Rio de Janeiro’s System of Systems


At the IBM Smarter Cities forum in Rio de Janeiro last week, I had the chance to go behind the scenes and take a first-hand look at Rio’s smart city project. My main impression is that the project represents one of the purest emerging examples of a smart city project that is simultaneously developing smart solutions on multiple fronts – natural disaster management, public safety, health, utilities, to mention a few – and is starting to achieve a true “system of systems” – nirvana in smart city terms. This level of integration and interoperability across city agencies – and the successes Rio has had so far – bodes well for the smart city opportunity not only in emerging markets but worldwide.

The City of Rio de Janeiro has accomplished this by deploying smart technologies ranging from broad, continental-scale weather tracking down to mobile device-enabled notification systems for potholes and burnt-out streetlights. The centerpiece, of course, is the Rio Operations Center, which features Latin America’s largest screen and dozens of stations that provide visualizations of real-time data feeds. Within the center, 35 city agencies work together to synergize their responses to city events. (One interesting detail is that the operators wear uniforms modeled after NASA that create a sense of camaraderie and homogeneity across the historically separate city agencies, which creates something of a spectacle.)

To provide an example of how this works: If heavy rains cause flooding in a specific portion of the city, the operations center coordinates teams that notify citizens ahead of time via text message, close down the streets, mobilize ambulances, and shut down electricity distribution systems in the neighborhood to prevent electrocution. These processes are all pre-determined via standard operating procedures (SOPs). On the city side, bringing all these agencies under one roof helps break the silos that perennially plague the smooth delivery of city services. And, on the citizen side, it certainly helps that Brazil’s mobile device and networks are exploding, providing the platform for vigorous smart city app development and citizen involvement.

But technology is only one part of the winning recipe for a smart city. One persistent barrier echoed many times at the event is that smart city projects often rely heavily on the vision and initiative of specific mayors and administrations, which typically face four-year election cycles. The timetables required for certain types of infrastructure – particularly those involving high-tech and high initial capital expenditures – don’t always fit neatly into mayoral terms. Indeed, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, who spoke at the event, described the challenges of making progress on the project despite his uncertain future as mayor. Selecting smart city technology measures that optimize in terms of high net-present value, ease of deployment within a tight timeframe, and high PR benefits for the mayoral office seem to be emerging as the most pragmatic smart city solutions that address this challenge.

What differentiates Rio from other smart cities is the added challenge of managing its favelas – shantytowns perched on steep hillsides throughout the city that have historically received little in the way of city services or regulation – and integrating them with Rio’s urban fabric. These areas are among the most vulnerable to disasters such as mudslides as well as important symbolic testing grounds for Rio’s ability to serve even its poorest citizens as scrutiny of the city mounts in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. From the perspective of a smart city, the favelas also provide opportunities for infrastructural “leapfrogging,” installing smart systems that could catapult these portions of the city to levels found in the rest of the city using state-of-the-art technology.

All in all, though, the event provided a clear picture of the concrete progress that’s being made on the smart city front and, in particular, the unique opportunities afforded by cities in emerging markets.

Article by Eric Bloom, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.



Skip to toolbar