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Mission Control, Built for Cities

I.B.M. Takes ‘Smarter Cities’ Concept to Rio de Janeiro


NOT far from Copacabana Beach here is a control room that looks straight out of NASA.


City employees in white jumpsuits work quietly in front of a giant wall of screens — a sort of virtual Rio, rendered in real time. Video streams in from subway stations and major intersections. A sophisticated weather program predicts rainfall across the city. A map glows with the locations of car accidents, power failures and other problems.

The order and precision seem out of place in this easygoing Brazilian city, which on this February day was preparing for the controlled chaos that is Carnaval. But what is happening here reflects a bold and potentially lucrative experiment that could shape the future of cities around the world.

This building is the Operations Center of the City of Rio, and its system was designed by I.B.M. at the request of Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes. There is nothing quite like it in the world’s other major cities. I.B.M. has created similar data centers elsewhere for single agencies like police departments. But never before has it built a citywide system integrating data from some 30 agencies, all under a single roof. It is the handiwork of an I.B.M. unit called Smarter Cities and, if all goes according to plan, it could lay the groundwork for a multibillion-dollar business.

On this February day, Guru Banavar, an I.B.M. executive, stood on the balcony above the control room, watching the scene.

“I have seen better infrastructure in individual departments in other cities,” said Mr. Banavar, I.B.M.’s chief technology officer of the global public.... “But I haven’t seen this level of integration in other cities.”

For I.B.M., Rio is a crucible. By 2050, roughly 75 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. Many metropolitan areas already use data-collection systems like sensors, video cameras and GPS devices. But advances in computing power and data analysis now make it possible for companies like I.B.M. to collate all this data and, using computer algorithms, to identify patterns and trends. Mr. Banavar calls it “sense-making software.”

Running a big city, particularly one as varied as Rio, makes running many companies seem easy. No wonder the market to supply cities with “smart” systems is expected to reach $57 billion by 2014, according to IDC Government Insights, a market research firm.

I.B.M. wants a piece of that. It is expanding into the local government market as part of a plan to raise its annual revenue to $150 billion or more, Mr. Banavar said. In 2011, the company’s revenue was nearly $107 billion.

The Rio operations center, which opened at the end of 2010, is part of an effort to gain a toehold in a market with more established players like Cisco Systems. (Cisco calls its local government initiative “Smart+Connected Communities.” The company is heavily involved in the Songdo International Business District, a new city in South Korea, where Cisco’s network technologies help commercial buildings control energy consumption, for example.)

But even for a company like I.B.M., Rio represents a grand challenge. A horizontal city sprawled between mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, it is at once a boomtown, a beach town, a paradise, an eyesore, a research center and a construction site. Oil-industry giants like Halliburton and Schlumberger have been rushing to build research centers here to help develop massive oil and gas fields off the coast.

Special police units have moved into about 20 slums, called favelas, in an effort to assert government control and combat crime. Rio is also reconstructing major arenas and building a rapid-bus system ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

This is a city where some of the rich live in gated communities while some of the poor in the favelas pirate electricity from the grid. And where disasters, natural and otherwise, sometimes strike. Rainstorms can cause deadly landslides. Last year, a historic streetcar derailed, killing five people. Earlier this year, three buildings collapsed downtown, killing at least 17.

The complex conditions create a kind of hothouse for I.B.M. to expand its local government business. If the company can remake Rio as a smarter city, it can remake anywhere.

“Smart is all about information,” Mr. Banavar said. “Once you have the information and understand it and know what to do with it, you are halfway to smart.”

AT 45, Mr. Banavar is the unofficial ambassador for Smarter Cities. He flies around the world, listening to mayors’ predicaments and overseeing the I.B.M. teams whose job is to produce the solutions. Since its start in 2010, Smarter Cities has become involved in several thousand projects.

That Mr. Banavar was raised in Bangalore, India, now lives in New York and is married to a woman from Skopje, Macedonia, only bolsters I.B.M.’s global urban cred. It also helps that he embeds himself as he sizes up each city.

One day last month, he stood at the central Praça da Bandeira intersection, a knot of streets and highway overpasses that connect northern Rio with the southern beach zone.

“Imagine this intersection with a meter or two of water,” Mr. Banavar said. An overhead camera was streaming video to the operations center. “This becomes like a pond.”

The catalyst for the operations center was a torrential summer storm here nearly two years ago. Around 4 that morning, Mayor Paes started receiving alarming reports. There were landslides in some favelas, with the risk of many more. There were flash floods. Cars and trucks were stuck in rising water. But Rio did not have a predetermined location from which the mayor could monitor the situation and oversee a response.

“By then, I realized we were very weak,” Mr. Paes recounted in a phone interview. “That also made me mad.”





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