planners mistakenly continue to treat participants in the informal economy as a transient reserve army of labor composed of rural in-migrants not yet absorbed into the industrial sector.  Yet if cities want to develop their niche in the global economy, policy makers will also have to attend to the connections between urban informality and social exclusion. Large-scale and violent protests, such as last year’s flash mob protests in shopping malls by working-class Brazilian youth, are demanding their “right to the city.” The economic future and competitiveness of Latin America’s cities significantly depends upon their capacity to address the second-class citizenship of their informal workforce. Overcoming social exclusion is a first step to competing effectively in a global economy characterized by increasingly stiff competition among cities.

The TecnoLatinas: A Start-Up Revolution

Foro de Ahorro de Energía Eléctrica, México | Photo credit: Alejandro Castro | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Foro de Ahorro de Energía Eléctrica, México | Photo credit: Alejandro Castro | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Latin America is experiencing a full-fledged start-up movement amid rapid growth of an innovation and information economy.  Over the last several years the region’s online population has grown faster than in any other part of the world – with approximately 255 million internet users as of last year.  Half of the top 10 markets worldwide, ranked by time spent on Facebook and other social media, are in Latin America.  Clusters of innovation start-ups, such as those around Monterrey, Mexico, are springing up with astonishing speed.  In 2012 Mexico was among the largest exporters of information technology services in the world.  Google is currently building a data center in Chile, while Amazon Web Services opened a data center in Sao Paolo last December.  But these are not information-era maquiladoras. Instead, Latin American entrepreneurs are combining the availability of open-source innovation tools and the emergence of cloud computing with effective bridge building in Silicon Valley to bring collaboration, expertise, and capital to their home markets.

  • Latin America offers multiple advantages for tech start-ups: a low cost of development, an educated and growing talent pool with the necessary technical and entrepreneurial skills, and increasingly available and affordable broadband and internet access.
  • In particular, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia, along with metropolitan areas across the region, are incentivizing the development of a competitive start-up ecosystem – an advantage attracting a growing number of “angel investors.”
  • Start-Up Chile, a national program begun in 2010 with 22 start-ups from 14 countries, offers seed capital, grants, tax protection, space, mentoring, and networking to “accelerate” promising ventures.  Its most recent competition drew 1421 applicants from 60 countries, including from Singapore, London, and San Francisco.

The lack of tech innovation and incentives for start-ups has been an Achilles’ heel of Latin American economies for decades.  If the start-up trend continues, the region could make significant, lasting progress toward narrowing the sizable gap between itself and the most dynamic developing countries, mostly in Asia.  Latin America’s start-up movement is both top-down and bottom-up, with a tech-savvy generation of entrepreneurs not afraid to take risks and to leverage government support, as part of a collaborative business model built on multiple ties to Silicon Valley.  A core challenge will be whether these initiatives are scalable, and whether governments can move away from stale policy debates rooted in antiquated paradigms to move their economies toward the frontiers of innovation of the information age.  Old elites with a lock on traditional industries are poorly positioned to obstruct the phenomenon, but if these emerging innovation hubs are to succeed, at some point they are likely to confront  the entrenched and oligopolistic business practices still prevalent in the region’s energy, telecom, and other sectors.