“Smart cities” grew out of the realization that North American models of suburban development and central business district decline needed to be challenged with new paradigms. This movement began in the 1990s with ideas centered on smart growth and new urbanism. While initially restricted to small, wealthy cities, the ideas that emerged during this period combined with a vertiginous growth in information technologies to create software-driven urban managerial tools for major cities. The increasing technologization of urban systems that automatically replicate spatial dynamics has been on the agenda of urban scholars for some time. However the relatively new paradigms of “whole system” implementation in large urban centers has not been the subject of robust critical engagement. The aim of this paper is to examine critically the implementation and functioning of two “smart cities” systems in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as part of the city´s broader preparations for hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.
The importance of technology in urban life has been a subject of study for generations. Luis Mumford identified the city as a technology in itself, one of the greatest inventions of humankind. From simple light signals, to complex weather monitoring, electricity grid control, and multi-agency emergency coordination, today it is impossible to imagine a city that is not co-dependent with software, algorithms, and computer-controlled space. The variegated textures of urban space stream through fibers and flow on currents of energy – the city has increasingly become a cyborg machine with multiple, intersecting, and mutually dependent layers of hardware and software. The successive waves of technological expansion and innovation that are defining elements of the current conjuncture have molded the conception of the city itself and inform new debates about digital citizenship, urban governance, planning agendas, civil rights and social agency.
The idea of smart cities grew out of the realization that North American models of suburban development and city center decline needed to be challenged with new paradigms. This movement began in the 1990s with ideas centered on smart growth and new urbanism. While initially restricted to small, wealthy cities, the ideas that emerged during a period of urban crises combined with a vertiginous growth in information technologies to analyze and manage urban systems. The increasing technologization of urban systems that automatically replicate spatial dynamics has been on the agenda of urban scholars for some time. However the relatively new paradigms of whole system implementation in large urban centers has not been the subject of robust critical engagement. The aim of this paper is to examine the implementation and functioning of smart cities systems in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as part of the city´s broader preparations for hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.
To do so we will first examine the “smart city” as a category, exploring its definitions and limitations. Second, we will engage with the existing literature on smart cities to critique the narrative told by corporations and municipal governments about the transformative power of IT to address challenges facing today’s cities. Third, we will undertake a case study of the implementation and functioning of two “smart city” centers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: the Comando Integrado de Comando e Controle (CICC) and the Cento das Operações do Rio (COR). We use interviews with key actors, site visits, and research into the urban structure of Rio de Janeiro to inform our analysis. We conclude by suggesting that the smart city paradigm is not capable of addressing the most pressing needs of cities with chronic deficits in urban infrastructure and an absence of robust civil society institutions. As such, smart city systems may actually contribute to the securitization and fragmentation of urban space, exacerbating socio-economic and political divides.
The political and economic interests that drive Rio de Janeiro´s urban planning agenda impede the effective use of smart cities technologies to inform long-term decision-making. As mega-events have captured the planning agenda they have further distanced public input and weakened democratic institutions. This is consistent with the role of mega-events in urban planning agendas in other host cities. The lack of citizen participation in decision making processes ensures that a narrow set of economic and political interests can use the events and their attendant technologies to consolidate power, accumulate wealth, and keep an ever-closer eye on their holdings. The absence of participation and use of smart city systems to repress public protest in Rio is lamentable, though consistent with other public policy decisions.
There is an inherent problem with labeling cities as “smart” that creates both totalizing and binary categories. The limited coverage of Rio´s “smart systems” has improved emergency response time, traffic monitoring, and other managerial coordination activities. However, the idea of what the city is does not extend to the metropolitan area as a whole and is concentrated in the wealthiest areas of Rio de Janeiro proper. Within this conception Rio de Janeiro is both “smart” and “non-smart”. The implication is that cities that do not go through the obligatory passage point of IT providers’ conceptions of “smartness” are mired in dumbness.
Systems thinking has pervaded Brazilian urban design for generations, and smart cities may just be the latest iteration. For instance, the “smart” design of Brasília and other Brazilian cities was driven by an ideology that prioritized the automobile and fragmented urban design. The experiment did not work well and many Brazilian cities continue to suffer from the permanence of the structural imperatives of high modernist planning. The new “smart city” technology sold as a software upgrade can only function on top of pre-existing structures – political, physical, economic, and ideological. The ideologies of consumerist developmentalism with a concentration on cars, highways and closed-condominiums are still the driving force behind urban planning agendas in Rio de Janeiro and are very much being implemented through Olympic planning agendas.
Derivatives of “smart city” will continue to proliferate as technology companies continue to expand into urban governance structures around the world. Though it does not make for good copy, there is a need to move away from relative adjectives like “smart” and towards thick description of places. We need to understand the multifarious ways in which technology is used to both read and write urban space at multiple scales. If cities are a human technology, it makes good sense to let humans, and not algorithms, run them. It is clear that cities are becoming increasingly tech dependent, yet by surrendering ourselves to another´s intelligence we may be sacrificing our native intelligence to read, write, and negotiate the urban. How we resole this question will have profound implications on citizenship and social inclusion, power and agency, as well as the right to the city.
While there are benefits that have resulted from the development of these centers, if we are to follow Holland´s evaluation of smart city installations, a city can only be truly smart if it uses IT to empower citizens and “enhance democratic debates about the kind of city it wants to be and what kind of city people want to live in”. While the use of these systems in Rio de Janeiro is quite recent, it would appear that smart city technologies are not being utilized to solve problems of radical inequality, systemic poor governance, and compromised urban planning agendas, which continue to be the “dumbest” elements of Rio de Janeiro.
Keywords: smart cities, Center of Operations Rio, Integrated Center of Command and Control, Rio de Janeiro.