Every four years the Olympics provides a focus for technological innovation with host cities, competitors and broadcasters all trying to harness the latest innovations to improve performance and get the best from the Games. Rio 2016 has been no exception despite some of the well-publicised difficulties.
Google, for example, used use a backpack fitted with 15 sophisticated cameras to gather images for Google Street View in locations only accessible on foot. These have enabled all of us to view inside Olympic venues from an athlete’s perspective, moving around and zooming in to get a better view. Other technologies were used to perfect the tracks in the velodrome and stadium to make them better and faster for the athletes, which may have contributed to some of the new World records. In the pool, this was the first Olympics to use digital underwater lap counters at the bottom of each lane, as it is not unknown for even elite swimmers to lose count of the lengths completed. Visa, the payment company, in conjunction with a local bank, launched a bracelet that visitors could use to pay for goods and services at all 4,000 sales outlets at the Olympic venues. There was also a Technology Operations Centre, an 800 square metre command facility, that supervised the 144 competition and non-competition venues, helping to deliver the results of all the Olympic and Paralympic sports to the world’s media.
However, perhaps the real challenges for Rio lay outside of the Olympic venues. Following big problems with flooding in 2010, the City set up an Operations Centre. Initially established to improve its emergency response systems, it helped keep visitors safe. Operators from 30 different municipal agencies monitor the city’s systems, including transport, energy, communications, public safety and health, together with external data from IBM’s weather modelling and forecasts system. This command and control facility includes an 80m wall with monitors receiving video feeds from 900 cameras (which are also available for citizens to view online). This enables city officials to anticipate and respond to problems, working across agencies in real time. It also has a media suite above to react quickly when something happens. Initially this was about monitoring and reacting fast. However, they are also starting to look at the data and possible correlations, so if something happens – what happens next? Their aim is to bring in more analysts and start ‘crunching’ the data collected. They now know, for example, that the majority of motorcycle accidents in the city happen between 17:00 and 19:00 on Fridays – but why?
The focus will soon shift to Tokyo, which is reported to be well advanced in its plans for the 2020 Olympics, including using the Games to showcase the nation’s most cutting edge technology. When Tokyo last hosted the Games in 1964, the central theme was ‘Japan as a technological leader’, which included the launch of the bullet train, the Shinkansen; the fastest in the world at that time. The expectations for 2020 include visitors travelling by self-driving taxis to venues where they will use a swipe-pass to enter, verified by facial recognition software and be guided to their seats in one of 10 languages by an app on their smartphones. Imagine the data that they will collect!
As self-styled smart cities, part of the spin-off from both Rio and Tokyo should be the learning, both good and bad, that is shared with other cities. That way we all potentially benefit from the focus of time, money and technology that accompanies the Games, with the aim of continuing to make our cities more sustainable and better places to live.