Rio’s Techno-Utopian Future for the Rich

How the city’s vision for a networked infrastructure system will make its inequality problem worse

Rio de Janeiro's Integrated Center of Command and Control (Bruno Kelly / Reuters)

Brazilians have had a lot to worry about in the lead-up to the Olympic Games this month: a political crisis that led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, a public health crisis in the form of the Zika virus, an increased violent police presence in the streets, and a series of failed public works projects meant to showcase the city’s progress during the games. But there’s a different problem that should be equally worrisome: What’s going to happen to the city when the games have finished and Rio returns to normal life?

Official wisdom has held that the Olympics and other mega-events leave a trail of benefits for host cities in their wake, but urbanists have been increasingly questioning that idea. In Rio’s case (for both the 2012 World Cup and this year’s games), one of the benefits was supposed to be the increased use of technology to manage the city, developed in part to help organize these large events. Rio, it was said, would emerge from the World Cup and the Games at the vanguard of “smart cities” in the region.

But a recent study, published in the Journal of Urban Technology in April, questions the work that Rio has done to transform itself into a smart city. Researchers Christopher Gaffney and Cerianne Robertson analyzed two key parts of Rio’s smart-city infrastructure, both of which form part of the legacy of these mega-events: the Integrated Command and Control Center (CICC) and the Rio Operations Center (COR), which cost the city a combined $40 million.

“As part of Brazil’s World Cup contractual obligations to FIFA, the federal government developed two Integrated Centers of Command and Control (CICC)—one in Brasilia and one in Rio de Janeiro,” reads the study. “These installations were frequently cited as the major legacy of the World Cup in Dilma Rousseff’s successful 2014 presidential campaign.”

The CICC is a monitoring center where different police units (military, civil, transit, and federal), firefighters, paramedics, the Municipal Guard, and civil defense units can all coordinate with one another. All emergency calls are received at this center, and it organizes security operations and the controversial “pacification program” in the city’s favelas. Ninety-eight LED screens mounted in the room connect to 500 closed-circuit cameras placed in different parts of the city.

But Gaffney’s observations throw the whole operation of the CICC (and of COR, which monitors citizen safety, transit, and climate) into question. “When you enter into these places, everything feels like a movie set,” Gaffney says. “The employees have these robes like they work at NASA, and it feels like they’re acting out this ritual of intelligence. It gives the impression of being sophisticated and technologically advanced, but it’s all part of a performance.”

Until now, the “performance” Gaffney refers to has been generally well-received by authorities on smart cities. In the years between the World Cup and the Olympics, the monitoring systems being developed in Rio were of great interest to political leaders and media outlets including CNN and The New York Times. The city was designated the “best smart city of 2013,” and Mayor Eduardo Paes did a popular TED Talk on Rio’s new approach to city management.

“We do practice simulations for every large event. We have 500 professionals working 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” explained Clara Schreiner at a recent Inter-American Development Bank conference on smart cities. “We have strong integration with other federal and state agencies. All [important] information is collected by the Rio Operations Center.” Schreiner is a representative for one of the private companies collaborating with the government on these large centers.

Despite assurances, the study authors criticize the value of the work these centers do—and the claim that they help the city of Rio as a whole.

An Unequal Intelligence

One of the main problems Gaffney has with the use of smart-city technology in Rio is that, according to him, its use always ends up being unequal. That is to say, there’s a “smart Rio” and a “not-so smart Rio,” and where a neighborhood falls in this binary depends, in large part, on its purchasing power.

“Because we’re talking about a very fragmented city, and a very unequal city in terms of resources and wealth concentration, the cameras and data-evaluation agencies are mainly located in rich areas,” says Gaffney. “Transit is highly monitored, but there’s heavy emphasis on automobiles, which only the rich have. It’s a system that tends to reaffirm the inequalities that already exist.”

It’s the same in terms of security, where affluent zones tend to be monitored more carefully, Gaffney says. It even shows up in the monitoring of potential natural disasters: One of the functions of Rio’s smart-city system is that, in theory, it uses sirens to alert citizens about potential mudslides in the wake of flooding. “But recently, the company that manages these alarms didn’t get its check from the government, and now the sirens are silent,” Gaffney says.

The study also criticized the management of information collected by the CICC and COR. At the CICC, all collected data is erased after 90 days. “The volume of information that’s collected isn’t clear, and neither is the way it’s processed,” Gaffney explains. “Having more data is not necessarily good. The important thing is how it’s used, how it’s accessed, and what policies are coming out if it.”

The researchers also criticize the use of these systems to quash protests, which could occur during the Olympic Games. “This just increases the skewed nature of confrontations between police and protesters. If you have 400 cameras near a stadium, the police can easily drag protesters away, cut off cell signals, and close the streets, while the officers communicate by radio,” Gaffney says.

According to the authors, this is exactly the opposite of what a smart city is supposed to accomplish. The system is supposed to function to increase participation in the community, not punish people for it. But for now, all the efforts of Rio’s smart-city technology are focused on security (and transit, especially managing congestion).

Because of all of this, Gaffney is pessimistic about the legacy of mega-events in making Rio a smarter city. “The paradigm of smart cities isn’t capable of addressing the most pressing needs of cities with chronic deficits in urban infrastructure and an absence of robust civil-society institutions,” the study concludes. “As such, smart-city systems may actually contribute to the securitization and fragmentation of urban space, exacerbating socioeconomic and political divides.”

This post appears courtesy of CityLab.