Editor’s note: Guruduth Banavar is the chief technology officer for IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative.
President Obama’s first visit, as president, to South America this week is a reminder of the changing nature of U.S. relationships with the world’s fastest-growing economies — and a potent reminder of how the U.S. is driving the world’s most advanced new forms of infrastructure.
In Brazil, the seventh-largest economy in the world, Obama will see significant gains in renewable energy and economic stability. Equally meaningful, he will see the beginnings of a new infrastructure that is helping Brazil’s burgeoning urban population.
With more than 33 million middle-class households in Brazil, and 83 percent of the nation’s population living in cities, the region shares many common urban challenges that U.S. cities face. Examples include how to better deploy emergency response; manage worsening traffic; expedite citizen services, such as health care; and improve the delivery of vital services, such as water and electricity.
Working with IBM, the Rio de Janeiro government is building a multimillion-dollar information infrastructure. The Rio Command Center is helping the local government prepare for natural disasters, as well as put its best foot forward as host of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. The new operations hub, what IBM refers to as a “Smarter City,” is the nerve center that gets data from many different government operations and makes it easy for security officials and crisis managers to stay on top of developments. It provides monitoring of sensors and video feeds, along with analysis, which points to sudden changes. It will create real-time maps and graphs on screens to give officials a visualization of what’s happening as it occurs.
The system will try to predict problems and counteract them. For example, it will include a weather-monitoring system that will forecast heavy rains or floods with state-of-the-art accuracy. This will allow city officials to anticipate mud-slides, send first responders to danger areas and alert ambulances and hospitals to be prepared for casualties. Beyond crisis management, the system will eventually integrate information across the city’s transportation, public works and utilities to improve overall community services.
Not every city will need these services to help manage the impact of two of the world’s most-watched and most-anticipated events — the World Cup and the Olympics. However, the promise of the technological infrastructure can help virtually any city, as well as states and countries, meet the challenges and embrace the opportunities of population and economic growth.
From a civic engagement perspective, these types of intelligent city hubs provide channels for government officials to encourage and capture public opinion, and enable citizens to provide valuable feedback on, and potentially input into, government initiatives.
There are more than 2,000 Smarter Cities projects under way around the world, in places like Sacramento, Calif., Memphis, Tenn., Singapore and Edmonton, Alberta. But until now, many of these efforts have been single-purpose programs addressing traffic or water management alone.
The Rio project represents an ambitious example, moving beyond single-purpose services to a unified system that spans across government agencies and demonstrates the enormous promise of new technologies. As more cities look to modernize, government agencies must rethink how they manage the vast array of information available to improve all aspects of their operations. Doing so will create new urban management systems of the future for cities of all sizes and improve how citizens receive vital services.