Rio de Janeiro: Building a Smarter, More Inclusive City

Future Cities is a collaboration between Skift and MasterCard exploring how major destinations are using smart design to meet the needs of rapid urbanization.


Among the world’s global cities, Rio de Janeiro is one of the most complex stories in terms of tourism and urbanization. On one hand, the Brazilian metropolis, one of the most visited cities in Latin America according to MasterCard, has made gigantic strides in urban development and has greatly improved upon its mass transit systems.

On the other hand, the city still faces significant economic inequality, and it remains to be seen whether the city development projects brought forth in part due to major events like the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics will have a lasting positive effect on Rio’s inhabitants in addition to serving international tourists. In any case, Rio de Janeiro is going through massive changes.

Every city faces its own unique challenges. While some cities muster the funds to overhaul and update infrastructure like Amsterdam, or, like Dubai, build sustainably from the ground up, cities with longstanding histories of overbuilt communities are often left to their own devices, piecemealing together best practices for city planning and development strategies to match the propulsion of the modern world. Rio is one of these cities. Its development projects are less about game changing innovation, and more about providing the essential needs of a global city.

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Major Events are Driving Tourism and Change

Major events drive change for urban areas around the globe. They boost tourism and create new opportunities for residents, create new infrastructure and rejuvenate dilapidated and underserved areas. They can also disrupt the natural flow and normal routines for cities, causing a real burden to inhabitants like increased traffic congestion and security concerns.

Rio de Janeiro is no stranger to major event tourism. Rio’s Carnival has been a staple in the community dating back to 1723, bringing in close to one million tourists every year.

In 2004, when Brazil won the bid to host the 2014 World Cup, the nation roared with excitement and optimism. Other than Brazil being a five-time champion of the Cup, the event promised an increase to the GDP and benefits for residents of the host cities including Rio.

A total of one million foreign visitors visited the country due to the World Cup, exceeding the 600,000 tourists originally anticipated. In total, 60% of Brazil’s World Cup visitors were in the country for the first time, and 95% of visitors said they would return again. That’s the good news for the future of Brazil’s tourism.

But the World Cup was also a source of controversy for Rio’s residents.

Many residents from Rio’s poorer areas were displaced due to construction and a number of infrastructure projects fell behind schedule, were left unfinished, or were left in financial deficit.

The challenge for Rio now is to work out the kinks for its next major sporting event: the 2016 Olympics.

City and country officials remain optimistic. According to Brazilian Tourism Minister Vinicius Lummertz, Rio’s residents will feel the positive benefits long after the Olympic athletes leave the Olympic Village.

In addition to the construction and renovation of sports facilities that will host competitions and construction of the Olympic and Paralympic Village, Brazil has invested and continues to invest in various infrastructure projects related to transportation, modernization of the port region, preservation of the environmental and social initiatives,” Lummertz told Skift.

One of the direct benefits includes the works related to the Porto Maravilhawhich translates to “marvelous” — a program revitalizing Rio’s port area, which has suffered from degradation since the 1960’s.

Currently in development, the project aims to become a leisure and cultural hub for residents and tourists, adding new space for housing and businesses and improving quality of life with ancillary services like garbage collection, paving, and lighting. It’s also restructuring streets and replacing High Perimeter Road with a network of modern expressways and tunnels, allowing the region to reintegrate with the rest of the city, according to Lummertz.

Skift Take: Whether or not major sporting spectacles like the Olympics and the World Cup are truly driving positive change, these mega events at least have the world watching (which, in turn, should drive change, right?)

Mobilizing the Inner-City and Re-urbanizing the Favelas

As the city rapidly urbanizes, Rio has put an emphasis on building out sustainable transport options for residents and visitors.

Perhaps the most impressive example is Bus Rapid Transit system, a high-capacity express bus system linking the entire city in 94 miles of segregated lanes, which has helped reduce traffic congestion and provides a quicker way to get around the city.

“We are implementing four BRT lines (two of which are already operating), that connects residents from further and poorer areas to the places where they work,” Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes told Skift. “The BRTs are dedicated corridors for buses that are reducing travel times for residents in an average of 50%. It means they can get home earlier after a day of work.”

How much earlier? The two corridors already running serve 9 million people each month, saving commuters 7.7 million hours of travel time, according to the official BRT Rio website, reducing carbon emissions by 38 percent. One corridor will carry more than 50,000 passengers at peak times. A third and fourth BRT corridor are slated to be ready in the Olympics.


Rio’s bike share program is growing as well, with 2,600 new bikes being added this year.

Social inclusion of a city’s lower-income residents is essential when building a city for the future. This is especially true for Rio de Janeiro, where at least 22% of the city’s population lives in favelas, or slums. That’s 1.4 million people, roughly the size of Philadelphia.

Looking to bank on the tangible benefits of mega-event growth beyond sporting events, the Teleferico de Alemao, the world’s longest gondola line at 3.5 kilometers, was built to link Rio’s low-income residents to the inner city. To ensure residents better access to schools, healthcare and jobs, the residents of Alemao are entitled to a free round trip pass per day (other wise BR$1, about $.30 USD). The cable car journey takes less than 16 minutes, instead of 50 minutes by foot.

Skift Take: Rio’s path towards mobility is admirable and it’s made huge strides. Only time will tell if the investments were worth it post-Olympics.



An Operations Center to Monitor Weather, Traffic…Everything

In 2012, Mayor Paes gave a TED Talk in Long Beach, California on how to create a city of the future called “4 Commandments of Cities.” Towards the end of his presentation, he began to flip through devastating images of the extreme flooding and landslides Rio typically faces during high season — the types of scenes city officials usually clear their schedules for. He admitted that he probably should have been in Rio at the time, seeing as it was high season after all.

He looked at the crowd and glances back to the screen. “The reason I could come here is because of that,” he says, proudly pointing at an image of Rio’s Operations Center, a technological control room adorn with wall-to-wall screens, monitoring Rio de Janeiro in real-time.

Built in 2010 by IBM, the Operation System monitors Rio’s utilities, traffic, and emergency systems. It provides a holistic overview of all of the cities movements at any given moment, with live feeds streamed from 450 cameras and three helicopters. Integrating with thirty city agencies, the center uses analytical models to predict traffic patterns and emergency situations. It can even predict heavy rains up to 48 hours in advance, anticipating flash floods and mudslides ahead of time.

It’s with the backing of smart technology like this that Paes can keep a watchful eye on his city while abroad (“I can govern my city from technology from Long Beach”). He flips to a live feed of the Center, where his secretary of urban affairs appears and let’s the Mayor know that all is well in Rio. The crowd applauds.

The crowd at TED aren’t the only ones impressed by the Operations Center.

“It has been very well received by the residents.” Paes tells Skift.

The Center interacts regularly over social media with residents, sending out around 150 tweets and Facebook updates daily. It’s also partnered with traffic app Waze to help locals move around in a smarter way. Residents can also report incidents directly on the app, all of which slated to come in handy during the madness of the 2016 Olympics.    

Skift Take: Is automation a good thing? On one hand, a city run by computerized systems may improve the speed of operations and remove inefficiencies and corruption. On the other, a city devoid of human municipal workers sounds pretty lonely and you won’t find any empathy while arguing with a robot over a parking ticket.


Rio Can Win by Empowering Its Residents (The Human Element)

For developing cities like Rio de Janeiro, building a Future City is also a matter of accountability and experimentation. It’s about lifting the veil and valuing the feedback from the residents who live there over pandering to the perceived expectations from international tourists. It’s about not falling prey to aesthetics and political imagery. Building a Future City should be residents-first, tourists-second.

Luckily, despite the skepticism and confusion, there seems to be genuine spirit of reform in Rio. The city has realized that “integration” is more than a political buzzword. It’s a necessity.

To quote Paes, a future city is “a city that cares about its residents.”

Skift Take: In the end smart cities aren’t just about the cutting-edge technology. It’s about the people.


Future Cities is a collaboration between Skift and MasterCard, exploring how major destinations are preparing for the new age of urban mobility. From connected infrastructure to smart technologies, this series explores how global cities are creating seamless and personalized experiences for visitors and residents.

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