Rio’s Operations Center in action. (Screenshot via TED)

4 lessons from Rio’s ‘flawed’ smart cities initiative

A new analysis finds that, despite doing some good, the program often forgot to focus on the people.


In advance of hosting the 2014 World Cup and this year’s Olympics, Rio de Janeiro launched two big data operation centers: the (not-so-cleverly named) Operations Center, and the (Big Brotherishly named) Integrated Center of Command and Control. These initiatives earned Rio a “World Smart City Award” from the Smart City Expo World Congress in 2013. And they generated some positive media attention for city officials and corporate partner IBM alike.

Some of those accolades were well-deserved. Rio’s smart centers have improved a few vital public services, especially related to safety and disaster management. By mapping areas at high risk of flood-related landslides, for instance, the Operations Center implemented a critical early warning and evacuation system for Rio’s favelas.

But a new analysis of Rio’s smart initiatives finds that, in many ways, it’s failed to go beyond high-tech marketing rhetoric and help real people living in the city. After interviewing key actors and visiting the two main centers, geographer Christopher Gaffney of the University of Zurich and Cerianne Robertson of Rio-based NGO Catalytic Communities found the program “mostly lacking.” They spotlight its “flawed emergence” in the Journal of Urban Technology, concluding:

While the use of these systems in Brazil is quite recent, it would appear that smart-city technologies are not being used to solve problems of radical inequality, or systemic poor governance, or compromised urban planning agendas — all of which continue to be the “dumbest” elements of Rio de Janeiro.

The whole report is worth a read. But several lessons for successful urban-tech initiatives stick out:

  1. Improve the human experience. Rio’s ICCC is literally inaccessible: the complex is surrounded by tall gates and tons of parking. That sense of detachment carries into its operations, according to Gaffney and Robertson. The center doesn’t have a website, and the public can’t easily access its information. This lack of transparency risks alienating the very people smart cities technology is supposed to serve.
  2. Be inclusive, not exclusive. Rio’s Operations Center has a growing network of traffic cameras, but they’re concentrated in the “wealthier sections of town,” report Gaffney and Robertson. The result is significant coverage gaps across the metro area. Public transit video feeds are spotty, too. These limitations make it tough to manage mobility patterns in a holistic way. More than that, prioritizing well-off areas could worsen “the digital and socioeconomic divides that characterize the city.”
  3. Help the city evolve over time. Gaffney and Robertson note that Rio’s smart cities initiatives are focused on very short-term projects. The ICCC erases most of its data after 90 days, for instance, and local officials don’t collect this information “in a systematic way to be used for longer-term planning.” The Operations Center, meanwhile, still had an image of Maracanã Stadium up on a main monitoring screen when the authors visited — a month after the World Cup had ended. This reactive focus on the present isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it should be paired with a proactive eye toward the future.
  4. Bridge the urbanist-technologist divide. Smart cities efforts struggle when technology takes a cookie-cutter approach to urban problems that require nuanced and dynamic solutions. This city-tech gap proved substantial in Rio, according to Gaffney and Robertson. They report that Rio’s tech working group found IBM’s “out-of-the-box” software unsuitable for the Operations Center, and one insider described collaborations to improve those tools as “extremely difficult.”
Rio’s smart centers have set up landslide warning systems for the favelas, but they’ve done little to reduce the social divide, according to a new analysis. (Stanislav Sedov / Flickr)

Again, Rio’s smart centers have done their share of good. The city has also improved some operations by focusing on bottom-up efforts. As a partner in the Waze Connected Cities program, for instance, Rio is reportedly using the navigation app’s crowd-sourced traffic data to help monitor road conditions and improve garbage routes.

Still, the report by Gaffney and Robertson is a strong reminder that smart cities technology by itself isn’t the solution to urban challenges. These initiatives should be well-defined, transparent, and accessible to the population. They should be rooted in civic participation and complement sound planning ideals. And they should be accompanied by policies targeting government inefficiencies and social inequalities. Otherwise smart technology can end up amplifying city problems as easily as it can address them.