On April 5, 2010, torrential rains in Rio de Janeiro caused floods and landslides that brought much of the city to a standstill and killed more than 70 residents. Eleven inches of rain beat down in a 24-hour period. In a city of 6.5 million residents with a history of severe tropical rainstorms and flooding, Brazilians demanded to know why the authorities were not better prepared.
Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, vowed that such a disaster would not happen again. He moved decisively to bolster defenses against weather-related disruptions. Today, the city has a new state-of-the-art intelligent operations center, Centro de Operacoes Rio, where managers monitor dozens of data feeds for information concerning weather, traffic, police, medical services on a real-time basis and anticipate looming problems—putting defenses in place to diminish their impact. The system is especially vital for protecting lives in the city’s poor mountainside communities, called favelas, where tens of thousands of people live in areas where there’s a high risk of flooding and slides. (The New York Times profiled the operations center today.)
But Rio’s operations center does much more than respond to emergencies. By coordinating the activities of more than 30 municipal and state departments plus private utility and transportation companies, the operations center is the first such facility in the world that is on the path to integrating all of the functions of a city in a single digital command-and-control system. The facility embodies the principle that only by considering and coordinating the human-made and natural systems of a city in a holistic way can municipal leaders hope manage the complexities of a large, modern city.
As a result of the close partnership between Rio and IBM, the city now has a world-class operations management system. IBM scientists created a weather and flood forecasting program that predicts emergencies up to two days ahead of time. The city can now position police, fire and rescue teams close to where problems are likely to occur. In addition, authorities can preemptively close off streets to keep motorists and pedestrians out of harm’s way. Sirens in communities alert people when there’s a danger of flooding or landslides. Also, people can register to have messages delivered to their mobile phones when danger looms.
Because data from all of the agencies and companies is integrated, operations managers get a full picture of what’s happening in the city at any time. They can prepare for a large music concert or sporting event in the same way they handle emergencies. The agencies don’t just share data. Representatives from the various departments actually sit side by side in the operations center and look at live videos of city streets and facilities or graphical representations of data feeds—making group decisions on the fly. That’s vital in a situation where the police and fire departments are state agencies and civil defense is a municipal function. Other cities and states in Brazil are now considering setting up similar intelligent operations centers.
It’s vital for city leaders to get a handle on their communities. With an estimated one million people worldwide moving into cities each week, experts predict the urban population to double by 2050 to 6.4 billion—making up 70% of the total world population. Already, cities consume 75% of the world’s energy and produce more than 80% of greenhouse gases. So, essentially, the future of cities is the future of the planet. They must be managed much better.
The mayor’s actions demonstrate convincingly how bold leaders can harness the power of sophisticated technologies to transform the way a city operates—and make life better for their constituents. Rio’s operations center takes advantage of powerful databases, data integration software, communications technologies and analytics software for predicting accurately where and when flooding will occur.
The initiative also shows the importance of investing for the long term. The center is a vital part of Rio’s preparations for the upcoming World Cup Soccer tournament in 2014 and Olympics in 2016. Rio’s Maracana stadium, the venue for the World Cup final and the opening and closing Olympics ceremonies, is located in one of the severe flood zones. In Rio, extreme weather and society co-exist. Nothing will alter that. The only thing that can change is the way the city deals with the situation.