Always in view: Favela da Matinha
© Francesco Zizola/NOOR

Inside Rio’s digital heart


Automated subway trains, talking trashcans and sensors showing available parking spaces: Smart city schemes are designed to make everyday life in urban areas easier. Rio de Janeiro is using high-tech systems to prepare for the Olympic games. We visit the city’s digital hub

An alarm is sounding in the “centro de operações,” prompting hectic activity in Rio de Janeiro’s unofficial HQ. A downtown office block has caught fire. While the emergency services are still initiating rescue measures, the traffic experts calculate the best detours and send traffic alerts to digital roadside panels located along the city’s arterial roads. At the same time, they also inform taxi companies and citizens via text messages and social media. Radio reporters in an adjacent room interrupt their stations’ programing to update listeners on the traffic situation.

The command center is located behind a mirrored façade on the edge of Rio’s downtown area. With its 50-meter-wide wall of screens, the main operations room is reminiscent of a futuristic hub. The screens show images of pinch points throughout the city: roads, tunnels and bridges that are used by cars at all hours. A digital map of Rio, on which traffic jams are shown in red, purple and yellow, forms the centerpiece. Four hundred employees control the city’s activities around the clock, seven days a week. They analyze the data supplied to their computers by 900 cameras and more than 10,000 sensors. This enables them to locate garbage trucks and – if necessary – send them to places where garbage is piling up. Broken-down trains, blackouts, interruptions to the water supply and problems at sewage treatment plants – all these are immediately reported to Rio’s control center, which quickly tries to find solutions. “We are the eyes and ears of Rio de Janeiro,” says Pedro Junqueira, the control center manager.

When Rio celebrates carnival, the screens in the operations center show where parades are causing traffic jams. The areas are marked in red

When Rio celebrates carnival, the screens in the operations center show where parades are causing traffic jams. The areas are marked in red

© Tomas Rangel

 The smooth flow and processing of information in real-time form the core of what urban planning authorities and IT companies mean by “smart city.” It is a bold definition, because the term, which has been popular in urban planning circles for around ten years, is as multi-layered as the problems the world’s metropolises wrestle with. However, some issues are almost universal: traffic jams, garbage mountains, parking problems. Other difficulties include safeguarding the water supply, security and the efficient use of energy.

IT and digital networks are increasingly helping to create safe, clean and well-organized municipalities. Civic leaders’ biggest nightmares have created a future, and guaranteed, growth market for the IT industry. Today, more than half the world’s population lives in cities, and around the world 180,000 people migrate to metropolises every day. According to U.N. projections, in 35 years around 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Companies like IBM, Siemens, Cisco and, most recently, Google, are competing for the profits generated by these developments.

In the worst-case scenario, an entire city could be switched off with a single mouse click

Sandro Gaycken, cyber security expert

The control center in Rio de Janeiro was conceived by IBM. Shortly before the mayor, Eduardo Paes, awarded the contract in 2010, the city was struck by a catastrophe. Torrential rains had caused devastating landslides. Many houses were destroyed and hundreds of people died. The authorities were accused of having failed their duties. The argument was that there should have been an appropriate early warning system in place, a properly functioning sewer system and more sturdily constructed houses – especially in the favelas, all of which would have greatly reduced the levels of devastation. While the city is proud of its spectacular mountains and vast bays, its infrastructure is thoroughly dilapidated. Paes was certain that as host of the 2014 Soccer World Cup and this summer’s Olympic games, Rio was in great need of improvement, but time and money were scarce. The “centro de operações” represented the best chance of redesigning at least some aspects of life in the city more efficiently.

Rio comes to a standstill. No wonder, the city boasts just under 6.5 million inhabitants

Rio comes to a standstill. No wonder, the city boasts just under 6.5 million inhabitants

© Fotoarena/imago

 Siemens is one of the world’s largest suppliers of smart city solutions, focusing on traffic management. Martin Powell, who heads up the company’s urban development division, was previously employed as an environmental consultant by the Greater London Authority. At the time, Siemens built London’s toll system. Today, this system automatically records, and collects payments from, all vehicles in central London. At the same time the company improved the city’s subways. An automated control system now regulates the frequency of train services. This has increased capacity by a third. The result: car traffic decreased by 20 percent, leading to a reduction in air pollution and traffic jams.

In Berlin, Siemens built a sensor and camera-supported congestion reporting system. The potential savings are enormous: In Germany alone, vehicles stuck in traffic consume almost 30 million liters of gasoline a day. Lastly, in a pilot project, Siemens installed radar sensors on some of Berlin’s streetlights, which transmit information about available parking spaces to car drivers via an app.

Barcelona, New York, Tokyo or Copenhagen – today, there are thousands of smart city schemes all over the world. Entire neighborhoods are designed to be energy efficient and are equipped with high-tech solutions right from the start. Like Masdar City, the solar-powered, “carbon-neutral city of science” in the desert outside Abu Dhabi. Or the Songdo neighborhood in South Korea, built only eleven years ago and designed entirely on the drawing board. Songdo is located on a man-made island near Seoul and is currently home to 40,000 people. It is also Cisco’s showcase project. Cameras peer into almost every corner. Apartments, offices, hospitals and schools in Songdo are fully networked and can be controlled with the aid of mobile communications. A further Cisco project is being tested in Barcelona: Thousands of motion detectors have been installed on streetlights, in trashcans and underneath the surface of the road. Traffic lights turn green immediately when a fire truck approaches, full trashcans send a signal directly to garbage trucks.

All-seeing: Pedro Junqueira, the control center's manager, is Rio’s true patron saint. On his screens, he watches over the entire the city

All-seeing: Pedro Junqueira, the control center's manager, is Rio’s true patron saint. On his screens, he watches over the entire the city

© Tomas Rangel

 IT giant Google has also entered the networked city business. Sidewalk Labs, the Google subsidiary founded for this purpose, is headed up by CEO Daniel Doctoroff. Doctoroff served as the deputy mayor of New York City under Michael Bloomberg, and was responsible for the city’s infrastructure and economic development. Sidewalk Labs has announced that its aim is to supply all urban areas around the world with free Internet connections. The company started implementing its plans in New York City, where telephone booths are gradually being replaced by powerful WiFi hotspots. In the long run, Google is planning to build a system of automated buses, trains and self-driving cars.

Despite the obvious advantages of these smart city schemes, they have not infrequently been criticized. Data protection campaigners warn of the risk of total surveillance. And there is an even more sensitive issue: The complexity of the applications and the centralized nature of the networks make “smart cities” more vulnerable to system failures, and to attacks by hackers and terrorists. “Highly centralized systems are always of interest to potential attackers. In the worst-case scenario, you could disable an entire city with a single mouse click,” warns Sandro Gaycken, a cyber security expert and Director of the Digital Society Institute at the European School for Management and Technology in Berlin. The industry knows this risk, and counters the threat with firewalls and emergency backups. It also advertises its successes. Siemens manager Powell emphasizes the positive effects of smart technology. “In London, cameras were installed everywhere. This has caused a marked decrease in the crime rate,” he says. “In addition to this, traffic moves more quickly, which has caused a reduction in air pollution.”

We are the eyes and ears of Rio de Janeiro

Pedro Junqueira, control center manager

So what were the experiences in Rio de Janeiro? “We cannot eliminate all the problems at once,” says Junqueira, of the city’s high-tech control center. He does, however, regard the 2014 Soccer World Cup as having been a successful dress rehearsal for the Olympics. Of course, there were traffic jams when large numbers of people flocked to the Maracanã stadium or to the public viewing zone along Copacabana beach. But despite hundreds of thousands of visitors, even locals were astonished that the traffic chaos was not more severe than normal.

Junqueira is especially proud of his latest early-warning system. A highly sensitive weather radar system located on the city’s hills can spot rainfall as far as 350 kilometers away. Powerful computers then predict which neighborhoods are threatened by severe weather. At-risk roads can thus be closed, and inhabitants alerted to head for the shelters by text message. Most recently and in partnership with the Japanese technology group NEC, Rio tested sensor-based technologies including a smartphone app designed to predict landslides. This represents another lasting benefit for the city, one that will remain after the Olympic fire has gone out.


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This story first appeared in the May issue of Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click here.