As millions of people filled the streets of Rio de Janeiro in February to celebrate the first Carnival festival since loosening COVID-19 restrictions, they faced a new safety crisis: devastating downpours. And so a few dozen city officials hunkered down in a mid-rise, glass-walled building in the city’s Cidade Nova neighbourhood, trying to save lives.
Rain poured outside, as it had for much of the month – including six separate days in February when Rio saw more than 55 millimetres fall in a single hour. For the city officials in this building – dubbed the Centro de Operações, or Operations Centre – that amount of rain triggered their second-highest level of emergency response.
Staff from a half-dozen different departments – meteorologists, police officers, electrical safety workers, and more, each in colour-coded jumpsuits – gathered in the central room of what was once heralded as a world-leading “smart city” project. Illuminated by the glow of a 125-screen video board, they worked together to assess flood risks across the city, deciding where to mobilize.
Some of them soon joined emergency crews racing to the zones of the city most in danger. Other Operations Centre staff monitored reservoir levels and traffic flows, sending mobile push alerts to phones and firing up sirens in neighbourhoods around the city where people were at risk of floods and mudslides.
Days later when the rain tapered off, although dozens had died in the state of Sao Paulo to the west, Rio’s Operations Centre recorded zero fatalities.
The outcome was a stark contrast to the floods and mudslides that hit Rio in April, 2010, when more than 60 people died. Those floods are what prompted Mayor Eduardo da Costa Paes to partner with IBM in the first place to build the Operations Centre. By 2012, the centre was marketing itself as a successful urban-tech public-private partnership, bringing together a booming metropolis and a forward-thinking tech giant to centralize weather and traffic data, all with the goal of letting officials react more nimbly to crises.
The birth and growth of Rio’s Operations Centre presents a tidy story of success, one that cases such as this year’s Carnival easily feed into. But the reality is that luck must’ve played a role, because even the centre’s chief executive, Marcus Belchior, admits that Rio’s citizens don’t pay much attention to their warnings, let alone heed them with action. Perhaps enough was done in February so that no lives were lost, but Mr. Belchior isn’t confident that would be repeated in the future.
“Brazilian people are not preventionists,” Mr. Belchior said in a recent interview in his office, as dozens of camera feeds and charts toggled on the screens behind him. The laissez-faire life in Brazil’s biggest city extends to its citizens’ response to disasters; they’re not particularly responsive to government edicts, he explains. “There’s a huge difficulty communicating with them.”
Rio’s Operations Centre has undergone a major transformation, shedding its flashy IBM partnership for a more pragmatic, smaller-scale approach, but even then, it struggles to get its messages through to residents – let alone improve the broad inequities facing the complicated metropolis.
“Tech isn’t going to save us,” says Sarah Moser, an urban and cultural geography professor at McGill University who’s studied dozens of new city-building and smart-city initiatives. “Especially in the Global South, I think this money could be directed in a much more equitable, efficient way.”
One of the world’s first high-profile smart-city initiatives, then, has become emblematic of the decade-and-a-half-old movement as a whole: partnering with tech giants has not provided the panacea for urban problems – and even locally designed approaches aren’t always effective at doing what they set out to do.
Christopher Gaffney, an urban-studies expert and clinical associate professor at New York University, said the smart-city movement “approaches a city as if it’s a problem to be solved.”
With that frame of mind, he said, ”we look for silver bullets all over the place – that if we just had more information, if we just had more data, if we just had the right technical capacity, then the city would be fixed. But of course, the city is never fixed.”
Soon after Apple and Google one-upped Research in Motion and its BlackBerry, and brought the word “smartphone” into the popular lexicon, the world’s biggest technology companies began wondering what else they could make smart.
Cities were an obvious candidate. Their infrastructure is often ancient, their data collection usually haphazard and analog. Cutting-edge technology is an easy antidote to pitch for these ailments.
Digital giants were not the first to make the move into cities. The smart-city pioneers tended to already have experience in municipal infrastructure or, at minimum, data processing for big organizations. By 2010, Siemens was marketing “smart” energy grids, which adjust power flows in response to data such as weather measurement and voltage readings, the market for which it hoped would reach €6-billion. The company later partnered with Singapore, where it hoped to collect data across the city to “co-develop innovative digital solutions.”
Cisco, meanwhile, saw a US$30-billion market for its smart-city services, partnering around the same time with Songdo, South Korea, for digital infrastructure ranging from Zoom-style video-conferencing concierge services to energy management.
When the deadly 2010 floods prompted Rio’s mayor, Mr. Paes, to seek ways to make his city nimbler in the face of crisis, IBM was already trying to brand itself as the exact kind of solution he was looking for. The company had just launched an initiative called Smarter Cities. By centralizing civic data collection and analysis from sources such as weather, public-safety bodies and energy services, the program hoped to grease the wheels of civic life, finding ways to shave costs and boost efficiencies. That’s exactly what Rio wanted.
“I’m a believer in technology to make things better,” Mr. Paes said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “We got all the departments in the city and got them working together using lots of technology. The beauty of the Operations Centre are the incidents that didn’t happen because of it.”
It was a well-timed reputational move ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. By 2011, within a year of opening, the facility that IBM helped build had become the subject of fawning international press. (The state of Rio built a companion centre at the same time without similar sponsorship.) Its massive wall of video streams piping in information about traffic and weather was marketed as a beacon for city officials everywhere – a chance to use video feeds and information-sharing from more than two dozen city agencies to respond to disasters on terms that were all the rage: data-driven decisions.
IBM executives such as Guru Banavar, then its chief technology officer for “smarter cities,” routinely touted the facility’s benefits. IBM marketed itself as the glue that held the US$14-million centre together, bringing its hardware, software and data-processing power to help Rio officials figure out how to identify the right measures to respond to flash floods, collapsed buildings and other public-safety incidents.
But by the mid-2010s, enthusiasm over the first wave of smart cities was waning. Critics began wondering if these investments were really helping real people.In Rio, critics such as Prof. Gaffney began warning that smart-city investments didn’t actually address issues such as inequality and governance failures – “all of which continue to be the ‘dumbest’ elements of Rio de Janeiro,” he wrote in a co-authored Journal of Urban Technology paper.
The paper reported that traffic-monitoring cameras tended to mostly cluster in wealthier areas of Rio, making it easier for the Operations Centre to reroute traffic flows there than in more concentrated, impoverished neighbourhoods. The authors argued, too, that the data wasn’t being made accessible to urban planners to help Rio plan for its future.
“It’s very reactive, not proactive,” Prof. Gaffney said in an interview. “Rio is no better off than it was when the whole project started. And in many ways, it’s worse. Inequality is worse. Street violence is worse.”
Canadians are much more familiar with the next wave of smart-city projects. A Google affiliate called Sidewalk Labs brought Toronto into the global spotlight in 2017 when it presented itself as a human-centred alternative to the enterprise-oriented corporate “smart-city” approach, promising to build an eco-friendly, people-oriented neighbourhood in genuine partnership with the city’s residents. Rather than exclusively focusing on efficiency, the company promised to lower the cost of living by reducing building and energy expenses – and said it intended to create walkable cities where technology hummed behind the scenes making life easier, such as with robots that would deliver freight.
And yet the controversies that Sidewalk ended up courting in Toronto went further than those in Rio. The company routinely sparred with its government partner, Waterfront Toronto, over the basic tenets of their plans, from how data would be managed to the amount of land Sidewalk could work with. Academics, businesspeople and activists banded together to warn that the data policies and land access Sidewalk proposed could eventually amount to surveillance, and that Sidewalk was proposing policy ideas that should be up to the government to figure out.
After significantly shrinking its plans in the face of pushback from Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk abandoned the city in May, 2020, when its business plan stopped making sense on the only 12 acres it was allowed to work with.
At the same time, Rio’s Operations Centre kept growing – without IBM. Neither party will say why the partnership disappeared, other than that it did. Mr. Belchior, who only took the CEO job earlier this year, discusses the company like a distant memory. “We don’t even have IBM products around,” he said.
With a dozen years and that major corporate partnership in the centre’s rearview, Mr. Belchior likes to frame his facility as an ever-evolving multidisciplinary sandbox. It still works with other companies, but on a much smaller scale. Consider its partnership with Google’s live-traffic monitoring subsidiary Waze: its data lets the Operations Centre monitor congestion across the city and compare it with historical data, helping them dispatch traffic-control enforcement when problems arise.
It’s a smaller-scale smart-city partnership than either Google or Rio would have imagined a decade ago, but its specificity is more immediately helpful than the saviour-like rhetoric of the first few waves of the smart-city movement. “Today I can know the average traffic around the city,” Mr. Belchior said, gesturing to a graph of historic traffic levels on a massive screen behind him. “More than this, I can know the average of any street.”
The once-paltry 150 traffic cameras the Centre has access to has been expanded to 2,500, and staff said earlier this year that they planned to reach 10,000 soon. Mr. Belchior said there is now a specific focus on the previously under-served, lower-income northern and western regions of Rio. It’s also working with local startups to find new ideas to solve urban problems with the data it collects – a promise Sidewalk Labs made for Toronto but never meaningfully fulfilled before walking away.
The physical size of the centre has doubled, too, giving the control room an almost NASA-like feel, as many teams come together to co-ordinate something massive.
And it so happens that one of Operations Centre’s latest partnerships is with NASA. The five-year collaboration they announced in 2021 will take advantage of the American space agency’s satellite data and situation-monitoring expertise to help Rio understand the effects of climate change – and, more immediately, to better respond to environmental hazards such as mudslides.
After all, Rio is boxed in between ocean and mountains, and many communities have been built high atop mountainsides – some of which are low-income favelas built in ad-hoc ways with little ability to withstand the effects of Atlantic storms. “They show us, with the data that we give them, the possibility of landslides,” Mr. Belchior said.
Though the Operations Centre had previously attempted to provide landslide warnings, the NASA partnership comes at a time when the facility is also trying to broaden its outreach to Rio’s citizens. Beyond setting off emergency sirens, its staff work to get warnings out across local media and social networks, and send mobile push alerts to people in specific regions of the city.
One of the greatest struggles of the smart-city movement, however, has been getting buy-in from the public. A “smart” city can only be as innovative as its citizens and governments let it be; one of Sidewalk Labs’ greatest struggles in Toronto, for instance, was reckoning with what its executives felt was an almost paralytic inflexibility, and adherence to the slow grind of process, in Canadian governments. In Rio, Mr. Belchior’s staff must deal with a citizenry that does not respond urgently to authority, even when their lives are in danger.
Hence the more intrusive emergency push alerts. “This is a behavioural change for Brazilian people – they will get the message whether they like it or not,” the CEO said. And to augment the message, they’ve segmented the population into different groups – such as the soccer fan and the stay-at-home parent – and have been working with social-media influencers that appeal to those groups. “We communicate with a specific language to these characters,” Mr. Belchior said.
But the need to do so still showcases the limits of how “smart” a city can get. For all the efforts governments make, whether or not a big shiny tech partnership is involved, they are limited by what their citizens allow them to do. People in Rio will behave like people in Rio, no matter if flooding puts them at great personal risk. Technology will only carry the municipal government so far.
In this context, the smart-city movement still struggles to do what it sets out to do. And this failure also gives clarity to the direction in which the movement is heading: some of the most ambitious projects now under way eschew pre-existing cities altogether.
Saudi Arabia has several smart-city projects in the works, including the US$1-trillion Line, where government plans to build out city “modules” between two mirrored buildings, 500 metres tall and 200 metres apart, extending 170 kilometres from the Red Sea into the Arabian Desert. Should it be completed according to plan, it would be a brand-new, emissions-lowering, data-optimizing linear city without the problems that come from old infrastructure and skeptical neighbours – and it will have the kingdom’s autocratic government to thank for getting it done.
Meanwhile, billionaires from Bill Gates to the Diapers.com magnate Marc Lore are turning to deserts to build smart-city oases. Mr. Lore wants to build a 150,000-acre desert city called Telosa somewhere in the southwestern United States, where he hopes to have a non-profit develop an ultra-sustainable community primed for smart-grid technology and autonomous vehicles, the land-value returns from which would be funnelled into social spending. The most prominent of these efforts was unveiled late this past summer, when it was revealed that some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, including Marc Andreessen, Michael Moritz and Laurene Powell Jobs, had invested in a plan to buy more than 50,000 acres northeast of San Francisco to build a new city there. Technology hasn’t been part of its marketing, but its list of investors and associates invites speculation; one of its partners, NEXT Infrastructure, is headed by a Sidewalk Labs alumni.
Even these kinds of cities-from-scratch have smart-city scholars scratching their heads. Prof. Moser is part of a group of academics that’s started to call this approach “unicorn planning,” using the parlance of tech bros to reflect the unlikelihood of their urban dreams. “This whole generation has a sort of this magical thinking that it’s sort of an overnight fix,” she says. But if Rio’s efforts reveal anything, all the tech in the world won’t help you master the art of talking to people.