Opinion: Get smart or decline — The stark choice for emerging cities

A view of the Rio Operations Center in Cidade Nova, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by: IBM

Cities are often called humanity’s greatest invention. But like other inventions, they don’t always succeed. From antiquity to the present day, many cities flourished, only to decline. The mythical Chichen Itza of the Mayas was swallowed by the jungle. Other cities such as Detroit, once the paragon of American industrial might, now struggle to attract investment.

Today, most Latin American cities face serious challenges that could either condemn them to an irreversible downturn or open opportunities to reinvent themselves. Whether it’s crime, slums, gridlock, trash or property taxes, problems won’t be solved by dealing with them in the traditional, reactive way. Smarter government requires leveraging data, people and processes. And the good news is that some Latin American cities are already doing it.

In Colombia, Medellín uses infrared cameras and video analytics to monitor traffic in real time, optimizing its flow to reduce congestions and increase safety. Since they implemented a smart mobility system in 2010, they reduced accidents by 35 percent and fatalities by 44 percent. Commuters have collectively avoided more than 200,000 hours of idling in cars and buses.

Rio de Janeiro, a city accustomed to hosting global gatherings, established a high-tech operating center in 2011 to monitor both routine and unforeseen events. At the center, hundreds of staffers from more than 30 federal, state and city agencies responsible for energy, public transportation, water, sewage, telecommunications, police and firefighters work together to ensure that all vital services keep the “Cidade Maravilhosa” running smoothly.

How can other cities replicate these success stories and become smarter?

“City leaders should establish partnerships with the private sector, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and federal and state governments to find smart solutions to urban problems.”

— Luis Alberto Moreno, IDB president

The first step involves taking a big-picture approach. City planners need to conduct a comprehensive diagnosis of the main challenges they face, including costs and benefits and the institutional hurdles they must overcome to solve them. Municipal governments typically work in silos. Becoming a smart city requires thinking more collaboratively.

Identifying the right technological solutions is equally important. Technology advances at such a dizzying pace that municipal leaders struggle to keep abreast of the alternatives at their disposal. Since most Latin American and Caribbean cities have very limited capital budgets, leaders must also find creative ways to finance investments in software and hardware.

The second step involves improving planning and execution by clearly defining goals and responsibilities, as well as setting realistic timelines and targets. The smartest cities usually start with one or two pilot projects that, however small, require the same kind of care as a full-fledged undertaking. Besides allowing everyone to get up to speed, pilots provide faster results and valuable lessons for subsequent, more complex projects.

Finally, city leaders should establish partnerships with the private sector, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and federal and state governments to find smart solutions to urban problems. Many cities have set up “civic innovation labs” where entrepreneurs, researchers, civic activists and government officials can collaborate on improving their cities. Some have achieved a virtuous cycle where city leaders task local universities with studying urban problems, and entice entrepreneurs to come up with viable solutions, spawning new businesses and jobs. Governments can get the ball rolling by developing online participation fora where citizens can meet and make their voices heard.

Mexico City is a good example. In 2013, its government created the “Laboratorio para la Ciudad,” the first city lab in Latin America, to test new and collaborative ways to design, execute and evaluate urban policies. At Laboratorio, people from different professional, economic and social backgrounds work together using technology and data to tackle all kinds of problems, such as reorganizing the city bus routes based on feedback from commuters, or drafting a road safety program with input from citizens participating in virtual town halls.

Smart cities aren’t a fad. At a time when citizens can instantly voice their support or their disapproval of governments, city leaders and administrators can no longer afford to run things as they did in the past. And it goes far beyond avoiding the occasional blowback on social media or a spate of bad press. Companies around the world are increasingly choosing where they make investments depending on what cities offer to their workers in terms of public services and quality of life.

Fortunately, mayors in our region get the message. Over the past six years, we have carried out smart city assessments in 16 fast-growing urban areas in Latin America and the Caribbean. We have also published a guide that city officials can use as a roadmap. And because some of the best examples are outside of our region, we teamed up with KRIHS, a South Korean think tank, to develop a series of 10 case studies of cities that have succeeded in becoming smarter.

Devex's Michael Igoe talks to Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo President Luis Alberto Moreno about what he's looking forward to at #WEF17, and this year's theme of responsible leadership.

Based on this expanding knowledge base, we are now preparing several projects for cities in Colombia and Brazil, aimed at assisting municipalities across our region to become smart cities. We are starting by setting up command centers that will enable their agencies to collect, share and analyze data, make better informed decisions and respond more efficiently to urban problems. We view these projects as the logical next step of our earlier work in helping cities rescue their historic centers, upgrade poor neighborhoods and introduce bus rapid transit systems. Latin America and the Caribbean is already one of the world’s most urbanized regions. The challenge now is to make our cities much smarter.

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Luis Alberto Moreno

    Luis Alberto Moreno was first elected president of the Inter-American Development Bank in 2005. He also chairs the board of executive directors of the Inter-American Investment Corporation, the private sector arm of the IDB Group. Together, the IDB and the IIC lend around $12 billion a year to sovereign and corporate clients in Latin America and the Caribbean. Previously, Moreno served as Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, held several cabinet posts and was executive producer of a leading news broadcast. He earned a B.A. in business and economics from Florida Atlantic University and an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management.