There's something in the air in Rio de Janeiro these days—something that wasn't there, say, a decade or two ago.
It's a feeling of excitement, of hope, of new possibilities. And it's not just because Brazil is gearing up to host two of the world's largest events in the next three years—soccer's World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. It's something bigger than that, and it seems to be most clearly embodied in an upwardly mobile generation of tech-savvy residents of the city, or Cariocas, in their 20s and 30s.
"I'm optimistic because I think something has changed in the city," says Bruno Mota de Lima, 27, a DJ, musician and aspiring nutritionist. "The youth—because they have more energy and more hope in their own future—are trying to change things and they're managing to change some things."
Like many young Cariocas, de Lima is hyper-connected. Seldom out of reach of his smartphone, he uses a variety of devices and digital technologies to work, play and network with his peers—whether advertizing his DJ gigs over social media or doing musical "collabs" with artists in other countries over the Internet.
"Technology makes things easier," he says. "It facilitates connections among people and makes it more agile to meet."
Connected and Empowered
Few would argue that the new economy that has lifted 35 million Brazilians from poverty over the past decade isn't still a work in progress. But de Lima and his middle-class Millennial peers may be the most empowered generation of Cariocas in Brazil's history, thanks in part to new digital technologies that give them a voice their parents never had.
"You see more and more smartphones in citizens' hands, and Cariocas really like social networking," says Pedro Peracio, chief digital officer at Rio's City Hall. "This is very important and very good for us because we can communicate with them."
Today, Peracio says, roughly two-thirds of the city's 6.3 million inhabitants are connected to the Internet. The more Cariocas become connected, he says, the more city leaders can reach out to them via tools like Facebook and Twitter, and the more they can become part of the solutions to the city's problems.
Laura Machado, a 34-year-old press officer in the city's world-class command-and-control hub, Rio Center of Operations, is also optimistic about the future, but with reservations. She says the Center of Operations—a multi-million-dollar digital nerve center designed to catalyze Rio's transformation into a smart city—is working hard to make Cariocas' lives easier.
"Technology can make the city a better place to live," she says. "But I think education is the foundation of everything, and some Cariocas are not educated. Technology doesn't make one educated. So people need to worry about getting a good education first, then about getting a state-of-the-art smartphone."
When it comes to getting that education, many young Cariocas are finding that technology provides invaluable tools. The city has even built a series of digital learning centers, or "Knowledge Squares," in some of Rio's most notorious slums, giving impoverished kids a technological leg-up for free. College-level Cariocas benefit, too.
"With my iPad, I can study anywhere, download a test anywhere," says Fernanda Nunes, a 25-year-old student pursuing a master's in public health at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ). "Without these tools and services, I'd still be in the era of photocopies, books, etc. They're great for academia."
Gabriel Alcantara Costa Silva, 23, an engineering student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), says the new technologies require a degree of discrimination on the part of the user.
"I think the benefit of these technologies is greater access to information about basically anything you want to know," Silva says. "The only problem is there's a lot of noise too. Many times people look at this information and don't ask where it came from, if it's accurate or not—which then adds to the noise."
City Hall is working overtime to open new channels of communication with Rio's connected citizenry in hopes of enlisting their help in the running of their city. Recently, City Hall began live streaming many of its meetings over the Internet, launched its first online chat between representatives of the community and Mayor Eduardo Paes and developed a mobile app for a unified contact center people can use to alert the city about problems such as defective street lights and to request repairs.
"I think these efforts to communicate with Cariocas are very good because they bring us closer to the city politics," Machado says. "That way, city leaders will be aware of what Cariocas and Rio really need, and we will be able to discuss what is best for our city and what is going badly."
City leaders are also actively tapping the technological expertise in the community. For example, City Hall holds hackathons and is set to launch an initiative called "Collaborative Rio" allowing Cariocas to submit their ideas to improve the city.
"We understand that this ecosystem, this creative economy of the digital market is very strong and very latent in the city," Peracio says. "And with this we want to bring citizens closer so they can participate and collaborate through the new channels we are opening."
Young Cariocas and the Internet of Everything
All of which bodes well for city leaders' plans to make Rio a smarter city. If all goes to plan, by the time the World Cup and Olympics end, Rio will be closer to achieving that dream. Adding momentum to that effort will be another technology trend— the Internet of Everything, which will potentially connect 50 billion people, processes, data and things by 2020.
What will that mean for young Cariocas?
"It could help with health, via sensors telling you when you've eaten too much, your shoes telling you when you need to walk more, or a drinking fountain telling you how much water you've consumed," says de Lima. "Or sensors in the body could tell you if your heart or other organs are overloaded—or if the music is too loud."
Silva sees increased interoperability as a huge benefit. "Cloud computing is already helping fill this gap," he says. "But once you go connecting everything, you achieve a greater efficiency in all tasks because you have total knowledge of the system."
Nunes sees the benefits on a more domestic level—"in more practical things and household chores, such as a way to automatically iron clothes," she says. "Or a bathtub connected to the Internet that will fill with water before you arrive home."
Machado, too, foresees a life in which many of the details of daily life will be managed on her behalf—knowing exactly when her bus or train will leave, or when she needs to go shopping or put gas in the car.
"With my chores made easier, I will be able to enjoy more of the good things in life, such as going for a walk or reading a good book," she says. "Or an e-book. LOL!"
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