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In Rio, Making Cities Smarter

The numbers surrounding urbanization worldwide are staggering. In 2008, the number of people living in cities, for the first time in civilization, surpassed the number of people living in rural settings. Although urbanization is happening on every continent, the story could not be more dramatic in China, where urban migration will add 350 million people – more than the entire U.S. population – to cities by 2025.

This will result not only in a swelling of the built environment, which will grow by 26 percent over the next ten years. It will also create unprecedented levels of demand for city services on a scale that most city governments have never experienced before, especially in the developing world. This realization is driving city leaders and technology innovators to launch an effort to leverage information and communications technology (ICT) systems to make it easier for cities to deliver services and foster innovation. Pike Research documented these efforts in our recent report, Smart Cities.

Next week, worldwide experts on smart cities will descend upon Rio de Janeiro for IBM’s SmarterCities forum to examine IBM’s work on implementing ICT technologies to improve Rio’s urban infrastructure. IBM and the Rio de Janeiro city government have been working hard on the Rio Operations Center to manage its burgeoning investments in infrastructure and prevent the urban disasters that have plagued the city in the past.

The Operations Center emerged largely in response to pervasive mudslides in Rio in 2010, which claimed the lives of more than 200 Cariocas. In an effort to avoid such disasters in the future, Rio is first investing in smart city infrastructure that tracks weather patterns and identifies likely vulnerabilities. In the long term, however, the Operations Center will be used to monitor a broader range of city services. And as attention turns to Brazil in anticipation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil is particularly keen on demonstrating its ability to become a 21st-century nation.

The drive for smart city infrastructure takes a different tone in the developing world compared with modern cities. Many of the most prominent smart city projects, in places such as Amsterdam and Boulder, are focused on improving city infrastructure in a way that makes a city more competitive (for families and for businesses), reduces costs, and improves environmental sustainability. While these objectives certainly apply in emerging markets such as Brazil, urban infrastructure is being built out for the first time in many developing cities like Rio, and city governments in emerging markets are finding themselves more responsible for the welfare of their citizens than ever.

Cities in emerging markets are coming of age right on the cusp of a technological revolution. Even just a few years ago, smart cities were more the stuff of science fiction than reality, but as costs for information and communications technology infrastructure have come down and the concept has been proven, dozens of cities worldwide have started to adopt smart city technology. First-world city governments, though, remain constrained by governmental structures, entrenched bureaucracies, existing last-generation e-government systems, and ingrained processes for city service delivery. Emerging markets are more of a blank slate; they provide the opportunity to build out smart systems from the ground up. Augmenting city services is inevitable in cities looking to develop and attract businesses and investment; it’s a question of how you do it, and the most ambitious cities, like Rio, will be looking to leapfrog to smart-city technologies.

Pike Research forecasts total smart city investment in Latin America to grow to $2.8 billion by 2020. Much of this investment will land in Brazil, though city governments in other countries such as Mexico and Colombia are already starting to develop smart city projects of their own. I’m looking forward to discussing the evolution of smart cities next week in Rio and getting a better sense for the course of urban development in Latin America and other emerging markets.

Article by Eric Bloom, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.