Is Rio de Janeiro the world's first 'smart' city?

Rio de Janeiro uses IBM's Smart Cities technology to coordinate its city services in real time, from responding to emergencies to unsnarling traffic.

Ricardo Moraes/Reuters/File
Children play in Rocinha, a notorious hillside 'favela' or slum that overlooks some of Rio's swankiest areas. Rio will host soccer's World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. The city has employed IBM's Smart Cities technology to coordinate its activities from emergency responses to traffic control.

Running a city? Yeah, there’s an app for that.

Smart growth seems to have taken an evolutionary step in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. IBM has brought their Smart Cities concept to the former Brazilian capital, a model that uses information and communication technology to improve economic efficiency, thus enabling further development.

Services are carried out via the IBM Intelligent Operations Center. Think of it as a mission control for cities, white lab coats included. They are able to leverage real-time city information, anticipate problems, and coordinate available resources.

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The system was originally integrated in Rio as a way to improve the city’s emergency response system following the 2010 floods. By using a forecasting system that synthesizes data from the river basin, topography surveys, historical rainfall logs, and radar feeds, the operations center is able to anticipate heavy rains, flash floods, landslides, power outages, and traffic hazards.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. IBM kicked things up a notch by fully integrating 30 city agencies into a single operations center, constantly tracking the pulse of city operations. By breaking down inter-organizational silos, they speed response and recovery time.

Residents can simply download an app to their smart phone or track city alerts via Facebook and Twitter. Car accident or traffic jam? Simply pull up the app and it will calculate the most efficient route based on current and predicted traffic patterns. City workers, meanwhile, can monitor emergency responses to the same event.

This prompts the questions: Why has this taken so long, and where else could it work?

Perhaps IBM's expertise made the difference in Rio. The computing giant is just one player in the expanding smart systems market, but the operations center (the only one of its kind) is its unique advantage. The logic is that if the Smart City model can work in a large city like Rio, especially during Carnaval, it can be applied anywhere. IBM has reported that it is already productizing the model and is able to scale it to small and medium-sized cities.

At the behest of IBM, Rio even installed a chief operating officer to oversee the operations center, allowing it to run autonomously.

Can you run a city like a business? Should you? Some residents of Rio are asking. Many are also concerned that smart technologies serve affluent neighborhoods better than Rio’s favelas, or slums.

With a price tag of $14 million for the IBM project, perhaps we should question whether cities should first invest in addressing basic infrastructure and economic disparities before installing a new operating system.

You can check out a demo of IBM’s Operation Center here.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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