course: Digital City Design Workshop – Rio de Janeiro

In Spring 2012 I co-instructed the ‘Digital City Design Workshop’ at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology together with Dennis Frenchman, Carlo Ratti, Assaf Biderman, David Lee, Dietmar Offenhuber, and Anthony Vanky.

This workshop is hosted every academic year by the Senseable City Lab and invites students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to participate in seeks to develop pragmatic, technological solutions that address a key concern of urban living. The city group I coordinated and taught in 2012 was Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

We visited Rio de Janeiro in March 2012 to get to know the context for the students’ projects. Below is my introduction to the course book that showcases the results of the workshop.


Rio de Janeiro
By Kristian Kloeckl

Rio is a city of stark contrasts. These contrasts exist across multiple dimensions: the socio-economic condition of residents; the formal or informal structuring of the built fabric, businesses and services; and the levels of personal safety. These dichotomies are especially apparent when we consider that the city of Rio de Janeiro offers 75% of the metropolitan area’s jobs, yet houses only half of its population. Within this context transportation, specifically the mobility of people, goods and information is key to overcoming the spatial, and perhaps even social, divisions.

Rio’s new cable car system is a good example of the agency of mobility. When it began operation in 2011, its target users were rather different from the other cable car traveling up Sugar Loaf Mountain. Instantly, the system brought public transportation to approximately 300,000 people living in the Complexo do Alemao, one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas. There, it provides access to a densely populated hilly district of narrow, steep roads that is difficult to serve by conventional means of transport. Where a resident’s trip from the train station at the end of Alemao once required a two and a half hour walk can now be covered in 16 minutes, free of charge. At the same time, the six stations house a variety of community amenities such as a library. Construction of the cable car took place while the process of pacification was still underway, a coordinated military action that sought to drive out drug gangs from favelas and ensure the protection of civic rights by police, completed in Alemao in November 2010. The Alemao cable car project clearly illustrates how in Rio, questions of transportation are intertwined more deeply than elsewhere with social, economic as well as safety related issues.

Within this context, the students that participated in the Rio workshop developed a brief which guided them in the design process and which is articulated in the following key points:

Coordination of mobility

Fifty percent of the city’s travel is undertaken on public transport, with an additional one third made by foot or bicycle. Although there are high levels of public transit use, private automobile use is also growing rapidly, as highways have enabled suburban sprawl throughout the metropolitan region. New forms of coordination between the region’s many, and often competing, transit operators will be necessary to improve route and scheduling resources. In this regard, Rio has recently introduced the ‘Bilhete Unico’ smartcard system that reduces the barriers to intermodal travel.

Zones of transition

The projects should focus on “zones of transition” between the formal and informal, whether it is settlements, transportation, or socio-economic groups.

Connecting layers of digital information and the physical urban fabric

Project interventions should improve access to information by employing widely accessible digital technologies for the sharing of knowledge among and between citizens, authorities, mobility systems, and urban infrastructure.

As part of the workshop the students visited Rio to better understand the city and gather information from interactions with local authorities, companies and inhabitants that would inform their projects. In these encounters the enthusiasm and motivation could be clearly felt for wanting to harness the opportunity of the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games to tackle some of the city’s challenging issues in a sustainable ways.

Along the lines of the brief, the seven students that participated in the Rio de Janeiro workshop developed a series of adaptive urban systems that point to new opportunities for mobility in Rio.

Slobodan Radoman activates the roofs of Complexo de Alemao, which are visible to cable car passengers and in turn serve as points of communication and navigation within, and between, the favela and the city at large. Jay Gordon’s project Grassroutes addresses the numerous formal and informal transportation systems of Rio by providing real time information on available connections. While much attention has been on improving access for favela dwellers to formal parts of the city, Afian Anwar focuses on how to facilitate exploration of favelas by generating, and publishing, digital traces of people’s paths. Karina Silvester’s project Proximo Onibus builds on Rio’s existing bus infrastructure while providing real time information on occupancy levels, and turning every bus itself into an interface to better explore the vast bus network. Several students also speculated on the new opportunities offered by the data generated by the city’s recently implemented Bihete Unico smartcard system. Aristodimos Komnios leverages the recently deployed infrastructure of the Bilhete Unico smartcard in his project to provide further location sensitive services to visitors in Rio. Ira Winder’s project Trip Gini explores the flows of economic wealth through people’s movements as the basis for a tool to understand issues of social welfare. Michela Lumaga’s project Anthropolis transforms data from subway passengers into visualizations unveiling the diversity of origins of travelers present in proximity, to raise awareness for public transport as a means of bridging socio-economical gaps.

These seven projects are the result of trajectories that led the students to gradually better understand the complexity of milieu within which they were operating. By exploring the dialectic between these social dynamics and new possibilities offered by technology, the design process creates a synthesis that gives form to new mobility scenarios for the Cidade Maravilhosa, the marvelous city.